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2022 Northwestern football position previews: Secondary

With BJo out, who will rise to the top?

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: NOV 13 Northwestern at Wisconsin Photo by Dan Sanger/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images


Returning Starters: Cam Mitchell (Jr.), AJ Hampton Jr. (Sr.), Coco Azema (Jr.)

Key Losses: Brandon Joseph (Notre Dame)

Returners: Trent Carrington (Gr.), Jaheem Joseph (Jr.), Rod Heard II (Jr.), Nigel Williams (Jr.), Garnett Hollis Jr. (Jr.), Tyler Haskins (Jr.), Joe DeHaan (Jr.), Ore Adeyi (So.), Garner Wallace (So.), Theran Johnson (So.)

Newcomers: Jeremiah Lewis (R-Sr. transfer, Duke), Evan Smith (Fy.), Devin Turner (Fy.), Jack Oyola (Fy.), Braden Turner (Fy.), Robert Fitzgerald (Fy.)

Last year, our position preview for this unit covered how the Northwestern secondary had lost three starters, but at least it still had Brandon Joseph.

Boy, how times have changed.

In a reversal of sorts, the Wildcats now bring back three starters from what was a largely inexperienced group last season, but the All-American now walks out the door for greener pastures in South Bend. The loss of Joseph was a gut punch to all the Northwestern fans who said, “at least it can’t get any worse,” after the abysmal 3-9 season, and finding his replacement is crucial for the secondary’s success in 2022.

The Sky Team was one of the team’s best position groups in 2020, but then contributed to a defense that dropped from the best in the conference to one of the worst. So what exactly happened?

One prevailing reason is likely how drastic the change from Mike Hankwitz to Jim O’Neil at defensive coordinator was, and it didn’t help that Joseph was the only returning starter. The jury is still out on whether O’Neil’s system is flawed or if it was just the transition, but it’s undeniable that the unit disappointed in 2021. Northwestern’s defense as a whole was the second-worst in the Big Ten in terms of yardage, and the secondary allowed opposing quarterbacks to complete a whopping 67.1% of their passes, the worst rate in the conference. The team allowed only 216.5 passing yards per game, but this was mostly a product of how quickly Northwestern’s opponents earned a large lead, leaving them rushing for most of the game.

If the issue wasn’t the system and it was indeed inexperience, Northwestern should look to see a leap from their starting corners with another year of experience under their belts. Replacing Joseph is still a mighty task, but an improvement among a group that struggled mightily is imminent.

Also worth noting here is the fact that the secondary has a new face on the sideline: Cornerbacks coach Ryan Smith. After four years as the coach of all defensive backs, Matt MacPherson will now mostly focus on safeties and split the duties with the former Virginia Tech coach. This division of coaching onto the players may help for more specialized training if it all goes well.

Key Player:

Cameron Mitchell

While he was originally projected as a reserve prior to 2021, Mitchell stepped up into the starting role after early struggles by Rod Heard. Mitchell is largely a raw talent but displays some of the features that made Greg Newsome the top corner on the team. The junior is roughly the same size, and played closer to the speed of his receivers than his fellow DBs, Heard and AJ Hampton, did last season.

Mitchell has shown flashes, albeit on both sides of the scale. As a redshirt first-year in 2020, Mitchell first made a name for himself after replacing an injured Newsome and earning an interception in the Big Ten Championship game versus Ohio State, and continued to prove he had the talent to succeed later against Auburn in the Citrus Bowl. He typically seems to have good positioning and has the speed to get him into the spots he needs to make a play. The talent is certainly there. However, his inexperience has occasionally overshadowed his talent in the form of penalties.

If Northwestern’s defense is to get back to the echelon it once was in, it needs a lockdown corner. Mitchell has the speed and the qualities to fit this mold, and if he can really step up and become that lead guy, the secondary will improve massively.

Big Question:

Who will step up to replace Brandon Joseph?

While the cornerback position may not be the steadiest, the group at least doesn’t have to worry about replacing an All-American. The two current leaders to start at safety are Coco Azema and Jaheem Joseph, the former of which already has starting experience from last season in the strong safety spot. Tranfer Trent Carrington will likely be competing for the job as well, while being pushed by a load of underclassmen who’ve had little to no playing time.

The job of replacing Joseph doesn’t necessarily mean whoever starts has to replicate his nine interceptions in two years, but it does mean that they must be able to be a steady presence in preventing the deep ball. Too often, Northwestern was gashed by deep passes (see: Duke, Nebraska, Purdue). After the corners were beaten by their receivers, the safeties were rarely in good enough position to give their teammates help, leading to long scores or plays that put the opponents in scoring position. Regardless of whether or not they can make a play on the ball, the starting safeties need to do a better job of preventing the deep ball and stopping the bleeding before it gets too bad.

2022 DB Projected Depth Chart

Position 1st String 2nd String 3rd String
Position 1st String 2nd String 3rd String
CB Cameron Mitchell Jeremiah Lewis Garnett Hollis Jr
S Coco Azema Trent Carrington
S Jaheem Joseph Tyler Haskins Garner Wallace
CB AJ Hampton Rod Heard II Nigel Williams