Chris Johnson
By (@ChrisDJohnsonn)
Jun 27, 2013

The discrete components that mix an mash together to form football teams change each and every season. Players graduate. Offensive and defensive philosophies are tweaked. Injuries throw a monkey wrench into your most foolproof schematic plans. Northwestern keeps intact much of the core that won 10 games last season, but there are new roles and responsibilities – adapted specifically to accentuate players’ biggest strengths – littered about this year’s roster. The revisions and alterations made on last season’s team will foist new challenges on the Wildcats’ 2013 season. 

“Time to Step Up” is our humble attempt to capture those challenges in convenient little breakdowns, none of which must conform to any particular unit of a team’s construction. Players, coaches and vaguely defined team attributes are all fair game here. Oh, and one more thing: just because it’s time for, say, a certain player to “step up” doesn’t mean his performance lagged last season. So before you wail and stomp and clench your firsts, read (or at least skim) the entire post. Lazy title glancing defeats the entire purpose. Don’t be that guy.

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Defensive Tackle Reserves

There are three players with game experience within this year’s group of defensive tackles. After that? A green ensemble composed of redshirt freshmen Greg Kuhar and Connor Mahoney and sophomore C.J. Robbins, who will also split time at defensive end this season. This is not the picture of stability any team wants in the middle of its defensive line heading into the season, but that’s what recruiting’s for, right? Grooming new players to fill the voids left by graduated veterans. Unfortunately for Northwestern, the two defensive tackles who committed for the class of 2014 (Ben Oxley and Fred Wyatt) won’t be arriving until next season. In the meantime, the only player slotted to slide in to the DT mix this season is Tyler Lancaster, a converted offensive lineman.

Naturally, this situation is bound to raise some considerable suspicion as we move closer to preseason camp. Stopping the run is, well, something you want to do if your goals, as Pat Fitzgerald has made emphatically clear all offseason, include postseason stops in Indianapolis and Pasadena. Northwestern’s rush defense ranked fourth in the Big Ten against the run last season at 3.77 yards per play. Part of that had to do with Brian Arnfelt’s sterling individual play (as well as a heretofore-unachieved injury-free season), but a more convincing argument, for me, is the collection of efforts that came together to give the Wildcats more push and trench-side disruptiveness than most any NU DT group over the past half decade.

The defensive tackles were a remarkably consistent force last season, but as we look ahead to 2013, the danger of a regressive move back towards 2011, when the Wildcats ranked 10th in conference rush D, and away from last season’s improved mark, is readily apparent.

I’m not worried about the top-three DT options available this season (Sean McEvily, Chance Carter and Will Hampton) so much as I am the possibility one or more of those players will, for whatever reason, not play up to his considerable potential. Let’s say Hampton, who sat out spring practice with an injury, loses his season to a knee injury in the first quarter of the first game of the season. That would leave Robbins, Kuhar or Mahoney, none of whom have sniffed a college field (let alone been charged with a starting role) at any point during their time in Evanston, to plug the hole.

All three of those guys are capable players: Mahoney distinguished himself in scout team workouts last season, Kuhar was one of the most talented pickups of NU’s 2012 recruiting class and Robbins, beset by injuries in previous years, brought tenacity and explosiveness – the type of stuff lower extremity injuries make exceedingly difficult to evince – in spring workouts. Each player should contribute nicely to form a reliable pool of tackle depth.

Notice the phrasing; “should” is as far as I’m willing to go in outlining these players’ upcoming seasons. Sorry, but I can’t offer a more definitive assessment at this point, because without any game evidence to go off, my judgment goes no further than practice observations, sporadic coach chatter and general recruiting rankings. Needless to say, I’d like to see a little more before making sweeping conclusions about their respective capabilities.

To convince me, and anyone else who might be a little bit concerned about Northwestern’s defensive tackles entering 2013, that losing Arnfelt isn’t as big of a deal as it seems, that the depth concerns I’ve wasted countless words on this offseason are a huge stretch, I’ll need to see it borne out on the field. The top three players might well stay healthy all season, and maybe Kuhar, Robbins and Mahoney can slowly but surely ease their way into major college football. That would be ideal.

If something does go horribly awry – a season-threatening injury, an inexplicable lapse in performance, or whatever other doomsday scenarios you can think of – their first taste of Big Ten gridiron could wind up being too much to swallow.

  • gocatsgo2003

    1) And how much did we know about Sean McEvilly at this point last season? Nothing. But now he’s one of the top DTs on the team (I actually think he was outplaying Arnfelt by the end of 2012).
    2) So the back-up DTs have to prove their merit on the field, but the STARTING DBs show enough potential to be ranked in the top four groups in the conference? That seems logical.

    • Chris Johnson

      Look, you can criticize my logic all you want. I’m just trying to give you my perspective on the situation. I’ve never, ever seen Kuhar, Mahoney or Robbins play in a game. Never. And neither have you. They could be great, and maybe they will be, but what happens if Hampton/Carter/McEvily go down? I don’t think the defensive tackles are going to betray this team’s chances of winning a bunch of games, I just think they could use a little more depth. As for the secondary situation: Traveon Henry looked good in limited action last season, looked even better in spring ball and the people competing for the other corner spot includes guys with ACTUAL GAME EXPERIENCE.
      If you think this group of defensive tackles will be as good as last year’s, then that’s your prerogative, but don’t attack someone else’s logic just because it differs from what you think when there’s no factual or numerical criteria do decide who’s right or wrong. Cool? cool.

      • gocatsgo2003

        Sheesh… if that qualifies as an attack, you’re going to have to grow a bit thicker skin if you want to end up in a newsroom in the future. Just pointing out the inconsistency between those two arguments.

        • Chris Johnson

          I’m not offended. I find your criticisms insightful and instructive (as I’ve mentioned before). I’m merely responding to your comment with an admittedly combative tone, but I’d contend that doesn’t reflect me not having “thick skin” so much as it does how competitive and spirited I often get when arguing about sports. Also, and me and you have run into this before, the true connotation of comments (or texts or emails, for that matter) gets lost in translation when you’re communicating over written word. I think you interpreted my words more antagonistically than they otherwise should have been. Maybe not.

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