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2020 Northwestern Football Position Reviews: Secondary

The Sky Team’s strong play was the backbone of NU’s defensive dominance.

Ryan Kuttler-Northwestern Athletics

After a shortened season capped by a Citrus Bowl victory, it’s time to begin our postseason coverage by handing out grades and taking a look at what’s to come in the fall. We’ll evaluate each position group and discuss how well they performed, as well as what the future might hold. Up next is the secondary.

Overall grade: A+

While 2020 was a memorable year for Northwestern as a team, it was a completely different kind of special for the defensive secondary. Widely heralded as one of the top units at their position in the country, the Sky Team spent the better part of the season blanketing opposing receivers and frustrating their quarterbacks.

Of the group, Brandon Joseph and Greg Newsome II had the most well-recognized success, each earning All-American honors. Joseph and Newsome were backed up by reliable support from senior captain JR Pace, as well as a litany of younger players whom Mike Hankwitz and defensive backs coach Matt MacPherson relied upon to play significant time throughout the season.

From a yardage standpoint, the secondary’s performance didn’t outshine that of the 2019 unit in any significant way, as the Wildcats allowed opponents 195.3 passing yards per game— good for 20th in the country — in 2020 much like they gave up 198.8 passing yards per game — also 20th in the country — in 2019. However, while the 2019 unit ranked sixth in the Big Ten in opposing passing yardage, the ‘Cats were the conference’s top dogs against the pass in 2020. More importantly, this season’s secondary possessed a knack for intercepting the football, with Northwestern hauling in 1.6 interceptions per game, the fourth-most in the nation and a far cry from their 0.6 mark in 2019.

Player Grades

Brandon Joseph: A+

Stats: 52 tackles, six INTs, two PBUs

When Northwestern announced that senior safety Travis Whillock had opted out of the 2020 season, many were concerned to learn that Joseph, a redshirt freshman with no college starting experience, would step into the role full time. By the second game of the season, though, Joseph earned the respect of the Wildcat faithful with two critical interceptions in NU’s road upset of Iowa.

As the season progressed, Joseph went from an adequate fill-in for Whillock to a national superstar. He recorded six total interceptions, tied for the FBS lead and most among players on Power 5 rosters, the most stunning of which came at the end of the first half of the Big Ten Championship game. When the year came to a close, he was named a consensus First Team All-American — alongside a handful of other accolades — and will accordingly have his name added to the Otto Graham Honor Roll at Ryan Field ahead of next season. Not bad for a backup, eh?

Greg Newsome II: A+

Stats: 12 tackles, one INT, nine PBUs

After showing promise but struggling to stay healthy in the first two seasons of his Northwestern career, the Chicago native blew past any and all expectations held for him in 2020. He became one of the premier defensive backs in the Big Ten, leading the conference’s corners in pass breakups (nine) and opposing pass completion percentage (31.6%) while not allowing a single third-down completion on nine attempts. On account of these dominant statistics and his newfound lockdown corner reputation, Newsome earned Third Team All-American recognition from the Associated Press.

Unfortunately, Newsome suffered a lower-body injury in the first half of the Big Ten title game against Ohio State, after which he declared for the 2021 NFL Draft. Still, while his Northwestern career may be over, Newsome’s standout performance in 2020 ensures that he’ll be remembered by Wildcat fans for years to come.

JR Pace: A-

Stats: 41 tackles, 1.5 TFL, one INT, three PBUs

While Joseph and Newsome received much of the media’s attention, JR Pace quietly put together a good year in his senior season. As the yearlong captain of the Sky Team (which makes him the pilot?), Pace was a reliable tackler and pass defender who rarely erred in coverage. Perhaps even more notably, he also became somewhat of a viral meme for his towel-stealing antics against Wisconsin.

He recently announced via Twitter that he’ll forgo his extra final year of eligibility and declare for the NFL Draft, so here’s hoping we’ll get to see JR steal towels on Sundays.

AJ Hampton: B+

Stats: 26 tackles, two TFL, one INT, five PBUs

While the redshirt sophomore didn’t begin the year as a starter, he earned his way into the Wildcats’ primary rotation through consistent tackling and pass defense skills. His best game of the year came at the most opportune time possible against Ohio State in Indianapolis, when he posted a career-high eight tackles, including six on the Buckeyes’ first drive alone. With Newsome gone, he’ll likely be NU’s top corner in 2021.

Rod Heard: B

Stats: 10 tackles, one PBU

Much like Brandon Joseph, Rod Heard entered 2020 as a starter despite never having started a college game before. While his numbers were much more tempered than his fellow redshirt first-year Joseph, he made no major mistakes and was generally difficult to beat, as he split time in a deep unit.

Cam Ruiz: B-

Stats: 23 tackles, two sacks, two PBUs

Much-maligned by the Northwestern fanbase heading into the season after a number of shoddy games in 2019, Ruiz had a better year in 2020. Still, he’ll probably be most remembered for his two blown coverages against Michigan State that resulted in 75-yard and 15-yard touchdowns. Following said game against the Spartans, Ruiz was benched from his starting role and didn’t see the same type of playing time for the remainder of the season. He announced that he will enter the transfer portal and likely continue his career elsewhere.

Cam Mitchell: Incomplete

Stats: 18 tackles 0.5 TFL, 0.5 sacks, one INT, 5 PBU

Despite appearing in eight games this season, Mitchell didn’t get much attention until the postseason. However, he shined bright in those two games against Ohio State and Auburn when he filled in for an injured Newsome in the Big Ten Championship matchup and came away with a crucial interception. In the Citrus Bowl against Auburn, he charted two pass breakups and three total tackles, solidifying himself a spot in the future of the secondary. With veteran leaders moving on, Mitchell will surely step into an even larger role in 2021.

Coco Azema: Incomplete

Stats: Five tackles, one INT

After breaking onto the scene as a dominant running back against Illinois in 2019, Azema returned to his primary position of defensive back this season and immediately made an impact with an interception in the season opener against Maryland. That said, he saw limited snaps throughout the year due to the reliability of Pace and Joseph, who stood ahead of him on the depth chart. However, he was consistent on special teams and could take over as the starting free safety alongside Joseph in 2021.