Returning Starters: Trae Williams (Sr.), Greg Newsome II (sort of) (So.)
Key Losses: Montre Hartage
Returners: Cam Ruiz (So.), Rod Campbell (Sr.), Jeremiah McDonald (R-Fy.), A.J. Hampton (R-Fy.), Brian Bullock (R-So.), Donovan Sermons (So.)
Newcomers: Rod Heard, Cameron Mitchell
The cornerback position is not exactly a group in flux as the 2019 season draws nearer, but they will have to rise above expectations in order for this Northwestern team to its lofty 2019 goals. The absence of Montre Hartage will put more pressure on individual corners to stick to their men, because the absence of a proven lockdown one-on-one corner spreads safety help a bit thin.
The Wildcats have plenty of experience returning in the defensive backfield, with Trae Williams entering his fifth year in the program as a likely starter and fellow veteran Rod Campbell returning to contribute once more. But this secondary got lit up when Hartage was out and/or hobbled down the stretch of last season, including the Big Ten Championship game shellacking at the hands of the Ohio State Buckeyes.
If a few of the younger members of the secondary continue the upward trajectory that made their 2018 seasons look promising, this group will be in good shape. But that specific outcome is far from a given.
Greg Newsome (So.)
The Chicago native, who narrowly avoided earning a redshirt last season by getting in on Northwestern’s postseason action, will be an integral part of the secondary even if, for whatever reason, he doesn’t wind up out there to begin each game.
As a true freshman in 2018, he showed enough flashes of excellence to earn scattered comparisons to the decorated Hartage, often taking impressive opposing receivers out of the play completely in one-on-one coverage. Though Newsome suffered from the occasional mental lapses and coverage breakdowns that most young players go through, he always seemed to be able to bounce back before suffering his regular-season ending injury after just a few games.
If the Wildcats want to execute within the secondary at same level in which they did in 2019, they need Newsome or another breakout stud to become a go-to defensively. If not, opposing QBs will have their way with Northwestern regardless of how well the line, safeties and linebackers play.
Will the cornerbacks remain healthy enough to show some semblance of consistency?
In each of the past four years, Northwestern has suffered significant injuries within the ranks of its secondary. Though the group appears relatively deep this year, with six returning cornerbacks having seen the field defensively in some capacity and three (Newsome, Williams, and Cam Ruiz) having started multiple games, the talent level will always fall off after the top groupings.
With consistent play at the outside and slot corner positions, defensive coordinator Mike Hankwitz will always be at least able to adapt his defense to their weaknesses, something he has proven adept at over the years. But if he and the rest of the coaching staff don’t know what they will have for a given game on the back end, they will be in trouble.
Ruiz, Newsome, and even Williams have all shown prolonged spurts of above-average play. None of the three look like the Big Ten’s next elite corner (not yet, anyways), but if they stay on the field and continue to improve, the cornerbacks group will be in good hands.