2015 Football Preview: Loaded secondary teems with veteran talent


Daily file photo by Adnaan Zaffer

Junior cornerback Matthew Harris is one quarter of a talented and experienced defensive backfield that could be Northwestern’s best position group.

Bobby Pillote, Reporter

2015 Football Preview

A frightening concussion. Three interceptionsRenal agenesis.

What was a tumultuous year for Northwestern’s back four eventually proved a triumphant one, as the secondary overcame a rash of injuries to key players to become the most effective — and most critical — position group on the roster. With four players who made starts last season returning to the lineup, expectations for the unit will be sky-high in 2015.

NU’s cornerbacks and safeties have the talent to deliver on that promise, and their continued sturdy play will be leaned on to get the Cats back to six or more wins and bowl eligibility.

The Purple Pass Eaters

The starting secondary for NU — senior cornerback Nick VanHoose, sophomore safety Godwin Igwebuike, senior safety Traveon Henry and junior cornerback Matthew Harris — is as good as any in the Big Ten.

The Cats lose safety Ibraheim Campbell, who is now in training camp with the NFL’s Cleveland Browns, but his replacement, Igwebuike, saw significant action last season and had a stunning three-pick performance to spark the Cats’ upset over then-No. 17 Wisconsin on Oct. 4.

When Campbell missed time due to injury, Igwebuike stepped right in and backstopped a starting four which combined for seven interceptions and 20 passes broken up on the season. This unyielding play contributed to NU having the 36th most efficient defense in the country last season, according to Football Outsiders.

And the secondary did all that with the help of just 17 sacks from the front seven.

VanHoose, Harris and Henry are each entering at least their third season as a starter. The fact that those three, plus Igwebuike, are playing together for a second consecutive year is the icing on a very talented cake.

“We depend a lot on each other,” Harris said last week. “Just having that experience goes a long way. We know each other’s strengths and weaknesses.”

Last line of defense

NU’s secondary was more than capable of dealing with a few bumps and bruises during the season ­— only Harris appeared in every game — but floundered once more than one regular starter was out of the lineup.

Injuries will derail the performance of any position group, but that was especially evident during the Cats’ 2014 finale against Illinois. In a must-win rivalry game deciding bowl eligibility for each side, NU trotted out a porous sieve featuring career special teams player Jarrell Williams at starting cornerback.

Not surprisingly, NU was gashed for 438 total yards in an embarrassing 47-33 loss.

Williams is now gone, but backup safety sophomore Kyle Queiro got a taste of game experience, and the return from injury of yet-unproven but certainly talented cornerbacks sophomore Marcus McShepard and redshirt freshman Parrker Westphal will provide Harris and VanHoose with competent backups if the need arises.

“We’re definitely starting to develop that two-deep,” Henry said. “That’s really the focus of (training) camp: having guys be ready to come in and play because you never know what can happen.”

That the Cats have players lined up at each position bodes well for the future but also for this season. If something bad happens — and given the bad luck of NU football the last two years, something probably will — there’s a defensive back ready to step in and keep the well-oiled secondary moving.

The defensive back four will hum along and keep most games close for the Cats. It’s up to the rest of the team to make up ground and change NU’s fortunes for 2015.

Projected depth chart

Cornerback Nick VanHoose (Sr) Parrker Westphal (R-Fr)
Safety Godwin Igwebuike (So) Kyle Queiro (So)
Safety Traveon Henry (Sr) Kyle Queiro (So)
Cornerback Matthew Harris (Jr) Marcus McShepard (So)


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