Northwestern Defensive Back Preview
WNUR’s Greg Mroz (@wizard_of_mroz) breaks down the Northwestern secondary, and who can replace the dependable starts at their positions.
One thing that has always seemed to trouble Northwestern is the lack of depth in the secondary. Coming into 2014, Northwestern looked to be deeper than they had been in a while with the return of Daniel Jones, who missed all of 2013 after suffering a season ending knee injury in the opener at California back on August 31st. A few weeks ago, it was announced that Jones would be retiring from football, leaving Northwestern a bit thinner at cornerback. The safety tandem of Ibraheim Campbell and Traveon Henry seem locked in place, but where does Northwestern go if one of those two goes down? This unit could make or break Northwestern’s pass defense in 2014.
Cornerback: Nick VanHoose is the unquestioned number one cornerback, and he has proven throughout the last two seasons that he is a reliable cover corner. VanHoose won’t blow anybody away with his speed but, like with Jordan Mabin in 2011, expect to see most QBs throw away from VanHoose. Where the questions open up is on the opposite side corner, where Dwight White and Matthew Harris split time in 2013. When Daniel Jones went down in 2013, White slid into his starting spot, but White’s struggles eventually had him replaced by Matthew Harris, one of only two true freshman to play for Pat Fitzgerald in 2013. Harris has the most speed and pure athletic ability of this unit, and while no determination has yet to be made as to who is going to start at that spot, the Wildcats best bet is to go with Harris, who with more development could become one of the best corners that Northwestern has had since current NFL corner Sherrick McManus. Should Northwestern need to go deeper than three corners, look for junior Jarrell Williams to step up. Williams is a former three star recruit who played exclusively on special teams last year and could see a lot more playing time in 2014. The one player that is seemingly been left out of this conversation is the 2014 classes’ number one recruit, Parrker Westphal. Westphal enrolled in classes at NU in January and was impressive during spring practice. Westphal though is not expected to play much in 2014 and while Coach Fitzgerald doesn’t normally like to play true freshmen, should by any chance VanHoose or Harris go down early in the season, Westphal’s redshirt might be burned in a hurry. Overall this is a unit that is getting progressively deeper, the most important thing though is to be able to find stability at the number two cornerback spot. If that happens, this could be one of the best cornerback units that Pat Fitzgerald has had during his tenure as head coach.
Safety: Ibraheim Campbell has been a starter since he stepped on the field for the first time at Boston College in 2011, and has developed himself into one of the best safeties in the Big Ten. It is no stretch of the imagination to say that Campbell may be the best player Northwestern has on the defensive side of the ball period. Campbell has improved his coverage skills significantly over the past three seasons and has become a very good tackler. Campbell was a 3rd team All Big Ten honoree in 2013 and look for him to do even bigger things in 2014. His counterpart Traveon Henry established himself as a starter early on in 2013, starting the first 10 games before subbing in the final two games of the season due to injury. If Henry stays healthy, the tandem of him and Campbell will help Northwestern have the best safety units that they’ve had in a long time. Behind them though there is an unknown. Jimmy Hall, who was a safety in 2013 and was the main nickel back worked out at outside linebacker the entire spring. It’s to be determined whether he stays there or goes back to safety. Should Campbell or Henry go down, Fitz and secondary coach Jerry Brown could elect to put Hall back in the secondary. Look for Godwin Igwebuike, Northwestern’s number one safety recruit in the 2013 class, to get a significant amount of playing time in 2014 to help give Campbell and Henry some necessary rest.
Overall: This unit could be the best its been in years, but much depends on how the cornerback spot occupied by Matthew Harris or Dwight White turns out. Should Harris play like everyone expects him to, the secondary could be incredible. However, if the front seven can’t get pressure on opposing quarterbacks, this unit could be seeing more work than is necessary. All things aside, there is less to worry about this year than in the past regarding the secondary.