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August 21, 2013

Position breakdown: Defensive Line



WildcatReport continues its position-by-position breakdown of the 2013 Wildcats by looking at the defensive line.

With less than two weeks remaining until Northwestern heads west to Berkeley, the rotation on the defensive line seems to be gaining clarity.

At the defensive tackle spot, Chance Carter and Sean McEvilly appear to be the front runners for the starting jobs, with Will Hampton cemented into the rotation. The Wildcats would like to get one more tackle into the mix, and Max Chapman could be that player. C.J. Robbins also could work his way into the Top 4. That remains to be seen, however, as both Chapman and Robbins have been working at both tackle and end in Kenosha.

The depth here is impressive. Freshman Eric Joraskie has reportedly done some good things during camp but will likely be redshirted. And then there's redshirt freshman Greg Kuhar, who hasn't gotten reps in Kenosha and is a bit of a mystery as he returns from ACL surgery in early 2012.

Though he won't see the field this season, Tyler Lancaster shows the strength and depth of this group.

At defensive end, the conversation begins and end with Tyler Scott, the MVP of the entire line. The definitive starter on the left side of the line and returning Big Ten sack leader drives the entire group with both his skill and work ethic. In 2013, this group will go as far as he takes them.

The 6-foot-4, 265-pound senior finished the 2012 season with nine sacks and 12.5 tackles for a loss. Whether he beats his man one-on-one or draws a double team that frees up a teammate to make a tackle, the success of the Wildcat D-line in 2013 lies squarely on Scott's broad shoulders.

With Scott cemented into one spot, there players will compete for the other starting job -- though all four will be in the rotation. Sophomore Dean Lowry, at 6-foot-6, possesses the frame of a prototypical defensive end, and he appeared in all 13 games a season ago. He or sophomore Deonte Gibson will likely get the starting nod, and redshirt freshman Ifeadi Odenigbo should garner solid playing time.

If Pat Fitzgerald had his way, none of Northwestern's opponents would find out about Gibson until game day. He wants to keep this weapon a secret. Odenigbo may be coming off a major injury, but he has looked ready to go in camp and is a physical specimen. His impact will be felt in 2013.

The Cats will look to improve upon a strong 2012 showing that saw them finish fifth in the Big Ten with 28 sacks and rank third in rushing defense. Northwestern has big shoes to fill following the departure of Brian Arnfelt and Quentin Williams, but the strong performances by key contributors in training camp have provided encouragement to the Northwestern coaching staff.

As the Northwestern defense aims to prove its worth in 2013, the front four has to set the stage. With Scott anchoring one side of the line, an abundance of young talent coming off the other edge and two solid tackles in between, this line could have opposing offensive lineman feeling very uncomfortable.


What we liked in 2012: Strong rushing defense

Northwestern finished third in the Big Ten and in the top 30 nationally against the run in 2012. Sure, the linebacking corps played a heavy role in holding opponents to 127.6 rushing yards per game, but the battle begins up front. The Wildcats didn't have a remarkable number of TFL; Scott finished the season ranked ninth in the conference in the category. They did, however, hold their opponents to the fourth fewest yards per carry.

While the passing defense will certainly need to improve in 2013, Northwestern will be just fine if it can continue its dominance up front against opposing running backs.


What we want more of in 2013: Pass rush on first and second down

On third down plays when the opponent had to travel at least four yards to get the first down, the Wildcats excelled. On these traditional passing downs, the Northwestern D-line was able to pin its ears back and head straight toward the quarterback. More often than not, it worked. The Cats ranked near the top of the Big Ten at preventing first downs on third-and-long situations.

The problem, however, showed itself on first and second down. While Northwestern was effective at stopping the run, it also gave up many big passing plays on first and second down, particularly early in the season. On first-and-10, the Wildcats were the worst in the Big Ten at allowing another quick first down off a pass. Should Northwestern want to take the next step in 2013, Scott, Lowry, Gibson and Co. must provide a strong rush on every snap.


Northwestern will be successful in 2013 at the defensive line position if… Scott proves he deserves double teams

So much of the defensive line's ability to provide a consistent, dangerous rush hinges on the performance of the preseason All-Big Ten pick. He will likely face double teams against many Northwestern opponents, and that will leave his counterparts on the D-line free to get the tackle or rush the passer.

At Big Ten Media Days, Scott said he hoped for his own sake that he wouldn't face many double teams. He does, however, recognize the value of his ability to command the attention of two offensive linemen. Should Scott consistently draw two players, another Cat will be free to make a play.


The bottom line:

This Northwestern defensive line is just plain nasty. Scott brings a known, dangerous, playmaking ability to every single snap. Lowry, Gibson and Odenigbo provide a powerful counterpunch on the other side of the line. Add in Carter, McEvilly and Hampton, the Cats have a solid defensive tackle rotation. Replacing Arnfelt and Williams is no easy task, but Northwestern has the talent to make the transition nearly flawless.

Next up: Linebackers



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