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Way-Too-Early Depth Charts: Projecting NU’s 2021 DB Order

Led by preseason All-American Brandon Joseph, the Wildcat defensive backs should once again be very talented.

We’re continuing our way too early look at the Northwestern depth chart with what could be the most talented position group from top to bottom: the defensive backs. If you would like to read the previous depth charts for the QB and LB groups, click on the links embedded within the positions.

Despite losing star corner Greg Newsome to the NFL, the defensive back room will look to continue to add on to a spectacular 2020 campaign that saw the Wildcats finish fourth in the country in interceptions per game, according to TeamRankings. Defensive coordinator Jim O’Neil has been impressed by the secondary group in the spring, saying the group “has a good foundation as far as fundamentals and technique.” With the talent Northwestern has brought in at the cornerback and safety positions, there should be multiple position battles along the back end.

One position that won’t be up for grabs is a starting safety spot. That belongs to preseason PFF All-American Brandon Joseph. The redshirt sophomore enters this year as one of the leaders in the secondary and the interception king in college football last year (6 INTs in 2020). Joseph has the range and the playmaking skills to eliminate any mistakes his incoming secondary mates make, and is could likely hear his name called on Day 1 of the NFL Draft. 

Freshman Jaheem Joseph is someone that O’Neil mentioned by name as a guy who had a really good spring and could fight for playing time. Sophomore Joe Deehan played in one game and recorded three tackles.

Opposite of Joseph should be a battle between redshirt sophomore Coco Azema, Bryce Jackson, redshirt sophomore Tyler Haskins, and Presbyterian transfer Trent Carrington. 

Azema played in all nine games and recorded an interception, and the talented DB could be the man to start opposite Joseph. Jackson is a senior who has played in 35 games for the Wildcats, and brings experience and physicality to the room. Haskins is a redshirt sophomore who played in seven games, including the Citrus Bowl against Auburn. Carrington is the wild card in all of this, with the Presbyterian transfer notching 35 tackles and a pass breakup in four games. His ability to fill gaps in the run and play zone defense should be valuable in O’Neil’s defense. Donovan Sermons is a senior who should be a core special teamer. He played in three games in 2020.

Both starting cornerback spots need to be filled. Replacing CBs Greg Newsome and Cam Ruiz will be a daunting task, but head coach Pat Fitzgerald and company have recruited well at the position. 

The staff is very high on redshirt sophomore Cameron Mitchell, who was named to the preseason PFF All-Big 10 Second Team. Mitchell is a feisty, talented DB who stepped up in the absence of Newsome in the Citrus Bowl, notching two pass breakups. 

AJ Hampton is a redshirt junior who started in three games and picked off a pass, and Rod Heard played well in his two starts, having one pass breakup. O’Neil mentioned that he was “very intrigued” by redshirt sophomore Garnett Hollis Jr. Hollis redshirted last year due to surgery, but O’Neil said Hollis did “great things” near the end of the spring.

Nigel Williams is a sophomore who didn’t see any playing time last year, but is a former three-star recruit who has great ball skills. 

Rounding out the group are freshmen Ore Adeyi and Theran Johnson. Adeyi is a former three-star recruit who excelled at football and track in high school. Johnson is a former three-star who was nominated as an Indiana Mr. Football candidate in his senior year.

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The defensive back group is deep and talented, and O’Neil will be tasked with the job of getting as much talent as he can on the field at the same time. We know Brandon Joseph will lock down a safety spot, and Cameron Mitchell will have a cornerback spot on lock. Opposite of Mitchell should most likely be AJ Hampton, but don’t be surprised if Garnett Hollis Jr. starts a game or two.

Opposite of Joseph should be Azema, who could see his name fly up draft boards while playing opposite Joseph. Bryce Jackson and Tyler Haskins provide great depth, and could play in spurts.

A position that O’Neil has mentioned being up for grabs is the nickel position. This guy has to be versatile enough to both defend the run and play the pass like a defensive back. Trent Carrington could be the starting nickel, if not the starting safety, due to the experience and versatility he brings. Jaheem Joseph could also factor in here as well.

This group has a lot of growing up to do real fast, but with Joseph being the headliner, they should be one of the better groups in the Big Ten once again.

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