Quick, name a defensive player for Northwestern off the top of your head. Chances are you couldn't do it and there's no shame in that.
After all, Northwestern and defense haven't always been synonymous with each other—in fact, probably since the days of Pat Fitzgerald at linebacker to be exact. However, as the 2013 season got off the ground for the men of Evanston, it appears that could be on its way to changing.
Holding the "BearRaid" to just 20 points will certainly turn some heads and it's a group of relative unknowns that are in charge of changing the perception of Northwestern's defense.
Collin Ellis, a relatively unknown linebacker entering the season, ended Week 1 as the Big Ten and National Defensive Player of the Week after returning two picks for touchdowns against California. He added four tackles and one tackle for loss as well.
Before Ellis, the Northwestern defense hadn't had a Big Ten Defensive Player of the Week since fellow linebacker Chi Chi Ariguzo did it nearly a full season ago.
Now quick, name an offensive player for Northwestern.
Bet that took you all of a few seconds. See the difference?
So, while all the attention has been on offensive playmakers like Kain Colter, Trevor Siemian and Venric Mark, the defense has been quietly building up its own set of playmakers as well.
Ellis and Ariguzo are forming a nice complement to the solid, if not spectacular, Damien Proby at linebacker for the Wildcats. It is a group that is quickly making offenses second guess themselves.
That hasn't always been the case in the past, with Northwestern's defense largely getting pushed to the side in favor of the high-flying offense in Evanston.
However, a further look at the stats from this group makes it clear they aren't nearly as bad as the general college sports world would have you believe, especially against the run.
Last season the Wildcats were third against the run, but ranked last against the pass. Such was the maddening nature of watching Northwestern football last season.
As Northwestern shows it has a trio of impact linebackers, it is also worth noting that they also have a set of playmakers at all fronts of the defense.
Defensive End Tyler Scott is coming off a season in which he earned Honorable Mention All-Big Ten honors after a year in which he had 42 tackles, 12.5 tackles for loss and a team-high nine sacks.
He's not alone as a playmaker or potential playmaker as the secondary has two names people should be watching in Ibraheim Campbell and Nick VanHoose. Campbell, a safety, was also named Honorable Mention All-Big Ten last year.
VanHoose was one of the biggest standout freshmen the Big Ten had last season, tying for the team high in interceptions with three and having 10 passes defended. He even ended the year on a few Big Ten Freshman of the Year award lists.
If there are so many playmakers available on the defensive side of the ball, why did it struggle at times last year and why may it do the same this season? Well, the one common factor is that nearly all of the playmakers we've mentioned enter this season as just second-year starters.
Experience can turn inconsistency to consistency and when you add that to impressive ability you have a recipe for success.
So, as Northwestern attempts to become a true player in the Big Ten championship race it may actually be the playmakers on all levels of the defense that grow to be the most important factor in achieving that goal.
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