Why Northwestern's back seven is one of best in Big Ten
Pop quiz: which Big Ten team boasts the leading returning linebacker in defensive stops from 2015, the cornerback with the lowest QB rating against, and the safety with the highest overall grade?
If you answered, Michigan… you’re incorrect. While this comes with a bit of an asterisk (Michigan safety Jabrill Peppers is transitioning to linebacker this year), the answer, surprisingly, is Northwestern. Add pass rush specialist Ifeadi Odenigbo to the mix and the Wildcats have top-end talent at all three levels, but it’s the trio of LB Anthony Walker, CB Matthew Harris and S Godwin Igwebuike that truly stand out, as they are the key components that comprise one of the best back sevens in the Big Ten.
The Big Ten is deep at the 4-3 base linebacker positions, thus it’s easy for Walker to get lost in a mix that includes stars like Ohio State’s Raekwon McMillan, Maryland’s Jermaine Carter Jr. and Iowa’s Josey Jewell. However, Walker deserves his own time in the sun, as he is one of only four Big Ten linebackers to grade positively in all three major defensive phases last season (pass rush, run defense and coverage).
He posted 20 total pressures, third-best among non-EDGE linebackers in the conference as his six sacks were the most in his position group. Only twice did he give up catches of over 16 yards, and on 58 targets combined between 2014 and 2015 he did not yield a single touchdown. He was second to Jewell in solo tackles last year, and led the conference with 66 defensive stops.
In order for Walker to take the next step and put himself in the same class as the Big Ten’s elite he needs to improve his tackling efficiency, as he missed 19 times last season, and 15 the year prior in more than 300-less snaps. If he can develop more consistency in his finishing ability, the junior will start to gain the attention of NFL scouts, who will surely be impressed with his aggressiveness at the line of scrimmage.
Matthew Harris ranks “just” third-best based on 2015 overall grade in the Big Ten, but the reality is the top two players at the position, Michigan’s Jourdan Lewis and Iowa’s Desmond King, are the clear top players at the position in the entire country, while Harris is (still admirably0 ranked 16th.
Last season Harris gave up no touchdowns (something Lewis nor King can claim) to go with four interceptions and eight passes broken up. QBs had a rating against him of 43.4, which is fifth-best among the top 16 at the position, and better than that of both Lewis and King.
Like Walker, run support will be the key for Harris improving upon his production totals. He made just 10 defensive stops last season (the lowest among the nation’s top sixteen) while missing seven tackles (the sixth-most), whereas Lewis and each had double the defensive stops while combining for just six missed tackles. Listed at 5-feet-11 and 180 lbs., as long as he matches that height and adds bulk to his frame he clearly possesses the athleticism, instincts and coverage skills to be a sought-after player himself come next spring.
Igwebuike from a statistical sense makes the best case for being among the league’s top players at his position, again thanks in part to Peppers officially switching positions (Peppers actually only played 69 of his 789 snaps last year from a true safety alignment). His giant grad from last season is due in large part to his efforts against the run, as his 83 total tackles is 10-better than the next closest Big Ten safety. He was at his best during the final four games of the season, as he racked up 32 total tackles, six defensive stops and no missed tackles in that span.
This is not to make light of his coverage skills, as he also graded out well in this aspect. He gave up just 22 receptions on 41 targets last season for an average of 10.6 yards per catch (almost nine yards better than his 2014 average). His last regular season game against Illinois was his best, as he gave up just three receptions on eight targets, breaking up two of them.
Not many juniors at his position have his level of experience, as he played 499 snaps as a freshman in 2014 and added 848 as a full-time starter last year. Coverage wasn’t the only area he showed a massive improvement in last season, as his 10 missed tackles, while still not ideal, was still better than the 11 he posted the year prior in 349 less snaps played. Considering not just his own skill set, but the talent level of the players around him, there’s no reason to believe the former high school running back won’t continue to elevate his now defensive-minded game this season.