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2023 Northwestern football position grades: Defensive backs

The Sky Team kept it locked down in 2023.

NCAA Football: Las Vegas Bowl-Utah at Northwestern Stephen R. Sylvanie-USA TODAY Sports

As we wrap up our coverage of the 2023 football season, today we will take a gander at the Wildcats’ secondary and evaluate the group's performance.

Overall Grade: B+

It was another solid year for the Sky Team this season. Despite losing both starting corners and a starting safety, the ‘Cats did not miss a beat in the back end. The Wildcats finished in the top half of the Big Ten in passing defense, giving up 182.9 yards per game. Furthermore, NU held its opponents to under 100 yards passing in three games this season and only allowed 300 yards one time.

While the Wildcats did not give up many yards in the air, they also took the ball away in bunches this year. NU had 13 interceptions this season, the fourth most in the Big Ten. All in all, it was a strong year for LaMarcus Hicks’ and Matt MacPherson’s unit, possibly saving MacPherson’s job.

Player Grades

Rod Heard II: B+

I have never seen David Braun light up as much as when he talked about Rod Heard’s peanut punch. The fifth-year was a constant for the Wildcats this season. He played 853 snaps this season, which was the second-highest total on the team. For his efforts, Heard earned an 81.9 PFF grade, the highest by any starter. Whether it was in the box or in the slot, Heard did not miss many tackles, reaching a career-high 85. Add in three forced fumbles and an interception, and it is quite clear why top programs like Michigan are interested in No. 24.

My only knock on Heard was the amount of receptions he allowed. According to PFF, Heard gave up a completion 75% of the time he was targeted. That will need to change if he wants to make it to Sundays.

Coco Azema: B

Coming off a torn ACL, Azema had a decent year, highlighted by a game-winning interception against Maryland. No. 0 finished the year with 47 tackles, but he whiffed on 15% of them. Azema was great in understanding run scheme, finding himself in the gap to make a play — plus, he was unafraid to lay the boom. Unfortunately, an injury sidelined Azema for the final three and a half games of the season. With one year of eligibility remaining, it’ll be interesting if he decides to stay in Evanston for one last run in 2024.

Devin Turner: A-

The future is bright for Devin Turner. Starting every game this season, Turner showed his ability to defend against the pass and the run. The sophomore racked up 68 tackles on the year, a forced fumble, an interception and six PBUs. According to PFF, No. 9 only allowed a completion on 51.9% of targets. Add in his ability to play downhill and make big hits in the run game, and he has all the traits to be an NFL safety. I am fascinated to see what Turner does this offseason, because he is in a prime position to make an All-Big Ten team next season.

Jaheem Joseph: B

Ball Hawk.

Joseph did not see nearly the amount of snaps as the others on the list, but he made the most of his opportunities. Filling in for the injured Azema, Joseph came down with three interceptions in two games, including two picks in the Las Vegas Bowl. He had 24 tackles on the year, but he still needs to show he can be a constant factor each week in the run game.

With one year of eligibility remaining, it will be interesting to see what an increased role looks like for No. 3 in 2024.

Garnett Hollis Jr.: B

Stepping into the starting role, Hollis had a strong campaign. He finished the year with 49 tackles, an interception and three PBUs. He allowed a completion on 57.9% of his targets, the lowest by any starter. However, Hollis did miss 17% of tackle attempts this season and struggled as the primary run support.

For his first season seeing the field, it was a good start to his career; however, if he wants to make it to the next level, he needs to show more consistency in all phases of the defense.

Theran Johnson: B-

Joining the starting lineup on the other side of the field, Johnson showed promise throughout 2023. Highlighted by an interception at Wrigley Field, Johnson had a 71 PFF pass coverage grade. However, he missed over 15% of his tackles and allowed completions on 65% of passes his way. Much like his corner companion Hollis, Johnson has plenty of room for improvement next season, but he has shown he can be a viable Big Ten corner.

Ore Adeyi: C+

Adeyi was the first corner off the bench for the ‘Cats this season, and he did a fine job spelling either Hollis or Johnson. The ball only went his way 16 times this year, but the receiver hauled it in 11 times. Add in an 18% missed tackle rate, and it is clear that Adeyi did not make the jump NU had hoped for. It will be interesting to see what his role is with the Wildcats in 2024.

Robert Fitzgerald: Incomplete

Playing mostly mop-up duty, Fitzgerald was on the stat sheet this year. As he enters his junior year, he’ll look to see the field more often.

Joe DeHaan: Incomplete

Even in mop-up duty, DeHaan helped the ‘Cats earn one of the top turnover margins in the nation with an interception against UTEP.

If he uses his last year of eligibility, it is unlikely that it will turn into a larger role.