For the first time in about 13 years, Northwestern fans can (and should) be very excited about NU's defense for the coming season. In 2008, the Wildcats' D, led by new DC Mike Hankwitz, improved in every major defensive category and return eight of 11 starters from a year ago and again have the defensive mastermind to help put the guys in the right spots to make the plays. And of the three positions where NU must find replacement starters, two are on the defensive line where they have experienced players with significant playing time and some starting experience under their belts. The linebacker corps proved themselves proficient last season and have more young talent waiting to make an impact this season. And, most significantly, the secondary returns its wealth of proven talent and looks to be one of the strongest defensive backfields in NU history.
Last season, NU led the Big Ten in sacks, was second in the conference in TFLs, and overall allowed just under 20 points per game during the regular season, (a 10 point game improvement over 2007). Look for more of the same, if not better, in 2009, as the 'Cats will get their star player and NFL prospect Corey Wootton back from a knee (ACL) injury sustained during the Alamo Bow.
will field a formidable front seven. As 'Cats fans know well, getting into the backfield and making things happen leads to good things on defense, and last year's squad did that well - and that aggressiveness up front looks to continue this season. The question is: can this defense carry the team, especially with so many question marks on offense?
It all starts up front, and NU is looking pretty good up there, just a season removed from a very strong performance. The starting foursome are expected to be (from left to right) Wootton, Bryant, Hahn, and Browne. It's important to note that Wootton, Bryant, and Browne all sustained knee injuries during 2008 (although Browne was able to return for the Alamo Bowl). The starters departing NU were tackle Gill and end Mims, which means the DL was hurt the most by attrition (at 50%), but what is hidden is the fact that Browne garnered significant playing time during the season and Hahn was previously a starter (mostly during his sophomore year). Plus, the 'Cats have Thomas (a senior with a good amount of playing time) and sophomores DiNardo and Watt (who both saw the field last season) to throw into the rotation, not to mention touted recruit Quentin Williams.
Many are rightly placing a lot of attention on Wootton's return from his ACL tear and are leaving the fate of the entire defense up to Corey. While he has really come into his own and is a key component of the D, what Hankwitz has shown us is that the whole can be better than the sum of its parts when running a well-planned and aggressive scheme. Tackles Bryant and Hahn must occupy blocks and clog the middle while containing the running game (last year's squad allowed a respectable 128 yards/game during the regular season). And the ends must get to the QB and finish the deal, while maintaining containment - especially against mobile QBs (in 2009 look out for PSU's Clark and Minnesota's Weber). Thankfully NU has a talented player in Browne who has shown flashes of great play in limited time, and he'll get a huge opportunity to shine this year as a starter and with opposing offensive lines worried about Wootton. Replacing Gill may be more of a challenge, but Bryant has proven himself on the field and Hahn has some starts under his belt and knows what it takes in the Big Ten. And both players know that they have to perform at their best because Thomas and DiNardo will be chomping at the bit for more playing time.
This is a strong unit that should again be at or near the top of the conference in the major "disruption" categories of sacks and TFLs, like last year, especially with Hankwitz directing their activities. And that will lead to another strong performance by the defense as a whole. The biggest concern for NU fans should be depth: last year NU weathered the injury storm, but this season there are fewer experienced guys to go around - especially on the line, and this is especially concerning with three of the starters returning from significant injuries a season ago. So, staying healthy will be key, as will the performance of the backups who will be given playing time to rest the starters.
Unfortunately, NU lost starting MLB Arrington half way through last season, but fortunately the 'Cats found their new starter as Nate Williams stepped up nicely in that role for the second half and looks to anchor the LB corps in 2009. All he seemed to do last year was make tackles; never really making the big, glamorous play, but instead taking care of business and stopping the ballcarrier. In fact, he was 5th on the team in tackles despite only starting for half of the season. The linebackers should be in good hands with him in the middle (and Fitz in his ear).
Davie will return as starting strong side LB, after showing great speed and an ability to get into the backfield during his first two seasons at NU. He was tied for second on the team with 9.5 TFLs and had the highest number of sacks outside of the DL with 3.5 in 2008. Look for him to continue to disrupt opposing offenses when he lines up for the 'Cats, although when NU goes with the nickel, he is typically pulled while S Phillips takes over a hybrid LB/S role. But his success is key as his ability to get after the QB gives the Wildcats some interesting blitz options.
Finally, the weak side LB slot is expected to be taken over by Ben Johnson, who is coming off of a strong season on special teams and a very good spring that led to him grabbing the starting spot (at least for now). He'll look to replace the reliable Prince Kwateng, who made a lot of good plays in 2008 (highlighted by that hair-grabbing TFL on Ohio QB Boo Jackson), and Johnson has the speed to make an impact - especially against teams running the spread offense. What stood out last season on special teams was his ability to get down the field on kickoff coverage, shed blocks, and make the tackle. Now NU will be looking for him to do that on defense.
The 'Cats have some depth this year that is mostly based on potential - ND transfer Nagel is backing up the weak side with redshirt freshman Pinckney, senior Jeske and redshirt freshman Nwabuski are backing up the middle, and sophomore McNaul (who saw a lot of time on special teams last season) is backup on the strong side. There is a lot of talent to go around, and all of the guys listed here are likely to see the field sometime this fall. The question will be who will step up and make things happen, and will anyone successfully challenge for a starting spot?
The secondary almost needs no introduction. There's sophomore Mabin and senior McManis at the corners, with seniors Phillips and Smith holding down the middle at safety. Phillips is coming off of shoulder surgery, but he's expected to be back in playing shape by camp (he did survive the Alamo Bowl with the injury). Also, don't forget Peters and Arnold (backup safeties), as well as Vaughn (who was the starter until sustaining an injury and watching Mabin take over) and Bolden at corner who have played a good bit and have looked effective. Peters is used quite often in the nickel at safety with Phillips moving closer to the line of scrimmage.
This constitutes one of the most experienced and proven defensive backfields in Northwestern history, and I'm not overstating that. Mabin was a redshirt freshman who took over a difficult position, corner, and showed off his speed and football prowess week after week. McManis really started to turn into a shutdown type guy after having a down sophomore season in 2007. Smith lived up to his billing as the leader of the D (and took two INTs to the house during the course of the season). And Phillips seemingly came out of nowhere to be the hard-hitter of the D and led the team in tackles in 2008. Now they're all back and should be able to improve even more.
The question here is can this unit take it to the next level and become the cream of the Big Ten crop by "locking down" those opposing receivers while generating turnovers. Last year, turnovers came in bunches, but there were still doughts when some questioned the abilities of the secondary. With so much talent and experience available, the only way they can prove themselves in 2009 is to prove that they're one of the best in the conference.
It's strange for any 'Cats fan who has been following NU closely for the past decade or so, but the defense is the strong point of this year's team and will be looked to in order to carry this team to victory. The talent and experience are there, the leadership is there with Hankwitz, and the dedication of the head coach is there with Fitzgerald. Now the question is can the D live up to deservedly high expectations a season after exceeding any sane person's realistically low predictions (based on about 10 years of evidence)?
While NU's schedule is considered soft, they'll still have some challenges, like going up against Penn State, featuring Clark and Royster, Minnesota, featuring Weber and Decker, and Illinois with Juice and Benn. With a whole lot more questions on offense and special teams, the D will be relied upon to keep games within reach and maybe even to make plays to win some themselves (see the Minnesota, Syracuse, and Ohio games last year as examples).