Summer Preview: Northwestern Defensive Backs
Photo By RON JOHNSON/JOURNAL STAR
What happens when you take the Big Ten’s worst secondary from 2011 and take away three of its four starters? You are left with Northwestern’s 2012 defensive backfield.
While this may sound like a punch line, it is the reality of Northwestern football’s 2012 campaign and certainly no laughing matter for the program.
Last season the starters for the Wildcats (Ibraheim Campbell and Brian Peters at safety and Jordan Mabin and Jeravin Matthews at corner with four starts from Demetrius Dugar and one start from Daniel Williams) allowed opponents to complete 60.7% of their passes for 230.4 yards per game, the worst mark in the Big Ten. Peters, Matthews and Mabin were all seniors and graduated from the program.
Now Pat Fitzgerald will have to rely on a young and inexperienced group in the secondary. Outside of Ibraheim Campbell (Soph.) who started every game at safety for Northwestern last season, few players competing for the remaining three spots in the secondary have seen time as starters. In fact, the only two players that have started a game for Northwestern, Demetrius Dugar (Soph.) and Daniel Jones (Soph.), have a total of five starts between them.
That has made the competition for the three remaining starting spots intense throughout training camp. And while WildcatReport.com (http://northwestern.rivals.com/cdepthtext.asp)
lists Nick VanHoose (RS Fr.); Demetrius Dugar (Sr.); and Davion Fleming (Jr.) as the starting corners and other safety, respectively, defensive coordinator Mike Hankwitz told NUSports.com (http://www.nusports.com/sports/m-footbl/spec-rel/082412aaa.html) that the competition for starting spots is still open:
“[I]t’s kind of an on-going competition because we’ve got a lot of guys who want to play. DJ (Daniel Jones) has done some good things. And Nick (VanHoose) has done some nice things. And Quinn Evans has done some good things. So it’s a good place to be. When you’ve got competition, that keeps the pressure on and it brings out the best in everybody. They can’t just relax and assume they’ve got a spot locked up.”
Regardless of how Fitz and ‘Witz decide to set up the defensive backfield, it is impossible to predict how it will perform as a unit. The only known quantity is Ibraheim Campbell, who has been game-tested as a starter for a full 12-game season plus bowl. He struggled early in 2011, but showed a great deal of improvement as the year progressed.
Maybe the most crucial area of his development has come as a leader, which Pat Fitzgerald noted to NUSports.com (http://www.nusports.com/sports/m-footbl/spec-rel/082412aaa.html) will be crucial in commanding an inexperienced group in 2012.
“I really like the job Ibraheim Campbell’s been doing back there as our leader. A guy who had a lot of experience a year ago, maybe a little bit before he was ready. But he learned through that, gained experience, and now he’s really doing a great job leading back there. So I’m pleased with where that group’s at right now.”
The rest of the group remains largely unpredictable. That unpredictability can be seen as a positive: a new group coming in to turn over a new leaf and replace the old one that was so porous, or a far more frightening negative: this secondary could be even worse than one that was last in the conference just a season ago.
Dugar has started before but time will tell how he handles starting a full season. Nick VanHoose, the other projected starter at cornerback, has impressed Fitzgerlad at camp Kenosha, as WildcatReport.com notes (http://northwestern.rivals.com/content.asp?cid=1396379). Quinn Evans (Sr.), a graduate student transfer from Stanford who started one game in his career with the Cardinal, adds some maturity and playing experience to the group.
For the rest of the secondary, Northwestern fans will have to take a wait-and-see approach and make judgments as the year progresses.
Given the weakness of the secondary unit last year and the inexperience coming in this season, expect teams to challenge them early in games and continue to throw the ball until Northwestern can stop them. The scary thought that keeps creeping in is that they won’t be able to stop opposing passers and 2012 will turn in 2011 revisited.
It’s tough to know what to expect from this secondary and it won’t be until the game one against Syracuse that Coach Fitzgerald and his staff will have an answer.