We continue our overviews of each Northwestern football position group with one of the deeper ones: the defensive backs. With its top two cornerbacks now gone, the Sky Team is a group in transition. But, it’s an experienced one.
Returning starters: Coco Azema (Sr.), Rod Heard II (Sr.)
Key losses: Cameron Mitchell (NFL, Cleveland Browns), A.J. Hampton Jr. (Transfer portal, Tulane), Jeremiah Lewis (Transfer portal, Duke), Trent Carrington (Graduation), Tyler Haskins (Transfer portal, Bryant)
Returners: Jaheem Joseph (Sr.), Garnett Hollis Jr. (Sr.), Theran Johnson (Jr.), Devin Turner (So.), Nigel Williams (Sr.), Ore Adeyi (Jr.), Garner Wallace (Jr.), Robert Fitzgerald (So.), Joe DeHaan (Sr.), Evan Smith (So.), Jack Oyola (Sr.), Braden Turner (So.)
Newcomers: Damon Walters (Fy.), Joshua Fussell (Fy.), J.J. Lewis (Fy.), Cole Shivers (Fy.)
Most of Northwestern’s position rooms are either undergoing a massive reset (i.e. defensive line) or returning the bulk of its 2022 starting core (see: the linebackers). The DBs fall somewhere in the middle.
On one hand, the Wildcats will get 2021 starting safety Coco Azema back from injury after he played only three games last year. Azema may be the best — and most versatile — player on the entire team, and Rod Heard II stepped up late in the 2022 season as a solid slot corner. However, Northwestern is going to lose its top three defensive backs in Cameron Mitchell, A.J. Hampton and Jeremiah Lewis. That’s never easy, especially considering that Mitchell and Hampton started on the outside for not one, but two seasons.
It’s not like this group is inexperienced, though. Jaheem Joseph, Garnett Hollis Jr., Devin Turner and Theran Johnson have all made spot starts at one point or another. With some more upperclassmen in the fold, the secondary could still end up being one of the team’s deepest position groups despite losing so many key pieces.
Experience means little without production, though. Ultimately, this year’s secondary will be less talented than the 2022 group, which finished a very respectable 47th nationally in defensive estimated points added (EPA) per pass. With NFL-bound cornerbacks coach Ryan Smith out and LaMarcus Hicks in — not to mention the installation of David Braun’s defense — there are brand-new schematic and technical elements that the corners need to master. They’ll have to do so quickly to set a tone for a defense that’s in need of dynamic playmakers at all three levels.
Rod Heard II
Heard did it all last season, from taking snaps at safety to serving as an extra linebacker at times. That Swiss Army knife role could remain similar, only this time with Heard as a centerpiece of the entire secondary. In one world, he could be Northwestern’s undisputed CB1 this fall. In another, the rising senior could function as Braun’s rover. Maybe, he’ll be both of those things, depending on the package.
No matter how Braun chooses to deploy Heard, his success in adapting to an even bigger role will be a decent indicator of how the entire defense will fare. In 2021, when Heard’s snap count took its first massive jump after he became a starting cornerback, he struggled early and eventually lost his spot. Fortunately, this wasn’t the case in 2022, as he started every game and improved as the season went on.
Heard has proven that he can excel against anyone; one can argue that his best game last season came against Ohio State, when he racked up six tackles and a pass breakup. He flashed his physicality in coverage against elite Buckeye receivers, which also highlighted the quality that makes him a strong run defender. If Heard can showcase that versatility from the jump, NU will have a player who can plug in multiple holes seamlessly.
Given that Azema also thrives against the run, Heard could also allow Braun to get very creative in dialing up looks with two defensive backs who can line up inside the box. Should Heard slot in as a linebacker, he could also help take stress off Bryce Gallagher, Xander Mueller and Grayson Metz in intermediate coverage. Jim O’Neil was about as good at doing that in 2022 as Charlie Brown is at kicking a football.
Ultimately, for a defense that is severely lacking in depth at most spots, Heard’s skillset could be invaluable if he proves to be a capable starter at multiple positions.
Who will start at safety opposite Coco Azema?
Six weeks ago, this question didn’t exist. In fact, the apparent certainty of Azema and Jeremiah Lewis forming a safety duo was among Northwestern’s biggest strengths.
Then, Pat Fitzgerald got fired, and Lewis transferred back to Duke, where he played the first four seasons of his collegiate career. Of course, Lewis’s decision leaves a massive hole next to Azema that is now up for grabs.
Heard started at safety a few times last year, but Braun may need him to fill a more important position depending on how everything else shakes out. That likely leaves Devin Turner and Jaheem Joseph as the prime candidates to start. Joseph was projected to fill that role in 2022, but he only played in two games before suffering a season-ending injury. On the other hand, Turner started three games and played in eight last year as a true first-year.
Turner is also a pretty versatile player who can take snaps in the slot and outside, so this may boil down to how healthy NU remains down the stretch to maintain its depth. The injury bug ravaged Northwestern last September, as Hampton, Joseph and Azema all got hurt early on. If Braun can start Turner at safety without having to plug new holes elsewhere, then the competition for the starting role should only last until Sept. 3. However, if Northwestern’s injury luck doesn’t improve — or if whoever the starter is bears the brunt of a difficult September schedule — then players like Ore Adeyi and Garner Wallace could come into the mix a little more than expected.
Depth Chart (per ourlads.com)
2023 DB Depth Chart (per ourlads.com)
|Position||Starter||Second String||Third String|
|Position||Starter||Second String||Third String|
|LCB||Theran Johnson||Nigel Williams||Evan Smith|
|FS||Coco Azema||Garner Wallace||Jaheem Joseph|
|SS||Devin Turner||Robert Fitzgerald|
|RCB||Garnett Hollis Jr.||Ore Adeyi||Braden Turner|