by Kevin Trahan (@k_trahan)
There’s a lot more to like about this Northwestern team than last year’s, from the “re-vamped” secondary to the newfound rushing offense. However, the rush defense has made arguably the biggest statistical jump, ranking No. 13 in the nation at 90 yards per game — that’s a 71-spot jump from last year’s team, which ranked No. 84 at 177.31 yards per game.
“I think it’s an 11-man deal,” coach Pat Fitzgerald said.
Of course, no single unit is responsible for the drastic improvement — it’s a collective effort — but Fitzgerald did point to gap control and tackling as the most improved areas, which is a credit to the interior defensive line.
NU’s personnel at defensive tackle is a mixed bag this year in terms of experience. Senior Brian Arnfelt has one spot locked down, but the other spot has shifted hands throughout the year — after spring practice, it looked like sophomore Chance Carter’s spot to lose, but junior Will Hampton was named the starter for the Syracuse game. Now, sophomore Sean McEvilly is penciled in as the starter after starting for the past two weeks.
It’s an interesting dynamic — a veteran and three inexperienced guys — but so far it has worked out well for NU on and off the field.
“You want to do your best and hold up your end of the bargain, and I think more so than any year, this is probably the funnest group to be around, I think,” Arnfelt said. “We just bring the energy every day-in and day-out and it’s just a great group to be around.
“I think it’s all just about the attitude we bring every day to practice and I think that transfers into the game,” Arnfelt said. “It’s fun. I think everyone brings their own specialty to the table and I think it’s just a great mix of guys.”
The specialty of the newest starter? Physicality. It’s something that Fitzgerald has harped upon as important for any winning team and something McEvilly worked on throughout the offseason.
“I knew I was going to get a lot of playing time, but I just started in the offseason, started to get better and just transferred through camp and into game week for Syracuse and I just kept on getting better and better,” McEvilly said. “I think my physical strength from last year (has improved the most). I was a little light last year and gained some weight in the weight room, the strength staff got after me, and I just think I’ve improved a lot.”
It’s often tough to mix competition and good chemistry, because with competition inherently comes the fact that someone isn’t going to be satisfied. Perhaps that’s the greatest accomplishment of this team — getting the most out of competition while remaining one of the closes groups in Fitzgerald’s tenure — and it’s exemplified at defensive tackle.
“We push each other all the time, whether its in the gym or out here on the field, we’re just getting on each other, and the same with Arnie,” McEvilly said. “He’s a senior, he’s better than us right now and we’re trying to push him and he’s pushing us, and we’re just trying to get the best out of all of us.”
The on-field results indicate that the competition in practice has worked, and while the team rush defense statistic is impressive, the individual accomplishments have been, as well, especially for NU’s senior at defensive tackle.
Arnfelt played in just five games last year and recorded only seven tackles. Through five games this year, he has 13 tackles, four tackles-for-loss and a sack. The three young guys aren’t only making each other better; they’re helping Arnfelt improve, as well. And with so much depth, NU has the ability to be competitive no matter who is in the game.
“You’re always going to get better when you’re competing,” Arnfelt said, “and I think, day-in and day-out, when the tackle group is competing like it is, it’s just going to make us better as a whole. And if you watch our games, you know that we roll guys and keep everyone fresh, so when you go in you’re going 100 miles per hour.”