Returning Starters: Brandon Joseph (RS So.)
Key Losses: JR Pace (Atlanta Falcons), Cam Ruiz (Temple), Greg Newsome II (Cleveland Browns)
Returners: A.J. Hampton (RS Jr.), Cameron Mitchell Jr. (RS So.), Rod Heard (R-So.), Coco Azema (RS So.), Donovan Sermons (Sr.), Nigel Williams (So.), Garnett Hollis, Jr. (So.), Tyler Haskins (RS So.), Bryce Jackson (Sr.), Jaheem Joseph (So.), Joe DeHaan (So.)
New Additions: Ore Aadeyi (Fr.), Theran Johnson (Fr.), Trent Carrington (Graduate transfer)
After a year in which Northwestern’s secondary served as possibly the strongest position group on the team, DB coach Matt MacPherson has his work cut out for him with the loss of three starters from 2020’s historically great group.
Fortunately, NU returns arguably the best player from the unit (depending on your opinion of Greg Newsome II) in preseason All-American Brandon Joseph. All reports thus far from spring/summer practice indicate that Joseph has added some muscle and could be primed for an even stronger redshirt sophomore season.
The other safety position, however, is up for grabs, and among those competing for the spot are Coco Azema, Bryce Jackson and Jaheem Joseph. While the safety position as a whole should be fine due to the return of the B-Joe, the cornerback position will not offer that same safety blanket star.
With Newsome now in the NFL and Cam Ruiz transferring to Temple, their replacements have big shoes to fill if they want NU’s defense to approach the same fantastic play it displayed last season.
If Hampton’s press conference from the spring is any indication, it appears that he will be ready to step in and serve as a quality starter in 2021. Though it should be noted, performances in media availability sessions do not have a direct translation to play on the field.
Hampton enters his redshirt junior season as one of the most experienced defensive backs on the roster. Throughout his tenure at NU, though, he has struggled with inconsistent play. Last season, with Newsome and Ruiz playing so well, Hampton faced little pressure in the star-studded room. Still, he played solid ball last year in his role, and whether or not he can translate that moderate success to his role as a full-time starter will go a long way toward Northwestern stifling its opponents through the air for a second consecutive season.
Success from Hampton will leave opposing offenses without a cornerback to easily pick on, which would be an excellent development for this defense and allow DC Jim O’Neil to call plays more aggressively during his first season at the helm.
Is Brandon Joseph good enough to cover the flaws of the rest of the secondary (or can the secondary step up)?
If you are reading this article, you likely know just how well Brandon Joseph performed last season. He had a knack for finding the ball and finished the season with a remarkable six interceptions and a first team All-American nod. Next season, with more recognition now attached to his name, it is likely opponents will look to avoid targeting him. With that, it will be fascinating to see how Jim O’Neill deploys Joseph within his defensive strategy.
It appears that Joseph has added a lot of muscle in the offseason and it would not be surprising to see him more involved within the front seven of the defense (or in blitzing packages). Still, as good as Joseph is, he is not Superman and cannot singlehandedly save Northwestern’s coverages if the cornerbacks fail to provide any deterrence on opposing receivers.
If Northwestern’s starting cornerbacks are able to successfully press WRs at the line of scrimmage and hold up in the zone coverages NU has made great use of under Pat Fitzgerald, it will allow the defensive line more time to reach the quarterback and thus allow Joseph more opportunities to make his heavy impact plays.