Football: Recovering from injuries, expected top safeties develop from sidelines


(Daily file photo by Jacob Swan)

Jared McGee signals before a play. The to-be senior safety has missed spring practices while recovering from hip surgery.

Cole Paxton, Reporter


When the Wildcats closed out the 2017 season, senior safeties Godwin Igwebuike and Kyle Queiro roamed the defensive backfield as they had done countless times in their illustrious careers.

When the Cats opened spring practice this year, the first unit safeties were Travis Whillock and Bryce Jackson, a pair of underclassmen with a combined one career game played and no measurable statistics.

Whillock and Jackson have been thrust into prominence because of injuries to to-be senior Jared McGee and to-be sophomore J.R. Pace, forcing Igwebuike and Queiro’s expected replacements to improve from the sideline as they prepare for what would be their first seasons as regular starters.

“It’s really challenging them … in the meeting room, of staying involved,” defensive backs coach Matt MacPherson said. “And they get asked questions just like the guys that are going to have to go out there and practice. They’re not given a pass because they’re not out there practicing.”

Both McGee and Pace affirmed that spending the spring on the sideline was a challenge as they seek to step into leading roles — Pace called it “almost like torture” — and become leaders in the secondary. Pace, particularly, could use the time on the field: He had no starts in 12 appearances as a true freshman in 2017, recording only four tackles.

Still, the highly-touted Pace was the only one of five true freshman defensive backs last year who saw the field, putting him in pole position to claim a spot vacated by the graduations of Igwebuike and Queiro.

“It’s a lot different,” Pace said about the mood of the secondary. “I’m just trying to soak everything in. … It’s a little hard. But I will try to assume that leadership role when I get back playing.”

McGee, meanwhile, has extensive game experience, having made three starts in a fill-in capacity last year and having regularly appeared as a fifth defensive back. Nonetheless, his inability to participate in full practice has presented complications as the to-be senior teaches NU’s large crop of youthful safeties.

“It’s a little more difficult when they’re not able to actually see me on the tape doing what we do, but they do a really good job of listening, they do a really good job of being coachable,” McGee said. “I’ve been taking (my leadership) off the field, in the meeting room, kind of coaching standpoint.”

The Cats are also dealing with turnover at the coaching level, as Jerry Brown retired after 25 years leading defensive backs following last season. That led MacPherson, formerly NU’s running backs coach, to shift to the defensive backfield.

MacPherson, a linebacker in his playing days, coached on the defensive side of the ball before coming to Evanston in 2006. But he is still learning the intricacies of the Cats’ operations and has relied on veterans like McGee and Pace to fill him in.

“I’ll say, ‘Jared, what have we done in the past here?’ Or, ‘What is a gameday adjustment in this?’” MacPherson said. “So you lean on those guys, but you’re always keeping them involved.”

Pace is slated to return fully from a shoulder issue next month, while McGee said he expects to have completed his recovery from hip surgery by mid-summer. Still, their time away in the spring will complicate their paths to starting spots in September.

“Bryce and Travis Whillock have had great springs,” MacPherson said. “Now all of a sudden, guys like J.R. and Jared see this and say, ‘Alright, when I get back healthy, I have to hit the ground running because I know I got these guys that are gaining ground on me, just from the simple fact that they’re practicing and I’m not.’”

Email: [email protected]
Twitter: @ckpaxton