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2019 Northwestern football position previews: Safeties

It’s JR’s unit now.

NCAA Football: Holiday Bowl-Northwestern vs Utah Jake Roth-USA TODAY Sports


Returning starters: JR Pace

Key Losses: Jared McGee

Returners: Travis Whillock (R-Jr.), Bryce Jackson (R-So.), Joe Bergin (R-Sr.)

Newcomers: Corien Azema (Fr.), Brandon Joseph (Fr.)

Northwestern is returning all but one of their safeties from the previous season, but that player is a significant loss. McGee departs after four years of effective service for NU, posting 11 or more games played in three seasons in Evanston. In his senior season, McGee amassed 51 tackles, four tackles for loss, a pick and the most timely play of his career in the Holiday Bowl.

But have no fear Northwestern fans, because Pace returns as the leader of a unit that has been productive for years. Whillock and Bergin were also solid, the former totalling 57 tackles and the latter earning 12, while Jackson will look to build on a promising freshman campaign. NU also adds two freshmen that will likely compete more so for special teams snaps.

Key Player:

JR Pace

The College Park native is a skilled ballhawk that is capable of both getting involved in the run game and making a big play in the air. He had a breakout year in 2018, garnering 82 tackles, 4.5 tackles per loss, 4 interceptions and a fumble recovery in the Holiday Bowl, much like his counterpart.

With the lone senior from last season departing, Pace is the most experienced of the group, and will be tasked with anchoring them. He’s more than capable of doing the job, as displayed last year. Not only was Pace productive on the field, but he also played in all 14 games. In a secondary that was depleted all season long, Pace’s ability to stay on the field was vital.

In 2019, Northwestern will also lose Montre Hartage, a corner that was able to play one-on-one coverage successfully against most opposing wide receivers. The ‘Cats will likely have to adjust the defense accordingly this year, adding more responsibility to Pace’s plate. He will be tasked with more decisions to make and will be a critical player for NU.

Big Question:

Will the safeties not named JR Pace step up?

Last year, Whillock was forced into action and he delivered to the fullest extent. Against Iowa, he recovered the first of two fumbles that sealed Northwestern’s spot in Indianapolis. The Katy native and high school teammate of Paddy Fisher will have an elevated role this season, but it’s about what those around the pair of Pace and Whillock can do.

If Jackson and Bergin can provide the two with opportunities for rest, or even step in as a part of the nickel or dime package the way McGee did his junior year, it’ll be a big boost to the defense. Furthermore, it’s not unlikely that Whillock or Pace is sidelined for a period of time with injury, forcing a larger number of snaps for the supporting cast. If they can step up, this will be a dependable unit for Northwestern. If not, there may be problems. But if history is any indication, the Wildcat safeties will be able to step up when called upon.

Depth Chart:

WR Depth Chart

Bennett Skowronek J.J. Jefferson Kyric McGowan
Riley Lees Berkeley Holman Ramaud Chiaokhiao-Bowman