Next to a budding D-line and a stacked linebacker corps, Northwestern's secondary has been billed as unstable, susceptible to the deep pass and threatening to the Cats' Big Ten title hopes. After taking two wrenching losses a year ago due to late-game passing heroics, it's certainly understandable. But this unit had a quietly impressive summer, and just a day away from playing a pass-heavy Cal team, I'm not sweating the secondary too much.
It obviously begins with Nick VanHoose, who has an unlimited ceiling after emerging as NU's top corner his freshman year. As we know, VanHoose was shelved from the Michigan stunner and sat out the end of the Nebraska loss. When healthy, the ESPN All-Big Ten Freshman honoree has the potential to lock down an entire half of the field, and his lack of size is accounted for by a ridiculously high football IQ. VanHoose says he's worked on playing more with his head up and seems to have taken a leadership role in stride.
One corner doesn't make a secondary, by any means. A 10-minute conversation I had with Daniel Jones last spring was full of motivation and passion, but we still have to see how much he's improved on the field. Jones got lost in space far too often last year, and though he's almost guaranteed to be better than Quinn Evans or Demetrius Dugar, he still has much to prove. I'm not entirely sold after watching him struggle deep in 7-on-7s. Fitzgerald buzzed about Dwight White after many practices, but we've yet to see him in action.
A shoddy second corner could be compensated by two damn good safeties. Ibraheim Campbell is Medline's pick for defensive MVP, while Traveon Henry's athleticism should shore up the center field coverage that was so porous last fall. Jimmy Hall, Davion Fleming and C.J. Bryant each bring at least three years of experience to round out the second team, and all will see ample reps this season.
An improved Campbell and an upward-trending Henry will make a difference in deep pass defense. But what will be most noticeable is the level of confidence these guys have been exuding all offseason. Campbell and VanHoose know their potential; Jones is eager to knock that maize-colored chip off his shoulder; Henry's just eager to play. So much of pass defense is built around communication, and Campbell and VanHoose's vocal leadership gives the defensive backs a more cohesive look.
"Look at the TV, watch the games, you'll be able to see what the secondary can do," Jones told me last spring as I was writing one of my first stories for PW. That confidence and hunger stuck with me, and while I'm not without my reservations, I really do like the way this secondary's shaped up as we approach kickoff. No more caricatures: Northwestern's D-backs won't give up bomb after bomb, but they may not be superstars either. And with two dominant units in front of them, that's fine by me.
CB— Nick VanHoose, CJ Bryant
CB— Daniel Jones, Dwight White
S— Ibraheim Campbell, Terrance Brown OR Davion Fleming
S— Traveon Henry, Jimmy Hall