Through most of this decade, Northwestern's defense has been as bad as the offense has been good. The 2000 season saw an opportunistic defense and a lights-out offense lead the Wildcats to a Big Ten co-championship. Since then, NU hasn't really been that close to another title.
While it may not be true in every conference around the nation, the old adage that "defense wins championships" typically rings true in the Big Ten. And one can definitely point to the lack of a formidable defense as NU's weak point in the 2000s.
Despite fielding a defense that ranked near the bottom of the conference and/or nation in most statistical categories between 2001 and 2007, Northwestern produced a number of quality defensive players, including a good number that have gone on to the next level (and a couple first-rounders).
Most NU fans knew after Pat Fitzgerald was hired as head coach that the poor defensive play wouldn't continue if he had something to say about it. That prediction has come true over the past two seasons, primarily thanks to Defensive Coordinator Mike Hankwitz.
Prior to Hankwitz, the defense was led by current NU assistant Jerry Brown (who has spent the longest amount of time on NU's coaching staff, having been at NU since 1993) in 2000 and 2001, and then by Greg Colby from 2002 through 2007 (whose claim to fame prior to NU was holding the same position at Kent State).
Needless to say, neither of them performed that well as the defensive coordinator at NU. Some of the problems may very well could have been attributed to Coach Randy Walker, who was an offensive guy through and through (he played fullback in college and had been an offensive assistant prior to ascending to head coach) and who was best known for bringing the spread offense into vogue thanks to the magical 2000 season.
The failure of the defense through most of the decade (chronicled in an article of mine from last season) made selecting some of the players for the all-decade team a bit difficult. There were plenty of talented guys, but the fact is that the defense as a whole was pretty bad for essentially the entire middle of the decade.
Finally, I'll throw in the special teams here since they don't constitute many players, and NU hasn't had that many stellar special teamers, anyways.
Notes: The statistics shown here only include those from this decade (2000-2009). Tackles only became an official NCAA statistic in 2000.
Defensive Tackle (2)
Barry Cofield 2002-05 (49 games, 36 starts, 197 tackles, 15.5 TFLs, 6.5 sacks, 1 interception, 8 pass break-ups, 18 QB hurries, 3 fumble recoveries, 4 forced fumbles, 2005 Coaches' Second Team All-Big Ten)
Luis Castillo 2001-04 (42 games, 34 starts, 251 tackles, 20.0 TFLs, 4.5 sacks, 5 pass break-ups, 11 QB hurries, 1 fumble recovery, 1 forced fumble, 1 kick block, 3-time Academic All-Big Ten, 2004 consensus Second Team All-Big Ten)
Northwestern has had some solid defenders in the middle of the line, featuring Cofield and Castillo, who lined up together as starters in 2003-04, and who are now playing significant roles in the NFL (Castillo is a starter, Cofield is in the DL rotation).
As mentioned in the summary, it was difficult to pick these two since most of their years featured a poor overall defensive performance (2004 being the only exception, when NU was in the middle of the pack defensively), but they put up huge numbers for defensive tackles and have proved how good they are at the next level.
Recently, John Gill proved how disruptive he could be with his career culminating in a solid 2008 season. Also, Adam Hahn has been a steady force in the middle of the DL over recent years that have included significant defensive improvement. Javiar Collins deserves a nod from the 2000 season, when the defense helped the 'Cats to a share of the conference title.
John Gill 2005-08 (48 games, 42 starts, 160 tackles, 23.0 TFLs, 10.0 sacks, 5 pass break-ups, 9 QB hurries, 4 fumble recoveries, 2 forced fumbles, 1 kick block, 2-time Honorable Mention All-Big Ten)
Adam Hahn 2006-09 (46 games, 32 starts, 89 tackles, 10.5 TFLs, 1.5 sacks, 4 pass break-ups, 2 QB hurries, 1 kick block, 3-time Academic All-Big Ten, Freshman All-Big Ten and Freshman Second Team All-American)
Javiar Collins 2000 (12 games, 12 starts, 52 tackles, 11.0 TFLs, 3.0 sacks, 2 QB hurries, 1 fumble recovery, 1 forced fumble)
Defensive End (2)
Corey Wootton 2005-09 (52 games, 48 starts, 155 tackles, 38.0 TFLs, 19.5 sacks, 4 interceptions, 8 pass break-ups, 15 QB hurries, 3 fumble recoveries, 3 forced fumbles, 4 kick blocks, 2008 Coaches' First Team All-Big Ten, 2009 consensus Honorable Mention All-Big Ten)
Loren Howard 2002-04 (31 games, 25 starts, 171 tackles, 34.0 TFLs, 11.0 sacks, 2 pass break-ups, 20 QB hurries, 2 fumble recoveries, 2 forced fumbles, 2 kick blocks, 2003 consensus Honorable Mention All-Big Ten, Freshman All-American)
One of the selections here was easy: Wootton has the most starts of any NU player ever and is rising in the record books in many statistical categories, including sacks. He has come back from multiple injuries, including one suffered in the 2008 Alamo Bowl that restricted him for the first portion of the 2009 season. Despite that, he is a difference-maker on the end.
The other selection was a bit more difficult. Looking back over the decade, one area where NU has lacked consistency is a playmaking pass rusher from the edge. Howard gets the nod thanks to a couple of monster years, although his Northwestern career was cut short due to injuries to both of his ankles; he ended up transferring to Arizona State to be near home during recovery from one of the injuries.
One guy who consistently performed was Kevin Mims, who played a significant number of snaps through all of his four seasons at NU, and he was close but didn't have the numbers to overcome Howard. Also, it's hard to dismiss Dwayne Missouri who had a monster 2000 season and was close to getting the nod despite just one year played in this decade.
Dwayne Missouri 2000 (12 games, 12 starts, 50 tackles, 16.0 TFLs, 9.0 sacks, 1 pass break-up, 9 QB hurries, 5 forced fumbles, 1 kick block)
Kevin Mims 2005-08 (49 games, 38 starts, 163 tackles, 19.0 TFLs, 7.5 sacks, 1 interception, 5 pass break-ups, 9 QB hurries, 1 fumble recovery, 3 forced fumbles, 1 safety)
Tim McGarigle 2002-05 (48 games, 40 starts, 545 tackles, 20.0 TFLs, 4.0 sacks, 3 interceptions, 9 pass break-ups, 9 QB hurries, 3 fumble recoveries, 3 forced fumbles, 2003 All-Big Ten Honorable Mention, 2004 First Team All-Big Ten, 2005 Second Team All-Big Ten, 2005 Butkus and Bednarik Awards Semi-Finalist)
Napoleon Harris 2000-01 (23 games, 23 starts, 195 tackles, 22.0 TFLs, 6.0 sacks, 3 interceptions, 9 pass break-ups, 19 QB hurries, 1 fumble recovery, 1 forced fumble, 1 blocked kick, 2000 Second Team All-Big Ten, 2001 Second Team All-Big Ten)
Nick Roach 2003-06 (44 games, 32 starts, 241 tackles, 16.0 TFLs, 9.0 sacks, 2 interceptions, 5 pass break-ups, 6 QB hurries, 2 forced fumbles, 2006 Academic All-Big Ten)
For a team that fielded a generally poor defense for much of the decade, Northwestern has produced some rather solid linebackers, especially in the middle. Harris was an NFL first-round draft pick, while Bentley and Roach have played significant time in the NFL and have started games. On the field, there is a long list of names at linebacker who racked up a ton of tackles, most notably McGarigle who ended with 545 for his career and holds the NCAA record (tackles only became an official NCAA statistic in 2000).
McGarigle and Harris were shoo-ins, but selecting that third LB was a bit difficult given the competition. The nod is given to Roach, who had an unfortunate injury that cut short his senior season, but he still put up excellent numbers through just over two years worth of starts. And he managed to rack up many of those stats with McGarigle on the field as well, making him part of a formidable two-man wrecking crew at linebacker.
Pat Durr 2000-03 (36 games, 26 starts, 303 tackles, 20.0 TFLs, 7.0 sacks, 2 interceptions, 3 pass break-ups, 2 QB hurries, 2 fumble recoveries, 4 forced fumbles)
Kevin Bentley 2000-01 (23 games, 22 starts, 233 tackles, 23.0 TFLs, 4.0 sacks, 1 interception, 4 pass break-ups, 1 QB hurry, 5 fumble recoveries, 1 forced fumble, 2001 Second Team All-Big Ten, 2000 Honorable Mention All-Big Ten)
Adam Kadela 2003-07 (48 games, 38 starts, 296 tackles, 15.0 TFLs, 3.5 sacks, 2 interceptions, 4 pass break-ups, 7 QB hurries, 3 fumble recoveries, 5 forced fumbles, 2007 Honorable Mention All-Big Ten)
Billy Silva 2000-01 (22 games, 22 starts, 243 tackles, 10.0 TFLs, 2.0 sacks, 4 interceptions, 8 pass break-ups, 1 fumble recovery, 1 forced fumble, 2000 First Team All-Big Ten, 2001 Honorable Mention All-Big Ten)
Sherrick McManis 2006-09 (45 games, 38 starts, 198 tackles, 8.0 TFLs, 1.0 sacks, 8 interceptions, 30 pass break-ups, 1 QB hurry, 4 forced fumbles, 2006 Freshman All-Big Ten, 2008 Honorable Mention All-Big Ten, 2009 First Team All-Big Ten)
Marvin Ward 2001-04 (48 games, 34 starts, 253 tackles, 3.0 TFLs, 7 interceptions, 33 pass break-ups, 1 QB hurry, 3 forced fumbles)
Cornerback is likely the weakest position at Northwestern over the last decade. McManis was the only guy who was guaranteed to be in; Ward got the nod over the other contenders thanks to four years of starting experience and respectable play.
It is very interesting to note the large amount of good to great players in the front seven at NU through the 2000s with less than a handful of such players in the secondary through that span. It's hard to deny that the defensive backfields in 2008 and 2009 were among if not the best in the decade for the Wildcats.
Raheem Covington 2000-02 (35 games, 35 starts, 185 tackles, 3.0 TFLs, 7 interceptions, 21 pass break-ups, 1 QB hurry, 1 fumble recovery, 5 forced fumbles)
Harold Blackmon 2000 (12 games, 12 starts, 48 tackles, 5 interceptions, 16 pass break-ups, 2 forced fumbles)
Brad Phillips 2006-09 (49 games, 34 starts, 255 tackles, 12.5 TFLs, 4.5 sacks, 5 interceptions, 13 pass break-ups, 4 QB hurries, 1 fumble recovery, 7 forced fumbles, 2008 Honorable Mention All-Big Ten, 2009 First Team All-Big Ten)
Brendan Smith 2005-09 (45 games, 39 starts, 222 tackles, 4.5 TFLs, 7 interceptions, 13 pass break-ups, 2 QB hurries, 2 fumble recoveries, 1 forced fumble, 2005 Honorable Mention Freshman All-American, 2006 Honorable Mention All-Big Ten, 2008 Honorable Mention All-Big Ten)
Safety is another position that didn't see many stars early in the decade, with two of the best players sharing the current defensive backfield with fellow senior McManis. Although Phillips took some time to come on and Smith has contended with major injuries in three of his five seasons (including two season-enders), they easily take the two safety spots on the All-Decade team for Northwestern.
Phillips will go down as a hard-hitting strong safety with the number one play being his fumble-inducing hit on 2008 Doak Walker Award winner Shonn Greene that allowed the Wildcats to go on a game-winning drive over Iowa. Smith's highlight also came in 2008 with his interception return for TD at Minnesota that helped clinch the game with just a few ticks left on the clock.
Dominique Price 2001-04 (46 games, 31 starts, 281 tackles, 10.0 TFLs, 1.0 sacks, 6 interceptions, 6 pass break-ups, 2 QB hurries, 6 fumble recoveries, 5 forced fumbles, 2004 Honorable Mention All-Big Ten)
Bryan Heinz 2003-06 (26 games, 140 tackles, 4.0 TFLs, 1.0 sacks, 7 interceptions, 4 pass break-ups, 1 QB hurry, 1 fumble recovery)
J.J. Standring 2000-01 (143 punts, 5,995 yards, 41.9 yards per punt, 68 yard long, 9.9 percent touchbacks, 16.8 percent inside the 20, 2001 Honorable Mention All-Big Ten)
On special teams, one area where NU has, surprisingly, been lacking is punter. Standring was an excellent punter at the beginning of the decade who was followed by Huffman, a solid punter in his own right that was forced into additional kicking duties where he didn't fare so well.
Recently, punt averages have been almost a full 10 yards less than Standring's average this decade, which shows how good he was.
Brian Huffman 2001-04 (191 punts, 7,683 yards, 40.2 yards per punt, 71 yard long, 6.3 percent touchbacks, 23.6 percent inside the 20)
Amado Villarreal 2005-08 (166 points, 33-of-44 field goals or 75.0 percent, 49 yard long, 67-of-72 extra points or 93.0 percent)
Again, not many memorable performances this decade out of Northwestern place kicking. Villarreal likely wasn't appreciated as much as he should have been with a solid career field goal percentage, highlighted by his 2008 performance. Demos had a solid 2009 despite handling all kicking duties (punting, kickoffs, and place kicking).
One guy who is left off this list is Tim Long, kicker in 2000, who didn't have stellar stats, but kicked some extremely clutch field goals, like a 46 yard field goal to send the Wisconsin game to overtime.
Stefan Demos 2009 (85 points, 18-of-23 field goals or 78.3 percent, 49 yard long, 31-of-32 extra points or 96.9 percent)
Jason Wright 2002 (31 returns, 828 yards, 26.7 yards per return, 1 touchdown, 100 yard long)
Wright broke onto the scene in 2002 as an electrifying returner and running back, including a 100 yard return to kick off the 2002 home opener against TCU. Jeff Backes and Stephen Simmons also had some good return numbers for the Wildcats.
Jeff Backes 2002-04 (38 returns, 1,007 yards, 26.5 yards per return, 1 touchdown, 97 yard long)
Stephen Simmons 2006-09 (56 returns, 1,371 yards, 24.5 yards per return, 1 touchdown, 99 yard long)
Sam Simmons 2000-01 (28 returns, 334 yards, 11.9 yards per return, 1 touchdown, 71 yard long)
Punt returner has been a glaring weakness for the Wildcats with a huge punt return being the exception rather than the rule. Simmons, a wide receiver, was the last consistent producer from the punt return position, with his return for TD against Minnesota being the game-clincher.
Again, although some others had a big return from time to time, nobody performed consistently enough to even really be considered for a spot on the All-Decade team.
Others considered: none