I began by taking a broad overview of the Northwestern program, what it has done over the last five years and what that might tell us about what the Wildcats will do this season.
Last week, I looked at the 2012 Northwestern offense and what it projects to look like.
This week, I'll look at the 2012 NU defense.
2011 scoring defense: 27.7 PPG (10th in the conference), total defense: 409.5 YPG (11th), rushing defense: 4.49 YPC (10th), passing efficiency allowed: 139.99 (10th).
Average scoring defense conference ranking over last five years: 7.6
Best scoring defense conference ranking over last five years: Fourth (2008)
Worst scoring defense conference ranking over last five years: 10th (2007 and 2011)
Returning starters: DE Tyler Scott, DE Quentin Williams, LB David Nwabuisi, LB Damien Proby, LB Collin Ellis, S Ibraheim Campbell
Open positions: DT, CB, S
Defensive formation: 4-3
Defensive philosophy: aggressive/create turnovers
NU runs a 4-3, but Pat Fitzgerald and defensive coordinator Mike Hankwitz throw everything they can at opposing offenses.
They blitz out of every formation and every position and are very creative with those blitzes.
Their primary goal is not to squash the opposing team, but to create turnovers.
In three of the four seasons Hankwitz has been at NU, the scoring defense has been better than the total defense.
Another notable stat is that in three of his four years in Evanston, the Cats have ranked in the top half of the conference in turnovers created.
In other words, Northwestern is willing to give up yards, provided they create turnovers.
The other key factor of the Northwestern defense is the offense. For the defense to be successful, the offense has to control the clock and keep the defense off the field.
In the six years Pat Fitzgerald has been at the helm, the Wildcats have ranked in the top half of the conference in time-of-possession four times.
The two exceptions were 2008 and 2010. However, in 2010, Northwestern was easily in the top half of the conference in September and October. They fell apart in November after quarterback Dan Persa and running back Trumpy went down.
In short, the Northwestern defense's best strategy is a good, ball controlling offense.
On the other hand, when NU can field a quality defense in its own right—2008—it can have a big season—9-4.
Perhaps Northwestern's biggest letdown of the 2011 season was the defensive line, which returned three starters, but, at times, was pushed around like four true freshmen.
Conversely, the biggest surprise of the NU spring game was the defensive line, which dominated the O-line to the tune of six sacks and a sub-two YPC allowed on the ground.
The biggest star was redshirt freshman Deonte Gibson, who was lost last season due to a torn ACL that he sustained in high school.
Gibson will push hard for playing time, despite the fact that the Cats return both starting ends.
As for those ends, junior Tyler Scott had an up-and-down year and will have to improve if he is to hold off Gibson. Meanwhile, senior Quentin Williams tied for the team lead in sacks with three. He missed the spring game due to injuries, but will be healthy this summer.
The bigger issue is in the middle, where Northwestern graduated both its starters.
Senior Will Hampton is a favorite to win one of the spots, as he is the only defensive tackle with significant game experience.
Other players in the mix include seniors Brian Arnfelt and Bo Cisek, as well as sophomores Sean McEvilly and Chance Carter, the latter of who had the defensive highlight of the spring game.
Common sense dictates that the line will be about the same as last season, but all indications are that it is the most improved position group on the team.
Junior Damien Proby began 2011 as a backup, but played his way into the starting role.
His ascendency offers a bit of hope for a linebacking core that was moribund for much of last season.
Along with Proby, NU returns the majority of experience from last season's group.
Senior David Nwabuisi is a utility man who can play inside or out. He is not a huge playmaker, but he could do well if surrounded by talent.
Sophomores Chi Chi Ariguizo and Collin Ellis are the future of this group, and they could see their future start next season. Ariguizo grabbed one start last season and finished 10th on the team in tackles, while Ellis spent most of the season as the starting strong-side linebacker. He had mixed results, but had a strong spring game showing.
These will be the four key contenders for the starting positions, but redshirt freshman Drew Smith also had a big spring and juniors Timmy Vernon and Will Studlien will also push for playing time.
Overall, expect notably better play from the Wildcat linebacking core this season, especially if improvement along the defense is not just media hyperbole.
The Cats graduated three full-time starters in all-conference safety Brian Peters and cornerbacks Jordan Mabin and Jeravin Matthews.
In 2011, the Northwestern pass defense was pretty awful—third-worst in the Big Ten, having allowed an opponents' passer efficiency rating of 139.00. Consequently, one could argue there wasn't much lost.
The good news is that Ibraheim Campbell stepped up as a redshirt freshman and has a bright future ahead of him.
The further good news is Northwestern is a developmental program, and it has upperclassmen ready to step in for the departed seniors.
Hunter Bates and Jared Carpenter are senior safeties with starting experience, though it is worth noting that both held the starting free safety job in 2010, but lost it due to poor play. They will have a chance to redeem themselves this season.
The other key player in the mix for the free safety job is junior Davion Fleming, who was the "starter" in the spring game.
The top three players in line for the two open cornerback spots are senior Demetrius Dugar, sophomore Daniel Jones and redshirt freshman Nick VanHoose. VanHoose and Dugar got the start in the spring game, but Jones saw a good deal of playing time. Nevertheless, all three of them had multiple mental lapses and tackling issues.
An improved front seven and a much improved pass rush might mask some of the secondary's issues, but good quarterbacks will be able to burn the Cats through the air, especially early in the season.
If the spring game is any indication, the Northwestern front seven will be night-and-day better than last year's group.
Nevertheless, one is left to question if the defensive line was that good or if the NU offensive line was that bad? My guess is it was a mixture of both.
Moreover, it is evident that the Wildcat secondary will be as problematic as expected. The improved front seven will help mask the secondary's issues, but top passing teams should be able to cut NU to bits. The good news is that the best passing attack the Cats will face probably belongs to Iowa, which is only "good" relative to the other teams on the Wildcats' schedule.
Nevertheless, NU will be ripe through the air.
Expect an improved, though inconsistent, Northwestern defense in 2012. The question is will it be improved enough to cover for an offense that is projected to take a few steps back?
Coming next Wednesday, an overview and breakdown of Northwestern's specialists, schedule, recruiting class and a prediction as to where I think the Wildcats will finish the 2012 season.