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Northwestern Wildcats Football Preview: State of the 2017 defense

The Northwestern Wildcats have some big shoes to fill with Anthony Walker’s departure for the NFL. But the Cats have hit a stable point of plug and play.

Joe Gaziano, Northwestern Wildcats, Iowa Hawkeeyes

Pat Fitzgerald is a defender at heart. During the open practices in the spring, he is often seen getting down and dirty with his linebackers teaching technique and tips. Wearing the No. 51 jersey comes with a hefty amount of weight in Evanston — sorry, Blake Gallagher.

Fitzgerald likely would lose sleep if his team was not good defensively. That is his baby and his legacy at Northwestern. His teams have to be good on defense, or at least passable.

Mike Hankwitz’s defense of late has turned a new leaf, showing a lot more aggression and assertiveness. Some of this is an increase in talent and stronger and stronger recruiting classes for the Wildcats. The other part is that Northwestern has become a defensive program.

Consistently, NU’s top players are on the defensive end. And increasingly, the team is able to plug and play and replace much easier on the defensive end than the offensive end.

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Northwestern’s defense in 2015 was a dominant force. Statistically, it was one of the best in the country. The team has not quite returned to that height. It may take a while to do so with the Wildcats having to replace several players — most importantly middle linebacker Anthony Walker.

But even at its worst, the Wildcats defense has proven itself solid. The team is disciplined and keeps offenses in front of them, preventing big plays. It is a bend-don’t-break defense, relying on making that one key play to get off the field and set the offense up with good field position.

With the team increasing its talent base, it is in a better position to withstand bigger losses. Like the losses it will experience this season.

Still, for 2017, the Wildcats are unproven. They have several veterans and a deep secondary that was pressed into service last year. But Northwestern will have to shape up quickly to achieve its goals of finally winning and competing for a Big Ten title.

Key Players Returning: Godwin Igwebuike, S; Nate Hall, LB; Kyle Queiro, CB; Tyler Lancaster, DT
Key Players Gone: Anthony Walker, LB; Ifeadi Odenigbo, DE; Jaylen Prater, LB; Joseph Jones, LB

The Good News Is . . .

Northwestern’s secondary should still be very good. Years of strong recruiting in the secondary will come to full benefit this year with a group that is experienced and solid.

It starts with Godwin Igwebuike, the team’s leading tackler from last year. And now the team’s new defensive leader. He entered his name into the NFL Draft as a junior before withdrawing. He is a hard-hitting safety capable of supporting the run but also making plays in the secondary.

He is joined at safety by Kyle Queiro, a better cover corner who can supplement and support Igwebuike in the pass. Queiro dealt with injuries throughout last season but still put in a stellar season as a sure tackler. His one-handed interception against Indiana was the highlight of the year.

With injuries to Queiro and Matthew Harris last year, Montre Hartage and Trae Williams each had to step up and play last year. And they played more than admirably.

Hartage and Williams are not about to pop off the field with their athleticism. But they were both sure tacklers and fit perfectly into Northwestern’s scheme. A year of improvement and experience should make them better.

Add in veterans Jared McGee and Marcus McShephard and this is going to be a dangerous team to try to pass against.

Nate Hall, Northwestern Wildcats, Corey Clement, Wisconsin Badgers

Running back Corey Clement #6 of the Wisconsin Badgers is tackled by Nate Hall #32 of the Northwestern Wildcats on November 21, 2015 at Camp Randall Stadium in Madison, Wisconsin.
(Nov. 20, 2015 – Source: Tom Lynn/Getty Images North America)

The Bad News is . . .

The Wildcats have a big hole to fill in Anthony Walker. He was by far the team’s best defensive player, able to range into the backfield for tackles for a loss and as a sure wrap up in the run game. Walker was a ball hawk who could create opportune turnovers. Just watch last year’s Pinstripe Bowl.

Northwestern will have to find a group of players to replace him because no one player can do it.

Nate Hall is going to get the main job replacing him by position at linebacker. Hall is a solid player who can wrap up, but nowhere near the playmaker.

With the Wildcats also losing Jaylen Prater and Joseph Jones, they will need players like Nate Hall and converted running back Warren Long to step up in a big way.

To be sure, the Wildcats’ linebackers are worse off without Walker in the fold. Even with plenty of talent ready to step in.

Kyle Queiro, Northwestern Wildcats, Corey Clement, Wisconsin Badgers

Corey Clement #6 of the Wisconsin Badgers is pursued by Kyle Queiro #21 of the Northwestern Wildcats at Ryan Field on November 5, 2016 in Evanston, Illinois.
(Nov. 4, 2016 – Source: Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images North America)

The Good News Is . . .

Northwestern’s defense is always fairly solid. It may not be a dominant force every year, but the Wildcats rarely have to worry about their defense playing them out of games. The days of Northwestern having to play a shootout and outscore opponents is virtually over.

That is what the recruiting gains Northwestern has made in the last few years.

This is not a unit where teams will feel fortunate to score. The Wildcats will give up points. Do not expect it to be at the top of the conference.

But given Northwestern’s strength on offense, the team’s defense should remain fresh and able to perform at a high level. The Wildcats may not stand out statistically, but the unit should remain solid. The team has reached that level with its recruiting and talent that it should be fairly reliable.

Ifeadi Odenigbo, Northwestern Wildcats, Tommy Armstrong, Nebraska Cornhuskers

Quarterback Tommy Armstrong Jr. #4 of the Nebraska Cornhuskers is grabbed by defensive lineman Ifeadi Odenigbo #7 of the Northwestern Wildcats during their game at Memorial Stadium on October 24, 2015 in Lincoln, Nebraska.
(Oct. 23, 2014 – Source: Eric Francis/Getty Images North America)

The Bad News Is . . .

Northwestern is going to have to find a way to create a pass rush.

Top pass rusher Ifeadi Odenigbo graduated to the NFL. C.J. Robbins graduated. And Xavier Washington was suspended from the team.

The Wildcats’ best pass rushers are all gone. And it will be difficult for Northwestern to rely heavily on its pass rush this year.

Joe Gaziano was a solid pass rusher from defensive end and showed plenty of potential. His big sack and hit against Michigan State is the stuff of replays. But that was the highlight of his season. He was still largely unproven as an every-down lineman.

The entire Northwestern defensive line outside of defensive tackle Tyler Lancaster is relatively solid, but just a one-year starter. The defensive line will have to prove itself all over again. Without a strong linebacking corps. behind it, the front seven could prove to be a major weakness for Northwestern’s defense.

What it all means for 2017?

Northwestern has built itself a stable foundation defensively. Pat Fitzgerald and defensive coordinator Mike Hankwitz have gained enough equity and trust to believe the Wildcats’ defense will be solid.

But this is not likely a spectacular group. This is a rebounding group.

There is an Anthony Walker-sized hole to fill. And the front seven is going to have to adjust. There is inexperience all over the group. They will have to step up fairly quickly to deliver for the Wildcats this year.

Northwestern will struggle to create a consistent pass rush and get in the backfield. But the Wildcats are always solid with their tackling. If they can fill gaps and force teams to turn back, they can rally to the ball. Just not as well as Walker could.

The good news for Northwestern is that it has plenty of experience in the secondary. The Wildcats will rely on this heavily defensively. They will force teams to run the ball and work to keep the ball in front of them.

That is Northwestern’s strength in its scheme overall. It is hard to get big plays against the Wildcats. That will be a continued strength for Northwestern this year.

With the strengths this team has on offense, NU’s defense just has to be good enough. And it is certainly possible it can be.

Philip Rossman-Reich is a Northwestern alumnus and former contributor Lake The Posts. He also writes for Orlando Magic Daily and The Step Back.

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