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Top three non-QB position battles to watch for Northwestern football

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Those with limited experience could prove crucial this season.

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: NOV 14 Northwestern at Purdue Photo by Zach Bolinger/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

With Ryan Hilinski transferring into Evanston from South Carolina this past offseason, nearly all of the focus has been on who will win the QB battle. In reality, the Wildcats are returning just a fraction of production from their 2020 team, creating position battles throughout the roster. With that in mind, it’s time to focus our attention on three other positions where potential position battles have been getting a little less love.

Safety

After Brandon Joseph’s stellar season last year, which included six interceptions and, of course, First Team All-American honors, it is clear the true sophomore has locked up the first string safety position. With that being said, the second string spot remains up for the taking with JR Pace having graduated. Here are two names who could grab that spot on the depth chart.

Coco Azema

First up, we have Azema, who played all nine games in 2020 and made quite a mark in that time. The redshirt sophomore snagged his first interception in the season opener against Maryland and, perhaps unexpectedly, has some good playing experience. While his numbers don’t necessarily jump off the stat sheet, Azema had decent playing time against No. 10 Wisconsin, No. 3 Ohio State and Auburn, recording tackles in two of those three appearances. While not necessarily related to the position battle, Azema also returned a kick for 35 yards against Michigan State last season, proving he can be a valuable asset on special teams as well. The defensive back has already played in big games, meaning he may have the experience to potentially win the second string safety spot.

Bryce Jackson

Much like Azema, experience is Bryce Jackson’s friend. The redshirt senior probably has the upper hand for the second string safety spot over Azema in terms of field time, playing in all 14 games in 2018 and 12 games in 2019. Additionally, Jackson had a solid year in 2019, recording 20 total tackles, six of which came against Illinois. Overall, he has already proven to be a valuable player in the secondary, recording 37 total tackles over his three seasons at Northwestern. While he has often been in the shadow of other Northwestern defensive backs, Jackson is capable of stepping up to play alongside Brandon Joseph, he just needs to maintain consistency.

Cornerback

Spoiler alert: Greg Newsome is gone, shipped off to Cleveland after being taken by the Browns in the first round of the 2021 NFL Draft. Newsome was, by all measures, a lockdown corner, and his stellar season last year will be tough for anyone to replicate. However, he needs to be replaced, and here are just a few names who could be up to the job of doing so.

AJ Hampton

Hampton had a good run during the 2020 season, playing in all nine games and totalling 26 tackles. The junior made some key plays throughout the year, including a big pass break up against Purdue, one of his five on the season. He also recorded his lone interception in 2020 against Maryland, marking his second career interception with the Wildcats. The junior stepped up in the Big Ten championship and the Citrus Bowl, recording eight and four tackles in the postseason contests, respectively. Hampton has been consistent over the past two seasons and has been a significant contributor for Northwestern. He is the clear favorite to be NU’s first string corner when the season gets started on Sept. 3.

Rod Heard

The redshirt sophomore had a good season in 2020, despite his limited playing time. With a season total of 10 tackles, seven of which were solo, in nine games, Heard was able to show everyone what he can bring to the team, as was seen especially in his game against Maryland, where he totaled six tackles, four of which were solo. Heard also played in the Big Ten Championship and the Citrus Bowl. Despite some growth and more playing time being needed, Heard can put up a fight for the first string position.

Cam Mitchell

When Greg Newsome went down early in Northwestern’s Big Ten Championship matchup with Ohio State, Wildcat fans may have feared that NU’s pass defense would suffer mightily for the remainder of the contest against Justin Fields. Cam Mitchell, who played in Newsome’s absence, prevented that prophecy from coming true, and, when the eventual first-rounder wound up missing the Citrus Bowl, Mitchell again showed out in his place. Of the three corners mentioned here, he’s got the least playing experience, but, based on what we’ve seen, perhaps the greatest upside as a lockdown corner.

Wide Receiver

Northwestern’s 2021 wide receiving corps is perhaps one of the least experienced we’ve seen in a while. Ramaud Chiaokhiao-Bowman, Riley Lees and Kyric McGowan have all left the building, meaning that multiple different receivers are going to need to fill their shoes. Here’s a look at just a few names that will make up the receiving depth chart this year, with some fighting for the top spot and others potentially grappling for a featured position on the opposite end of the field.

Malik Washington

While Washington played in just five games in 2020, the rising junior produced some decent numbers, tying a career high in receptions against Wisconsin and setting a new career high with 30 receiving yards against Maryland. Playing in just five games, Washington pulled in five receptions for had 51 yards in a crowded wide receiver room. If Washington’s play time is increased, his production should see a jump as well.

JJ Jefferson

While he did not play in 2020, Jefferson did have a productive 2019 season, totaling 12 receptions for 155 yards with appearances in just seven games. His ability to be a starting receiver was evident when the Wildcats took on Wisconsin, as he recorded three receptions for 38 yards and a touchdown. Jefferson clearly already has the experience to be a primary wide receiver, but his numbers and lack of a 2020 season don’t necessarily help his case. He’ll have to show out if he wants the top spot.

Bryce Kirtz

Kirtz, having only played in 2020 after redshirting his freshman year, lacks experience when compared to Jefferson and Washington. However, the redshirt sophomore has shown that he has the potential to be a solid receiver. Kirtz played a total of nine games in 2020, pulling in six passes for 67 yards. He also played a supporting role in some of the biggest games of the 2020 season, with two of his six receptions coming in the Big Ten Championship against Ohio State. What Kirtz lacks in game experience he makes up for in talent, so he could be a breakout player for the ‘Cats this season.

Stephon Robinson Jr.

When you examine all the stats and look at just how fresh this wide receiver group is when compared to last season, it becomes clear that Stephon Robinson Jr. will likely be the go-to receiver come week one. Robinson transferred in from Kansas this past offseason after recording 75 receptions for 1,092 yards and nine touchdowns over three seasons as a Jayhawk. If we’re going by experience, he’s a shoo-in. However, seeing that the conference he came from was far less defensive-oriented, the door might be a little more open if Robinson doesn’t impress in camp.