Preseason Preview: Secondary

Last season, Northwestern's secondary struggled mightily. Opposing quarterbacks were able to pick apart the young, struggling unit. How will the secondary fare? examines.

Ibraheim Campbell (Safety—Sophomore)

It goes without saying: Campbell must step up in a big way for the Wildcats this season. As a redshirt freshman, he led the team with 100 tackles and emerged as one of the defense's most indispensable players. His learning curve was truly remarkable, and much of that owes to his apprenticeship under Brian Peters, whose absence this season places a larger burden on Campbell to take on a larger leadership role.

With so many new faces, so much uncertainty, in the defensive backfield this season, it's up to Campbell, in just his second season as a full-time starter, to set the tone for his teammates and mitigate the combined losses of Peters and cornerback Jordan Mabin. For a sophomore, one who's just one year removed from playing his first college football game, it's a difficult proposition, but nonetheless something a player as talented and athletically gifted as Campbell can manage.

As impressive as his first year performance was, there were times when Campbell appeared lost or confused on certain coverages and schemes. Perhaps it was a case of first-year inexperience, but a deeper fundamental misunderstanding of defensive principles and alignments would cripple NU's pass defense efforts this season. For if Campbell, the secondary's most experienced player, is blowing assignments and leaving receivers open, his fellow DBs will have trouble following his commands, let alone emulating his actions on the field.

When preseason camp gets underway, Campbell needs to lay a strong foundation for success, establish a clear set of parameters and rules for his less-experienced teammates. Peters established himself as a leader, both vocally and with his performance, and Campbell must command the same respect. Failing that, the defensive backfield, already predicted by many to repeat last year's horrific performance, will struggle mightily from week one on.

Davion Fleming (Safety—Junior)

With a limited sample size to work with, it's hard to predict how Fleming will perform as a starter. He's appeared in 18 games in two seasons and played a key role on special teams last year, but he's yet to play any significant number of snaps at safety, so there could be some growing pains early in the year as he adjusts to playing in high-pressure situations against some of the most explosive athletes in the country.

That said, Fleming has flashed great speed and quickness throughout his NU tenure, and it's hard to argue there's a better candidate to start alongside Campbell. He's struggled to fully grasp defensive coordinator Mike Hankwitz's scheme, but his athletic ability on its own merits will benefit the Wildcats' thin secondary. He made huge strides in spring practice, and coach Fitzgerald raved about his performance.

There's work to be done, no doubt, but Fleming is well on his way towards a breakout season. The physical tools are all there. So from a pure matchup standpoint, Fleming can handle most receivers. Now he needs to refine the mental aspects of his game. The film room will become a second home for Fleming as he enters preseason camp and works to improve his schematic knowledge and understanding.

Nick VanHoose (Cornerback—Redshirt Freshman)

Had VanHoose not pulled his hamstring on the first day of preseason camp in Kenosha last season, there's a good chance he would have played as a true freshman. In fact, when Mabin suffered an injury late last season, Fitzgerald and staff contemplated using VanHoose for the season finale against Michigan State, but instead chose Daniel Jones. At the time, it may have been the wrong decision, as Jones struggled to put up a fight against the Spartans' speedy wideouts, but VanHoose kept his four years of eligibility and now looks to start fresh this season.

Without any game experience to speak of, it's hard to envision VanHoose succeeding right away. For all the high praise he received in spring practice, VanHoose's lack of experience was on full display during the spring game, when backup quarterback Trevor Simeian went after VanHoose on a 44-yd touchdown pass to Cameron Dickerson. Granted, Dickerson is one of the team's best deep threats, but he's far from the best receiver VanHoose will match up with this season.

It was only one play, yes, but VanHoose's blunder was frightening on many levels. For one, he was late reading Dickerson's route and even later acknowledging Sieman's deep ball. But beyond that, he seemed overmatched physically. That's an enticing proposition for any quarterback looking for a weak corner to pick on. And yet, Fitzgerald and other coaches continue to speak highly of VanHoose's abilities. Whether or not he lives up to his coaches' lofty praise, his first year as a starter will be an interesting one.

Quinn Evans (Cornerback—Fifth-year Senior)

Whereas Kyle Prater is still waiting for a ruling on his request for a hardship waiver—an extremely sloppy and murky process that, by all accounts, needs streamlining—that would make him eligible to play this season, Evans was granted eligibility almost immediately after filing a graduate transfer request. His addition was welcome news, since without him NU's most experienced DB is Campbell, a sophomore. But it's hard to say just how much or how well Evans can contribute.

He missed all of last season with an injury, played mostly special teams in 2009 and 2010 and has just one start to his name. It's not an ideal track record for a player who's expected to not only start but solidify a feeble and inexperienced secondary. Evans will have to learn a new defense, ingratiate himself with players and coaches and assume a starting role in a new league that he's never experienced before. It's quite the check list for a one-month window.

The chances of Evans developing into a transcendent, All-conference type player are slim, but he does provide experience for a secondary that needs it in bunches. Technically, he hasn't earned a starting spot—no one has, for that matter—but it's fair to ask why he would even consider transferring to NU in the first place without a virtual guarantee of starterdom from coach Fitzgerald. At worst, his experience alone will help NU's youthful defensive backfield, even if Evans' on-field productivity lacks merit.

Jimmy Hall (Safety—Sophomore)

There's little doubt Campbell will start from week 1 on, but Fleming's grip on the other starting safety spot is tenuous, at best. In fact, with a poor performance in preseason camp, Fleming could slide down the depth chart. His obvious replacement is Hall, a converted wide receiver with the sort of speed, quickness and aggressiveness that Hankwitz values in his defenders. His attitude is also encouraging: Hall is a fiery competitor with a gladiator's mentality.

Perhaps the best example of his hard-hitting style came during a late May spring practice, when Hall had no reservations blowing up Prater on a deep pass over the middle, a hit that sent the former USC wideout to his knees. If Hall can apply that seek-and-destroy strategy against Big Ten receivers, it's hard to argue he's not worth a starting spot. Problem is, Hall blows coverages just as much as he lights up receivers—an uncomfortable high risk-high reward scenario that's probably not worth undertaking.

He's one of NU's more physical dbs, and his closing speed would be a huge asset, but Hall's inconsistency is troubling and his frequent mental lapses bode poorly for his claim to the starting job. Much like Fleming, Hall's athleticism and physical play make him an intriguing option, but he still has much to learn, scheme wise.

Hunter Bates (Safety—Senior)

After an impressive 2010 campaign, Bates registered a career-high 11-tackles in the 2011 Ticket City Bowl before breaking his leg, an injury that sidelined him for spring practice and hindered his preseason preparation. He appeared in every game last season, but played mostly on special teams and as a reserve safety.

While he appears to have regressed since his injury, Bates can challenge Fleming and Hall for a starting spot if he can recall his pre-injury form. He has more experience and a better overall understanding of the defense than both players, but his physical limitations will likely confine him to a reserve role this season. Given the uncertainty at his position, there's a good chance he plays a significant number of snaps at some point this season.

Daniel Jones (Cornerback—Sophomore)

First impressions are hard to shake off, but that's precisely what Jones must do after filling in for Mabin last season in less than admirable fashion. The troubling part about Jones' late-season performance wasn't as much his inherent physical shortcomings as it was his mental mistakes. Against Michigan State, quarterback Kirk Cousins repeatedly picked on Jones, who appeared hopelessly lost against the Spartans' receivers. The Meineke Car Care Bowl provided no relief for the youngster, as Ryan Tannehill targeted Jones on numerous occasions with a high success rate.

Fortunately for Jones, he has three years of eligibility to repair his image, and it's hard to envision any young cornerback succeeding in his college debut against two of the nation's top passers. He was unfairly thrown into the line of fire, so his ineptitude came as no surprise. This season, Jones will likely have the opportunity to ease himself into game shape against weaker quarterbacks and less-explosive offenses, which bodes well for his future. Still, unless he improves drastically from last season—spring practice provided no evidence to support that claim—he's destined, for now at least, to remain in a reserve role.

Jared Carpenter (Safety—Senior)

With high hopes heading into preseason camp last year, Carpenter was on his way to claiming a starting safety spot before breaking his wrist. The injury forced him to miss three games, and his season was an all-around disappointment. Having started seven games the previous year, Carpenter was relegated to special teams and mop-up relief duty.

This year, he should once again be in the running for a starting safety spot, along with Bates, Hall and Fleming. He provides an air of maturity and would serve as a nice complement to the talented but young Campbell. Carpenter will probably play a reserve role this season, though don't rule him out overtaking either Hall or Fleming on the depth chart. If the secondary struggles early in the season, Fitzgerald may opt to replace younger players, like Fleming or Hall, with experienced veterans such as Carpenter.

Demetrius Dugar (Cornerback—Senior)

One of the main takeaways from spring practice this year was the Wildcats' overall athleticism in the secondary. The group may lack experience and talent, but there's no shortage of speed, length and aggressiveness among the group. Dugar exemplifies this trait, his physical qualities trumping most, if not all of his fellow dbs, and he could play a key reserve role this season. Last year, his athletic ability shone through on special teams, and he took full advantage of his start at Iowa, when he notched his first career interception and finished with six tackles, including one TFL.

It was his first start in over two years, but he maintained his high level play the next week against Penn State. Unfortunately, he missed the final five games of the regular season due to injury, but returned in the Meineke Car Care Bowl and recorded one tackle. His midseason performance was encouraging, perhaps enough so to warrant a few starts this season. He'll need to eliminate any lingering doubts about his injury, but he's a strong candidate to replace VanHoose or Evans.

C.J. Bryant (Cornerback—Sophomore)

The best chance Bryant has of making a major impact this season is on special teams, where he's proven himself as an explosive athlete capable of making plays in the open field. As offensive coordinator Mick McCall looks to incorporate Venric Mark, the primary kick and punt returner, into the offense on a more frequent basis, Bryant could make an impact as a return man. Beyond that, he'll battle Dugar and Jones for playing time at cornerback.

Jarrell Williams (Cornerback—Redshirt Freshman)

There's little chance that Williams plays very much on defense this season, but he impressed coaches on scout team last year and could be in line for a key role on special teams. He was highly recruited out of H L Richards (IL) high school and could develop into a nice rotation player in the future.

Matt Carpenter (Safety—Redshirt Freshman)

Since arriving on campus last year, Carpenter has worked hard to stake his foothold in the nebulous NU DB landscape. He faces an uphill climb this season, though a reasonable goal for this season would be challenging for a spot on kick and punt coverage teams. As he continues to make strides in the weight room and learn from the older players, Carpenter can fight for playing time on defense.

Joe Cannon (Cornerback—Sophomore)

One of the standouts on scout team last season, it's unclear whether Cannon will see the field in 2012. He has a strong work ethic and plays with the sort of positive attitude that leads to success. It's highly unlikely Cannon makes any noticeable impact this season.

Mike Eshun (Cornerback—Sophomore)

Following an impressive high school career in which he earned first team All-Badger South honors for his efforts on both sides of the ball at Edgewood (WI), Eshun has been one of NU's most consistent performers in team workouts and will likely play on special teams this year. There's a chance Eshun enters the discussion for a backup job at cornerback.

True Freshmen

Dwight White (Cornerback)—Most power conference schools passed over this impressive Cypress (TX) product, who played safety throughout most of his high school career, but NU extended him an offer after observing him at cornerback. White is an impressive athlete and a nice pickup for the Wildcats.

Troy Sheppard (Cornerback)—It seems NU is keeping a close watch on Providence Catholic high school, as Sheppard joins current Wildcats Tim Hanrahan and Patrick Ward as the latest products of the Joliet (IL) school. He was named an all-state selection and earned team defensive MVP honors, but his exploits as a sprinter are equally impressive: Sheppard set school records in the 55 and 100-meter sprint events and placed 10th statewide in the 100-m. A team captain in both sports, Sheppard seems like the sort of high-character player that Fitzgerald seeks out in his recruiting ventures.

Sean Oliver (Cornerback)—Earning honorable mention all-district honors at Plano Senior, a school situated smack dab in the middle of the fertile Texas recruiting ground, is an impressive feat. A walk-on, Oliver will most likely redshirt this season.

Joseph Jones (Safety)—He missed most of his junior season at Plano (IL) high school with a broken leg, but NU, unlike many other brand name programs that were recruiting him, continued their pursuit of the DB/RB prospect. He was a standout track athlete in high school, and with his experience at multiple positions, Jones' versatility will be an asset for the Wildcats in the future.

Terrance Brown (Safety)—Almost immediately after giving a verbal commitment to NU last August, Brown was proactive in using social media to contact his fellow 2012 commits. He accelerated the meet-and-greet process by reaching out and establishing friendships. That kind of eagerness and comradery building bodes well for he and his teammates' transition into high major college football.

Austin Carr (Safety)—It's hard to conceive of a more productive and altogether impressive high school career than what Carr put togethr his four years at Benecia (CA). He followed up an impressive junior campaign that included over 1,000 all-purpose yards and 17 touchdowns by scoring 30 total touchdowns and racking up over 2,500 all-purpose yards as a senior. He graduated Benecia as the all-time rushing and scoring leader.

Traveon Henry (Safety)—If you're a highly ranked running back recruit, as was the case with Henry, who held offers from Illinois, Florida State, Boston College, Vanderbilt, among others, the simple assumption upon arriving at your school of choice is that you will continue playing running back, the position at which college coaches and scouts envisioned you playing at the next level during your recruitment. Henry's path strayed from that narrative, but his interest in NU overrode any potential uneasiness stemming from a position switch. Now Henry is ready to prove his worth on the defensive side of the ball.

Grade: C +

When you lose two all-conference talents, Mabin and Peters, in your secondary, there's bound to be some drop off. But perhaps the massive turnover, the young new faces, will help NU's pass defense this season as it attempts to bounce back from last year, when it ranked last among Big Ten teams in average pass yards allowed (230.4). Peters and Mabin were great players and leaders, and while their replacements—guys like VanHoose and Fleming—are much less experienced, this new youthful group may complement each other in a positive way that last year's veteran-laden core never could.

The talent level of this year's DBs is a step down from last year's, but if they can put last year's performance behind them, the group has a chance to start anew and chart their own path of success. The first order of business is learning to work with and respond to Campbell, who simply must step up and solidify himself as a leader. He's the secondary's most talented and most experienced player, and for the Wildcats to be successful he not only has to elevate his level of play on the field but command more respect from his peers and prevent the sort of mental mishaps that crippled them last season.

Beyond Campbell, there's nothing but question marks. Neither VanHoose nor Fleming have ever played any substantial number of meaningful snaps, and although VanHoose had a few bright moments, neither provided signs of encouragement in spring practice. From an athletic standpoint, both players are more than capable of stepping in and having success right away. But they have yet to master the mental side of their respective positions, and opposing quarterbacks will find ways to exploit those weaknesses. The wildcard here is Evans, a Stanford transfer who to this point has never played a down of Big Ten football. It's uncertain how he will transition into the Wildcats' defense, but his experience should help some of the younger players.

This is a group most folks are predicting to struggle this season, and there's no strong argument to be made against that claim. Teams are going to pass on NU because, for some of the league's better quarterbacks, picking on an inexperienced secondary is downright easy. The unit could surprise some people, especially if Campbell continues to improve. Realistically, NU is likely to finish in the bottom two or three in pass defense among Big Ten teams.

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