It took nearly a decade, but the 2015 season proved that the Northwestern Wildcats could actually play defense inside and out of the Big Ten. But, one season does not a problem overcome long-term and as we look towards the 2016 season, the biggest question for this team is if Pat Fitzgerald’s defense is ready to repeat as a top-level defense.
The hopes for that will rest on replacing some of the biggest parts of the 2015 defense as a pair of dynamic defensive ends and a lockdown cornerback are all gone. Northwestern’s best news came with the fact that linebacker Anthony Walker chose to come back for his junior season.
He is clearly the catalyst for the defense (and our No. 7 player in our preseason Top 25 player rankings). It’s a great building block, but if 2015 proved anything it was that this defense finally had the depth to compete at the top of the Big Ten heap. That depth will need to step up in 2016 though.
So, let’s take a look at what this season’s defense will actually look like.
Replacing perhaps the most dynamic pair of defensive ends (Deonte Gibson and Dean Lowry) in school history won’t be easy. What will be helpful is having a dynamic pass rusher stepping up in senior Ifeadi Odenigbo. However, despite his 13.5 career sacks, Odenigbo is going in to 2016 being asked to be a more all-around defensive end than he has ever had to be before. Can he be an every down type of player? Time will tell and it will likely be the key to any success this team has in 2016.
Opposite of Odenigbo will be another player stepping up with a lot of potential in junior Xavier Washington. He had just 14 tackles as a sophomore last season, but did have 3.5 tackles for loss and 1.0 sacks to his name.
Redshirt freshman Joe Graziano has begun impressing in fall camp and could be a big help for the defensive line. He’s fellow redshirt freshman, Trent Goens is likely to get the nod behind Odenigbo, which puts a lot of pressure on the experienced players to stay healthy.
Northwestern’s real strength up front is at the defensive tackle position, where there are five legit players in the mix and any combination will be just fine. Four of those players are likely to see major snaps and they are senior C.J. Robbins, junior Tyler Lancaster and sophomores Fred Wyatt and Jordan Thompson. Don’t be surprised to see teams testing the edge with that group up the middle.
With a defensive line strong up the middle, it only helps perhaps the Big Ten’s best linebacker in Wildcats’ MIKE linebacker Anthony Walker. He earned 1st team All-Big Ten honors with an 120 tackle, 20.5 tackle for loss and 4.0 sack season last year.
It may be tough to top that kind of insane production on the stat sheet, but teams knew all about his talent level last season and still couldn’t find ways to take him out of the game.
Outside linebacker should be intriguing in 2016, as sophomore Nate Hall had a productive first season in Evanston (56 tackles, 2.5 tackles for loss and 2 pass breakups) and senior Jaylen Prater is not only a veteran but an underrated player just waiting to break out on the conference level.
Depth will come from Cameron Queiro at the MIKE linebacker position, senior Joseph Jones and freshman Nathan Fox at the WILL and SAM positions respectively.
Overall, this group has the depth and athletes to make opponents worry about them for the first time in a long time.
Teams frequently found out that running on this team wasn’t fun, but trying to pass on Northwestern was even more difficult. With the Wildcats secondary finally healthy for most of the season, the talent shined to the tune of allowing just five passing touchdowns against them all season.
Only cornerback Nick VanHoose is gone, and the anchors of the secondary are 2015 3rd team All-Big Ten cornerback Matthew Harris and junior safety Godwin Igwebuike. Joining them in starting appear to be cornerback Montre Hartage and safety Kyle Queiro.
The issue here may be depth, especially with the new of the season-ending injury to expected starter Keith Watkins II (hence Hartage starting). His loss puts major pressure on redshirt freshman Trae Williams out of Ohio and fellow redshirt freshman Alonzo Mayo.
Staying healthy is going to be key for what could be the most underrated secondary in the Big Ten.
Our Projected Depth Chart:
DE: Ifeadi Odenigbo, Sr.
DT: C.J. Robbins, Sr.
DT: Tyler Lancaster, Jr.
DE: Xavier Washington, Jr.
WILL: Nathan Hall, So.
MIKE: Anthony Walker, Jr.
SAM: Jaylen Prater, Sr.
CB: Matthew Harris, Sr.
FS: Kyle Queiro, Jr.
SS: Godwin Igwebuike, Jr.
CB: Montre Hartage, So.