But things have changed since then, and rising redshirt junior cornerback Nick VanHoose plays a major role in that. Now, a unit that used to settle for competence strives for excellence, he said.
"We've just decided to take pride in what we do," VanHoose told PurpleWildcats.com. "Before, we'd give up explosion plays and say, ‘You know, it's okay.' But now, it's not okay. It's unacceptable not to communicate and to give up explosion plays. So now we've fixed that."
VanHoose is preparing for his third year as a starter for Northwestern. He struggled with inconsistency and injury last season after a strong debut in 2012, but plans to be even better this year.
While VanHoose should be a lock to start again, it will be interesting to see who stands opposite him.
Rising senior Daniel Jones should return after missing all but one quarter of 2013 with a knee injury. When Jones went down, then-redshirt freshman Dwight White took his place, but was scrapped in favor of freshman Matthew Harris, who quickly impressed.
As a whole, the secondary needs to be more aggressive and proactive, VanHoose said, which will help limit even more of the big plays that Northwestern is already neutralizing.
"When you sit back, you're passive, and when you're passive, a receiver that's more aggressive than you can take advantage of that and gain more space away from you," he said.
And part of that comes down to communication. VanHoose said that his unit has been getting better at being louder and more responsive as spring wore on, even if it got off to a slow start.
"Throughout spring and the beginning, it's just gotten better and better."