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2020 Northwestern football position previews: Secondary

A unit that may make or break the Wildcats’ year.

San Diego County Credit Union Holiday Bowl - Northwestern v Utah Photo by Sean M. Haffey/Getty Images

It’s officially Northwestern’s summer and time to look ahead to the fall. Despite many uncertainties and potential alterations, the college football powers that be are planning for the 2020 season to start on schedule. We start our summer coverage by previewing every position group on the team. Today, we finish defensively with the secondary.


Returning Starters: Greg Newsome II (Jr.), Travis Whillock (Sr.), J.R. Pace (Sr.)

Key Losses: Trae Williams, Brain Bullock, Roderick Campbell

Returners: A.J. Hampton (So.), Cameron Ruiz (Jr.), Bryce Jackson (Jr.), Donovan Sermons (Jr.), Jeremiah Mcdonald (So), Coco Azema (R-Fy.), Rod Heard (R-Fy.), Cam Mitchell (R-Fy.), Tyler Haskins (R-Fy.)

Newcomers: Garnett Hollis, Gunner Maldonado, Jaheem Joseph, Nigel Williams

Northwestern’s secondary heads into 2020 with a solid core consisting of Greg Newsome, J.R. Pace and Travis Whillock.

Newsome is the Wildcats’ unquestioned number one starter at cornerback. When healthy, he can be a game-changer on the field.

Matt MacPherson, Northwestern’s defensive backs coach, will have difficulty defining the defensive backs depth chart beyond Newsome. The favorites to emerge include seasoned veterans A.J. Hampton and Cam Ruiz. Both have experienced their fair share of ups and downs in Evanston, but finding consistency will be a crucial component tied to the defense’s success. Coco Azema, NU’s primary ball carrier in the season finale at Illinois last season, Bryce Jackson and Jeremiah McDonald are all additional intriguing names to watch.

At safety, the Wildcats return both starters from last season in J.R. Pace and Travis Whillock. This is a position of strength for NU as Pace and Whillock form one of the best back-end tandems in the Big Ten. Assuming the duo is not depleted by injuries (or COVID-19), Wildcat fans can be assured that the last layer of the defense is in good hands.

One area in which the secondary needs to improve is turnovers. Only three members —Pace, Ruiz and Hampton — recorded an interception in 2019, and none of then had more than one. The same thing with fumbles forced: Ruiz, Whillock and Azema were the only three to force a fumble last season. NU’s defense needs to get off the field more in 2020 and create solid field position for the offense; there is no better way to do so than by generating turnovers.

Key Player

Greg Newsome II

In his true freshman season, Newsome appeared in six games. This number would have been higher if he didn’t battle injuries. His fourth and final start of the 2018 season came in the Wildcats victory against Utah in the Holiday Bowl, and his solid play left fans excited for more in 2019.

Last season, Newsome appeared in nine games. While missing three games in 2019 does not necessarily indicate concerns about the junior corner’s longevity, it is mildly concerning that he has already missed nine games just halfway through his NU career. Regardless, the Chicago native impressed in 2019, ranking second in the Big Ten with 11 pass breakups.

In 2020, it is time for him to put it all together. If he can avoid injuries, NU may have a true number one, lockdown cornerback. In order to reach the next level, Newsome will need to force more turnovers. He is yet to register an interception or a forced fumble in his Wildcat career, although he did recover a fumble in 2019.

If Newsome can generate turnovers in 2020, he can develop into one of the best cornerbacks in not just the Big Ten, but the entire country.

Big Question

Who will emerge as the top option across from Newsome? And will he be reliable?

Cam Ruiz presents Northwestern’s best shot at a solid number two cornerback given his experience. Ruiz started in nine games last season and received playing time in both the Big Ten Championship and Holiday Bowl in 2018.

Still, Ruiz has a chip on his shoulder. He’s shown glimpses of solid play but needs to have a tremendous offseason to become a more consistent player. If Ruiz fills out this upcoming season, NU’s secondary would not have any glaring holes.

But the second cornerback may not be Ruiz. Regardless, with a reliable DB duo, Northwestern’s defense may be among the best in the Big Ten.

And without it?

Well, my mind races back to the 2013 season opener when Cal kept picking on Dwight White. If you’re looking for a more recent example, opposing quarterbacks often attacked NU’s cornerback opposite Trae Williams last season. NU cannot afford to have a liability like that again.

Depth Chart

Northwestern Special Teams 2020

Charlie Kuhbander Trey Finison Derek Adams Tyler Gillikin Riley Lees Riley Lees
Trey Finison Cody Gronewold/Jake Genyk Peter Snodgrass JJ Jefferson Kyric McGowan