We have gotten through some of the Northwestern football position reviews, and this secondary one is like none you’ll see:
Overall Grade: B
While Jim O’Neil’s defense was not one to be proud of this season (or the one before it), the Northwestern secondary put up a valiant effort for most of the year. While it had its bad moments, so did the rest of the team, and with all the activity that went on from injuries to bad play, the secondary was not as bad as it seemed.
Overall, Northwestern ranked 12th in the FBS in passing yards allowed per game and 10th in completions allowed. That’s pretty good, but it is worth noting that the ‘Cats were thrown against less than other teams: through 12 games, Northwestern witnessed 312 passes, and only Army, Navy and UMass had less.
There’s good and bad from the stats, so let’s start with the good, which is that the Northwestern secondary was not as bad as it seemed. It was led by Cam Mitchell, who took a step forward in his junior season. The cornerback led the team in passes defended and led a group that stuck with the punches all year.
The bad is pretty easy to say: Northwestern went 1-11 this season, and the secondary could not hold up their end of the bargain a lot of times. While the ‘Cats ranked toward the top of college football in yards allowed per game, teams stopped throwing against Northwestern due to high margins of victory. Also, Northwestern would probably be lower if C.J. Stroud didn’t have to play in a rainstorm in Evanston.
But, let’s step away from the stats. From a suspect Northwestern defense, the secondary might have been the bright spot. They stuck with the punches most of the year, and even though they dealt with injuries, they were a tough unit. Still, a B is a fair grade, as the defense had some bad games.
Cam Mitchell: A-
Stats: 52 total tackles, 38 solo, one sack, 2.5 tackles-for-loss, one interception, nine pass break-ups, one forced fumble, one fumble recovery, one QB hit
Mitchell’s season started off with a bang when he reeled in the game-changing interception off of Casey Thompson in Nebraska. The next game, he looked a lot worse against a Duke offense. Later in the year, he was able to hold Marvin Harrison Jr. and Julian Fleming to almost nothing against the No. 2 team in the country. It was an up and down season for Mitchell, but he deserves the A- grade for being Northwestern’s top corner. He finished the season with seven passes defended and one interception, while also having 52 total tackles.
Jeremiah Lewis: B+
Stats: 70 total tackles, 48 solo, three tackles-for-loss, four pass break-ups, one fumble recovery
The Duke transfer led all secondary members in tackles with 70, and was also second on the team in pass breakups with four. On a secondary that was like a revolving door this year, Lewis was one of the most consistent pieces, and his play showed it.
A.J. Hampton: B
Stats: 21 total tackles, 18 solo, one tackle-for-loss, one fumble recovery
It’s hard to evaluate Hampton this past season, as he suffered an injury in the season opener in Ireland and did not return until October 24 against Maryland. But, in the seven games he played, Hampton did not get exposed too much, but did not do enough to earn a high grade. He ended the year with zero pass breakups and not many stats to show.
Rod Heard II: B
Stats: 67 total tackles, 47 solo, one sack, four tackles-for-loss, one interception, two pass break-ups, one forced fumble
While Heard did not put up lights-out numbers in the passing game, it was his contributions in the open field that were most notable. The junior finished the season with 67 total tackles, and he made many that were decisive, and might have been the secondary’s best tackler. Next year, he will get more chances to make big plays in the pass game.
Garnet Hollis Jr.: B-
Stats: 24 total tackles, 15 solo, one interception, three pass break-ups, one forced fumble
The junior deserves some credit here: He was thrown into the fire earlier than expected when A.J Hampton went down with an injury in the season opener. But, Hollis was able to fill in the role decent enough, and while his season was up and down, he improved. Also, his interception against Duke has to be one of the highlights of the season.
Devin Turner: B-
Stats: 32 total tackles, 24 solo, one tackle-for-loss, one forced fumble
Turner played meaningful minutes as a freshman, most notably his game in Minnesota, where he forced a fumble. While he was also flagged for a pass interference, it was an extremely close call. Turner was utilized the most out of any first-year on the roster, making his place as a slot corner and finding his way all over the field.
Theran Johnson: C+
Stats: 13 total tackles, 11 solo, three pass break-ups
Johnson was toward the top of the team in pass breakups, but besides that, looked out of position at times. He should get better as he becomes a more integral part of the team, but for now, this grade is fair.
Coco Azema: Incomplete
Stats: 20 total tackles, 16 solo, one sack, two tackles-for-loss
Azema was supposed to be the backend of a secondary that lost its star in Brandon Joseph, and in his three games before injury, Azema played the part. While he does not yield a grade, he was a force around ball carriers, posting 20 tackles in three games.