WildcatReport concludes its position-by-position breakdown of the 2013 Wildcats by looking at the defensive back position.
If there was a prize awarded to the position group that consistently caused Northwestern fans to hold their collective breath, the defensive backs would easily run away with the "honor."
The 2012 season was certainly one of ups and downs for the Northwestern secondary. They gave up 482 passing yards and four touchdowns through the air against Syracuse in the opener, but picked off Mississippi State's quarterback twice in the Gator Bowl. Then, of course, there was the infamous Roy Roundtree play that cost them a game against Michigan. The memory of the play still stings nine months later.
Yet despite the roller coaster ride of 2012, all signs point to an improved secondary in 2013. Standout corner Nick VanHoose returns at one cornerback position, while Daniel Jones will line up on the other side. VanHoose, who was named to the Big Ten All-Freshman team, finished the season with 33 tackles, three fumble recoveries and three interceptions. VanHoose and Jones are backed up by redshirt junior C.J. Bryant and redshirt freshman Dwight White, who provide much needed depth to the cornerback position.
The guys who are lined up at safety might be even more impressive. Redshirt junior Ibraheim Campbell should have a monster season in the defensive backfield as he looks to step up following Jared Carpenter's departure. Campbell, who finished last season with 89 tackles, two forced fumbles and two picks, will start opposite sophomore Traveon Henry. The two starters will round out an athletic secondary that is primed for a big year. Jimmy Hall is also figured to get serious playing time as a nickel back after falling to Henry in the battle for the starting job. Redshirt freshman Terrance Brown and redshirt senior Davion Fleming round out the two-deep.
True freshman Godwin Igwebuike's situation shows just how confident Pat Fitzgerald feels about the position group this year. Despite a standout fall camp performance in which Fitzgerald named him the most college-ready of his incoming freshmen, Igwebuike will likely redshirt in 2013, as will Keith Watkins, Kyle Queiro and a number of other true freshman.
Northwestern certainly must prove itself this year after finishing dead last in the Big Ten in passing defense. But with an improved pass rush, added depth and another year of experience, this position group seems poised to have a much better season.
What we liked in 2012: A strong finish
Despite giving up a bucket load of yards to Syracuse and falling apart against both Michigan and Nebraska, the secondary did improve as the season progressed. Once VanHoose returned from an injury that kept him out of the Iowa, Michigan and Michigan State games, the defensive backs put together a relatively strong performance.
Northwestern improved to sixth in the conference in passing defense in November games. The Cats lowered the average number of yards allowed per game and picked off six passes over the course of three games.
The performance against Mississippi State was even better. Northwestern allowed just 106 yards passing, which was the lowest total among all Big Ten teams in bowl games. The Cats also picked off four passes from Bulldog quarterback Tyler Russell, who threw only six picks during the entire 2012 season.
What we want more of in 2013: Late-game heroics
We'll keep this section short, because we realize the pain this conversation induces. (When a team falters against Nebraska on two long drives in the fourth quarter and allows a deep ball to Roundtree with 18 seconds left, you start having some Post Traumatic Secondary Disorder.) But this doesn't need to be a recurring problem in 2013 if the secondary makes big plays when it counts.
Should the defensive backs find a way to get important pass breakups or haul in interceptions in big moments, this defense will be highly successful. And there is some hope. Against Michigan State, the defense prevented a last-minute drive by the Spartans to seal a win.
Northwestern will be successful in 2013 at the defensive back position if…The pass rush is solid
Sure, the secondary must be up to the challenge against the big-time receivers in the Big Ten. The group must cut down on mistakes in coverage, learn when to gamble on an interception and simply make more plays. A big part of this, however, starts up front.
If the Northwestern defensive line is able to increase the pressure it puts on an opposing quarterback, the secondary should be in for a big year. And it all starts Saturday night. If Tyler Scott, Dean Lowry and Deonte Gibson are able to get in freshman Cal quarterback Jared Goff's face, the secondary will be poised to reel in some interceptions.
The bottom line:
It may be difficult for Northwestern fans to invest all of their faith in a secondary that has let them down on many occasions, but 2013 may be the season to believe. With increased depth, the talent of VanHoose and Campbell, an improved pass rush and added experience, this position group might cause long-time Northwestern supporters to take a second look.
Yes, the group must prove itself in action against Big Ten teams that will likely try to exploit a pass defense that was porous a year ago, but the ingredients for success are all there. This group will benefit from the early part of the schedule that pits several new quarterbacks against Northwestern. By the time this group gets to Ohio State on Oct. 5, it should be firing on all cylinders.