Defensive backs: Now or Never

In this PurpleWildcats post-spring position breakdown, Steven Goldstein discusses the unproven secondary.

What they're saying

"Look at the TV, watch the games, you'll be able to see what the secondary can do." - Daniel Jones

"There's no substitute for experience. I like the progress we're making." - Mike Hankwitz

"We had plenty of opportunities last year to make plays that would have sealed games, but we weren't able to make them." - Ibraheim Campbell

Progress report

It might be the one area of concern this spring. Then again, no secondary would look good without its No. 1 corner. Missing a shelved Nick VanHoose, the defensive backs struggled in scrimmage time but showed improvement toward the final week of practices.

Jones was beaten deep by Rashad Lawrence and Cameron Dickerson in separate sessions, yet he came on strong in the offense/defense scrimmage. Similarly, C.J. Bryant recorded a pick of Trevor Siemian after some initial growing pains. Over the top, the safeties looked good, with Traveon Henry likely earning a starting spot alongside Ibraheim Campbell.

Jimmy Hall and Davion Fleming both fared well at times, but while Pat Fitzgerald claims that all three players have a shot to replace Jared Carpenter, Henry stood out this spring as a dynamic athlete. His upside trumps that of any other player in the secondary.

As mentioned previously, playcalling this spring was heavy on deep passing and rushing the quarterback, hanging the D-backs out to dry from the get-go.

What we're thinking

The secondary is the only unproven unit in this defense, and its emergence–or lack thereof–will make or break Northwestern's season. Ask Daniel Jones about the Michigan game for just a second and you'll see an explicit desire to turn things around this year.

VanHoose, if healthy, is a strong option at cornerback. Campbell is just as solid at safety. What Cats fans need to watch for is who steps up alongside each of these guys. Jones' strides as a corner and as a leader are admirable, but his inability to seal off the deep pass is still concerning. And while Henry had a great spring, he's yet to start a single game.

Dwight White didn't do anything to improve his stock, while Bryant had an opportunity to steal a starting spot but failed to consistently impress. It will be interesting to see what the coaching staff does with freshman corner Keith Watkins when he arrives.

A front seven generating pressure will be huge, and this is a unit capable of making big plays after recording 13 interceptions last year, just one away from leading the Big Ten.

But none of that matters if it can't limit vertical passing. The embroidered "5:03" on practice apparel comes almost entirely from the secondary's fourth-quarter struggles, and while this group is definitely talented, that late-game toughness won't be seen in spring ball.

Jones is confident that he and the rest of the defensive backs will surprise people. They'll have to do it immediately: Cal passed for 208 yards a game last year, better than eight Big Ten teams. With every other unit of the defense looking sharp, it's up to the secondary to keep up.

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