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Northwestern's Defensive Line Made Major Strides In 2012. What's In Store For The Gator Bowl?

by Chris Johnson (@ChrisDJohnsonn)

The prevailing notion that Northwestern is not a strong defensive team was challenged in several ways this season. On a yards-per-play scale, the Wildcats jumped from 11th among Big Ten teams (6.13) in 2011 to 8th (5.28) in 2012; which may not seem like a huge difference. But when you dig into the details, there were numerous positive changes on that side of the ball.

A young and inexperienced secondary overcame enduring injury problems and the loss of two senior leaders (safety Brian Paters and cornerback Jordan Mabin) to exceed expectations and showed great focus in learning from mistakes and developing throughout the season. The linebacking corps played up to its considerable preseason hype and saw the emergence of sophomore Chi Chi Ariguzo into one of the league’s best young linebackers. Perhaps most important – and no doubt most clearly discerned – was the breadth of improvement along the defensive line.

“We definitely improved along the line,” senior defensive tackle Brian Arnfelt, who posted career highs in tackles (46), Tackles for loss (6) and sacks (3), said Tuesday after a bowl practice. “I think we wanted to come out here and have more chemistry. We did that, which lead to greater production.”

During spring practice, coaches and media types raved about Northwestern’s speed and depth at defensive end. Tyler Scott looked to have improved his quickness, strength, speed and pass-rushing motor. Redshirt freshman Deonte Gibson brought newfound dynamism and third-down versatility off the edge. Plus, a new crop of freshmen featuring highly touted hybrid Ifeadi Odenigbo was set to enter the fold. Though Odenigbo took a medical redshirt, the group reached those expectations, with Scott leading the way as he amassed a team-high 12 sacks. The improvement at end was a promising development, but hardly unexpected.

Optimism about the tackle position was more restrained. Arnfelt was the only proven returner, and he himself had missed all but five games in 2011 due to injury. Alongside him were sophomores Chance Carter and Sean McEvily, junior Will Hampton, and that’s pretty much it. Depth was lacking. Proven talent was scarce. It was an inauspicious combination for a line that desperately needed to improve its fortunes in the trenches – one that, in 2011, was gashed for an average of 4.49 yards per carry on the ground.

Over the next three months, the defensive line morphed into a truly stout unit. The ends played their part in the collective development, but nowhere was positive growth more evident than at the tackle position. Arnfelt pinpointed several reasons behind what transpired, but the most obvious change was rather simple. The Wildcats ditched the passive approach of years past in favor of a newfound aggressiveness that resulted in a more consistent push in the trenches. Rather than lose ground to opposing offensive linemen, the Wildcats tackles exploded off the line of scrimmage, clogged running lanes, disrupted blocking schemes, collapsed the pocket and wreaked havoc opposing offenses. By season's end, the statistics were there to backup the empirical evidence: Northwestern's yards-per-play metric was sliced down to 3.62, good for 4th among Big Ten teams.

While Arnfelt was the face behind the charge, no player made greater strides than McEvily. “He didn’t start out the year starting,” Arnfelt said of teammate. “He kind of played his way into that role.” If McEvily was the most dramatic change, then Carter and Hampton were not far behind. “Everyone producing at a higher level than we’ve ever had here, so I think it’s just great for them.”

Losing Arnfelt could go down as one of Northwestern’s most damning losses this offseason. He was the emotional and physical force behind the line’s dramatic development. And while younger players showed great progress and potential, tackle depth is not in large supply. Redshirt freshman C.J. Robbins, who Arnfelt says “has been limited by an unfortunate string of injuries”, could enter key reserve position next season, while true freshmen Connor Mahoney and Greg Kuhar could also see significant snaps.

As it stands, Arnfelt has his mind set on Mississippi State, who Northwestern will face in the Gator Bowl on New Years Day.

“I think it’s a big game for us,” Arnfelt said. “We’re really impressed with them on film. They’ve got good size, they’ve got real good feet, so I think it’s definitely going to be a challenge for us.”

If Arnfelt and his fellow position mates continue to build on what they accomplished this season, controlling the line of scrimmage against the big, bad, two-point favorite, SEC-hardened Bulldogs should feel like just another day’s work for the new and improved Wildcats line.