Photo Credit: Dennis Wierzbicki / USA TODAY Sports
Photo Credit: Dennis Wierzbicki / USA TODAY Sports

Our Big Ten previews in the rearview, we’ll take the next two weeks to preview every Northwestern position group.

Before we move to the offensive side of the ball, Jason Dorow wraps up the defense with a look at the secondary. 

Unit Capsule

defensive backs depth chart

There really isn’t a defensive position group that is looking weak for 2015. The defensive line runs super deep, and the linebacking corps has athletic replacements for Chi Chi Ariguzo and Jimmy Hall. Even with the loss of Ibraheim Campbell, the secondary should be the best position group on the roster.

Nick VanHoose enters his senior season coming off a year in which he was named Second Team All-Big Ten, and he might not be the best cornerback on the team. Matt Harris nearly led the secondary in tackles with 70 last season and was second in pass breakups, behind only VanHoose. There is abundant depth at corner too, so injuries should not hurt NU too badly in coverage.

The Wildcats have two proven starters in the safety spots as well. As Campbell missed time due to injury, Godwin Igwebuike contributed in 11 games last season and totaled 42.5 tackles. Plus, his three interceptions against Wisconsin carried the ‘Cats to a 20-14 upset victory over the Badgers at Ryan Field. Traveon Henry will likely start in the other safety spot, and he will look to put together his third year in a row with 70+ tackles.

Overall, NU’s coverage was good last season. They ranked 43rd nationally in both passing yards against per game and passing success rate. With everyone back except Campbell, their 2015 performance should be just as good, if not better. Now, the secondary needs to add a pass rush and limit big plays to become the total package.

Upside

Experience, talent and depth. Seeing juniors and seniors in starting roles tends to make fans very optimistic about how a team or position group might fare, of course due to experience. In NU’s secondary, not only do the four projected starters return with a combined total of 69 starts, they represent the Wildcats’ greatest strength on the field.

Harris and VanHoose are two of the best players on the team, and Igwebuike has the potential to enter that realm with some development. They are all strong open field tacklers, capable in man-to-man coverage and solid run stoppers. If Henry was quicker, he would fall under the same umbrella. This is the one position group that the coaching staff knew they could certainly rely on before camp even started, and the Wildcats should hang their hat on their play in the defensive backfield.

Even if disaster strikes, and the injury bug plagues the starters, there are three solid back-ups in Marcus McShephard, Keith Watkins II and Parrker Westphal. Westphal is one of the highest rated recruits NU has nabbed in the last couple years, so don’t be surprised if the redshirt freshman is getting legit time on the field. He or Watkins will most likely take over the nickelback spot.

The depth at safety definitely isn’t as certain. Kyle Queiro has played some off the bench, but Terrance Brown is rather unproven. And although VanHoose is comparing Jacob Murray to Brian Peters, he’s a true freshman and has a long ways to go. Still, the secondary is deeper than any other group, with the possible exception of the D-line.

Downside

Northwestern was not good at getting to opposing quarterbacks in 2014. The team’s adjusted sack rate was 108th in the country, and the four returning starters in the secondary totaled zero sacks and one quarterback hurry.

The Wildcats don’t blitz that often with the secondary, and the pass rush has to start up front, but the secondary can definitely improve on getting to the quarterback.

The biggest knock on VanHoose is his susceptibility to lapses in coverage. Every now and then last season, the safeties blew their positioning too. If Northwestern is as poor in producing big plays offensively in 2015 as they were in 2014, they cannot afford to be giving them up on the other end.

Key Player

Northwestern can be confident in what they are getting in the cornerback spots. Safety provides more intrigue, and there has been a lot of speculation about Traveon Henry’s role this season.

Some were expecting the 6-foot-1, 220-pound senior to move to linebacker in his final season. After all, Ariguzo left big shoes to fill at the WILL spot, and Henry is bigger and stronger than anyone else in the secondary. That size helped Henry become a huge asset in run stopping. He has 150 tackles and 6.5 tackles for loss over the last two seasons.

It looks like Henry will remain in the secondary though, and he should be a huge aid to the linebackers in preventing long runs. But unless he is significantly faster than he was last season, there will be times when Henry finds himself with a mismatch in coverage. Quick Big Ten wideouts showed last year that they can beat him in a foot race.

The Wildcats simply need Henry to prevent big plays, make the sure tackles and continue to be that same force in tracking ballcarriers in the open field. The best way to recognize that Henry is doing his job is that you will hardly recognize him at all.

In a Sentence

Deep, skilled and relatively consistent, NU can count on the secondary to give them a fighting chance almost every Saturday.

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