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Northwestern Football Unit Breakdowns: Defensive Line

by Chris Johnson (@ChrisDJohnsonn)

Projected Starters

Brian Arnfelt, Senior. DT. 

A foot injury forced Arnfelt to miss the early part of last season, but when he returned, he continued his upward trajectory stemming from last three games of the 2010 season, when he recorded 10 tackles and ate up multiple blockers on seemingly every play. He reinjured his foot against Indiana last season, causing him to miss the final four games of the regular season, but shined in the Meineke Car Care Bowl, finishing a career-high five tackles and one QB hurry.

If Arnfelt stays healthy, he could be a special player, the kind of run-stuffing force that the Wildcats have lacked in recent years. Last year’s bowl game wasa strong indication that Arnfelt is on the verge of having a breakout season.

Chance Carter, Sophomore. DT.

One of the more memorable plays from the spring game came courtesy of Carter, who picked off redshirt freshman quarterback Zach Oliver and waltzed 19 yards into the end zone, capping the momentum-shifting sequence with a memorable team celebration. The 17-point play—according to Fitzgerald’s point-related rule modifications—was the turning point in an overall impressive performance by the defense.

Carter made strides throughout spring practice, and after learning under Jack DiNardo last season, is ready for a bigger role this fall. The 6-3, 270-lb tackle touts both the size to clog running lanes and the speed to chase down ball carriers. His active, aggressive play will be key in winning the line of scrimmage and stopping the run.

With only nine games of experience, this season may be a bit of a learning process, especially early on. But if Carter can grasp Hankwitz’s system, continue to improve in preseason camp and play to his spring game-level against other teams, he has a bright future ahead of him.

Quentin Williams. Senior. DE.

Missing all of spring practice with an injury hurt Williams, the defensive line’s unquestioned leader and its most experienced player, for it lacked a veteran, calming presence to monitor its maturation and development. He should be back for preseason camp and ready to build upon his impressive 2011 campaign, in which he finished with three sacks and 8.5 tackles for loss, including an impressive seven-tackle performance in NU’s upset win at Nebraska.

His size, speed and incessant pass-rushing motor made Williams a tough cover for any offensive lineman last season, and he—if fully recovered—should be an even better player this season. Fitzgerald and Hankwitz are counting on Williams to have a big season, and the senior, in all likelihood, will oblige.

Tyler Scott, Junior. DE.

If NU hopes to ratchet up the pressure with its front four this season—this is probably a good idea, given last year’s defensive struggles—Scott will front the attack, having played a major role in NU’s pass-rushing exploits the past two seasons. Last season was his first as a starter, and Scott did not disappoint, compiling 43 tackles, including six tackles for loss.

He’s one of the veterans of the group now. If he can improve his gap discipline and his ability to finish tackles, NU’s pass rush will be a formidable one. Scott and Williams have proven that they can rush the passer, be disruptive and chase down ball carriers. Now they need to do it consistently, for 60 minutes of all 12 (or 13) games.

Backups

Deonte Gibson, RS Freshman. DE.

Perhaps the most impressive player of spring practice was Gibson, who, after missing all of 2011 with a torn ACL, flashed the speed, burst and pass-rushing ferocity that made him one of the stars of NU’s 2011 recruiting haul.

The injury may have actually helped Gibson, who put on 35 lbs during his rehabilitation, and now has the body and the skill set to be a dominant pass-rusher at the college level. Having never played a down of Big Ten football, this will be a learning process for the redshirt freshman and a potentially frustrating one, at that.

That said, there’s no reason why he can’t contribute on third downs as a pass-rushing specialist, a change of pace from the slightly less explosive Williams and Scott. The talent, the athleticism it was all on display this spring. Gibson needs to prove that his success in no-pressure practice environments was no mirage, that he’s ready for the big stage.

Will Hampton, Junior. DT.

Hampton appeared in every game last season, earning his first career start against Eastern Illinois. He provides depth behind Arnfelt and Carter, and is capable of starting if need be. Hampton has good size (6-3, 285) and athleticism for the position, clogs up running lanes on the regular and is disruptive enough to draw double teams. 

The Others

Bo Cisek, Senior. DT—A walk-on who switched positions during spring practice 2009, Cisek appeared in all 13 games last season and has the hard-nosed attitude and strong work ethic that Fitzgerald preaches.

Anthony Battle, Junior. DE—Appearing in only three games over the past two seasons, Battle has the physical tools to make an impact as a pass-rusher but has failed to grasp basic defensive principles and schematic concepts. He could see some time on obvious passing downs if he shows signs of improvement in preseason camp.

Max Chapman, RS Freshman. DE—The highly touted recruit out of Ponte Vedra, Fla., will be an impact player in the future, and could get some playing time before conference play ramps up.

C.J. Robbins, RS Freshman. DE—Another highly-sought after prospect, Robbins will use this season to mature and develop into a highly productive, dynamic player player down the road.

Davon Custis, Junior. DE—While he appeared in just one game last season, Custis’ above-average quickness and strong pass-rushing motor impressed coaches. His hard work in spring practice should earn him at least a few snaps as a change-of-pace pass-rushing threat.

Sean McEvilly, Sophomore. DT—McEvilly made considerable strides on scout team last season and in spring practice. He could challenge for a top reserve role this season.

Recruits (All star rankings according to Scout.com)

Greg Kuhar, DT. 6-3, 260—three-star, Lakewood (OH).

Dean Lowry, DE. 6-5, 230—three-star, Rockford (IL).

Concerns

The combined loss of tackle Jack DiNardo along with end Vince Browne leaves this group without two of its most consistent, productive defenders. Someone will need to set the tone from day one of preseason camp and ensure that there’s no drop off.

Williams and Scott have proven themselves in recent years, but will need to take on bigger leadership roles, especially when it comes to grooming and guiding young talents like Gibson and Carter.

Rushing the passer shouldn’t be a major concern, as NU boasts a deep rotation of young, explosive ends ready to make an impact this fall. But stopping the run is another matter entirely, and should Carter suffer growing pains or Arnfelt’s injury problems resurface, opponents will find it easy to ground and pound the Wildcats into submission.

Prognosis 

All in all, there’s good reason to think that this group will improve from last season, when it ranked 10th amongst Big Ten teams against the run and mustered only 17 sacks, the fewest in the conference. Even with the mass exodus of veterans, the younger players really stepped up this spring and should help fill the void.

Gibson and Carter are dynamic young talents, abundantly skilled players teeming with upside and ready to prove themselves this fall. Coupled with Williams, Scott and Arnfelt, this unit is talented enough and deep enough to vastly exceed expectations.

In many games last season, NU’s defense was exploited for big plays and easy scores. The defensive line needs to win the line of scrimmage for that to change; this group is more than capable of doing that.