Say what you will about Northwestern winning ten games last season behind a red-shirt freshman quarterback, but it’s no secret that the real reason for their success was derived from what happened on the other side of the ball. For the first half of last season, Northwestern was one of the most dominant defenses in all of college football. In their first five games, all victories, they held opponents to an average of seven points per game including two shut outs.
Those numbers leveled out as the season went on, but they were still one of the best defenses in the Big Ten. They finished the season 2nd in red zone defense, 4th in total defense and 4th in scoring defense, behind only Wisconsin, Ohio State and Michigan.
If Northwestern would like to see a repeat of that dominant defense from last season it will mean players stepping into the shoes of the now-graduated seniors, a few unknowns providing consistent depth and finally, staying healthy.
Their key losses are Deonte Gibson and Dean Lowry on the defensive line, Drew Smith at linebacker and Nick VanHoose and Traveon Henry in the secondary. Those players are going to be difficult to replace, but head coach Pat Fitzgerald is as confident as ever in the group taking the field in purple this year.
“Two years ago nobody asked me about Dean Lowry and nobody asked me about Deonte Gibson so my hope is to see the maturation that happened for those two guys. And it was nothing sexy from those guys they just busted their butts and got better and that’s what I’ve seen.”
There will be a few familiar faces on the defensive line with CJ Robbins and Tyler Lancaster returning at defensive tackle. Both were solid against the run last season and Lancaster led the team in forced fumbles. Stepping into Lowry and Gibson’s spots at defensive end will be Ifeadi Odenigbo and Xavier Washington. It will be a tough task to replace the kind of leadership and production Lowry and Gibson brought (they combined last season for 25 TFL and 11 sacks). Odenigbo, who came up with five sacks of his own last season, was much better against the pass last year so his development this off-season will be important as Fitzgerald pointed to that area is one where they struggled in their three losses.
The big question on the defensive line comes with the depth. Fitzgerald and company played their line in waves last season, something they could do because of how well Odenigbo and Washington played behind the starters, but there is no sure end depth behind them this year. Look for Jordan Thompson and Greg Kuhar to see some time at tackle in those rotations though.
The secondary may be the thinnest position group on the defense, especially with the news that Keith Watkins II will be missing the entire season with a knee injury he suffered during training camp. Watkins was going to be one of the keys to the defense with VanHoose graduated and Marcus McShepard having moved to wide receiver.
Now there will be even more pressure on Matthew Harris, coming off an outstanding season where he led the team with four interceptions and 17 pass deflections, and was also 7th on the team in tackles despite missing two games due to injury. With VanHoose locking down nearly every receiver he faced, offenses targeted Harris and they paid for it. Now Harris will be responsible for locking down other team’s top receivers and he’ll have an opportunity to prove that he is one of the best cornerbacks in college football.
There will be a big question mark surrounding who will step into that second corner role with Watkins out. Montre Hartage will probably be the week one starter because of his experience in the system, but also look for Trae Williams, Alonzo Mayo and Roderick Campbell to see time as the coaching staff mixes and matches looking for the right combo back there.
Traveon Henry will be a very difficult guy to replace at safety, but if anyone can step right in and build on his dominance in that role, it’s Godwin Igwebuike. Igwebuike was second on the team in tackles last season with 87, and recorded 4.5 TFL. He was one of the team’s biggest playmakers and will have a chance to make up for some of what Northwester may be lacking at the corners. Kyle Queiro will start alongside him. Queiro was a solid contributor last season but dealt with injuries most of the year.
But the leader of the defense, and perhaps the team’s best player, returns as the centerpiece of this defensive unit. Anthony Walker had an unbelievable 2015 season, with 122 tackles (including 19 in one game!), 20.5 TFL, 4.0 sacks, 1 INT and 1 TD. He was last year’s breakout star, but now the word is out about what Walker brings to the Wildcat defense. He was on just about every watch list that came out this pre-season. Walker was all over the field, and the country took notice.
“He’s a returning all-American,” Fitzgerald said. “He’s going to have a bull’s eye on his chest. He’ll see more people playing below his waist than maybe ever in his career. People will be playing cut block and things of that nature to slow him down, and he’s got a lot of things to improve on.”
If Northwestern is going to have a repeat of last year’s dominant performance on defense, it will involve Walker staying healthy and elevating his game even beyond what we saw last year. He is going to have to be the team’s biggest playmaker and also a leader for some of the less experienced players on the defense, particularly Nate Hall and Jaylen Prater, who will most likely start alongside Walker at linebacker. When Prater was injured last season, Hall stepped up in a big way, finishing 5th on the team in tackles even though he only started three games. With Prater healthy, this is the most talented position group on the defense and the one set up to make the most impact.
But Walker isn’t thinking about any of that.
“I have one focus this year and that’s to win a Big Ten championship.”
If Northwestern is going to be a competitive force again this season, the defense is going to have to lead the way again. The pieces are all there, but it will be up to them to prove that last year was not a one-time fluke, but the beginning of a trend of winning football in Evanston.