by Chris Johnson (@ChrisDJohnsonn)
Once you finally come to grips with Northwestern’s drought-less bowl profile, and soak in the triumph in Jacksonville from every possible angle, you start to look ahead to next season. You realize the 2012 Wildcats were a pretty young team overall, that their ceiling for next season is immeasurably higher, that with many returning starters on both sides of the ball and few incriminating losses, there’s a very good chance Northwestern could return to an equal, if not higher postseason perch in one year’s time. Various personnel departures and recruiting developments will be dissected in great detail between now and next Fall, but while we have your attention focused on football, it’s time to provide a quick look-ahead for what next year’s team may look like.
The following breakdown goes into each position group, with an informed projection on which player (s) will fill the spots of graduating players, whether that be incoming recruits or underclassmen or reserve guys on this year’s team. Celebrate the Gator Bowl win! Watch this video until you feel tears dripping down your cheeks. But keep in mind, next year’s season (despite an objectively tougher schedule) could be even more gratifying.
Up first for analysis: Defense.
Defensive LineReturning starters: DT: Sean McEvily; DE: Tyler Scott Starters Lost: DT: Brian Arnfelt; DE: Quentin Williams Possible Replacements: DT: Chance Carter, Will Hampton, Greg Kuhar, C.J. Robbins; DE: Deonte Gibson, Dean Lowry, Ifeadi Odenigbo, Max Chapman
Of all the reasons for Northwestern’s improved defense, none was more important than the toughness and hardened focus exhibited in the trenches. In a complete reversal from previous years, Northwestern commanded the line of scrimmage by generating a consistent push at the point of attack, exploiting holes in porous offensive lines, maintaining gap integrity and shutting down rushing lanes. No player was more crucial to those efforts than senior Brian Arnfelt. He bounced back from an injury-plagued 2011 to emerge as one of Northwestern’s most critical defensive pieces. His weekly consistency was remarkable, his incessant motor inspiring – Arnfelt did it all. Finding an adequate replacement will not be easy.
The best option is Chance Carter, who appeared in 13 games this season and posted 15 tackles and one tackle for loss. He showed signs of maturity and growth in the spring game, and that carried over into the season as he filled an important reserve role behind Arnfelt and Sean McEvily. Carter is the strongest candidate to replace Arnfelt in the starting lineup. Equally plausible for a starter’s job is Will Hampton. While not as explosive or athletic as Carter, Hampton has a great understanding of the position, rarely blows assignments or overpursues ball carriers and offers underrated power and leverage in one-on-one battles. I wouldn’t be surprised to see either player win the No. 1 spot on the depth chart.
Proven depth at tackle will be in short supply. C.J. Robbins, Greg Kuhar and Connor Mahoney could all see time next season. Kuhar is further along in his development than the other two, but all three will likely hear their names called in various increments, especially if injury issues arise. All told, this position is not a particularly strong or deep one. The starters – presumably McEvily and Carter/Hampton – are a solid tandem, but the lack of depth is a real concern. The only 2013 commit listed that classifies as a defensive tackle, according to Scout.Com, is Eric Joraskie, and I’m not going to bet on Joraskie contributing right away. Linemen are notoriously redshirt-prone, anyway. Pat Fitzgerald and staff will need to address this position in recruiting and hope that next year’s rotation survives a rigorous 12-game season with a clean health bill.
The loss of end Quentin Williams is less problematic. Deonte Gibson and Dean Lowry spent heavy time on first team duty, and redshirt freshman Max Chapman is ready to make that leap. Then there’s Ifeadi Odenigbo, who is freakishly strong for his size. If he’s added on enough weight and bulk to handle mammoth Big Ten tackles, Odenigbo will be a huge pass-rushing weapon, particularly on third downs. Besides, when you have a relentless force like Tyler Scott rushing the passer on one side, Gibson, Lowry and whoever else steps up will enjoy the benefit of preoccupied blocking schemes slanted to overprotect him.
LinebackerReturning Starters: OLB: Chi Chi Ariguzo; MLB: Damien Proby Starters Lost: OLB: David Nwabuisi Possible Replacements: OLB: Colin Ellis, Drew Smith, Jimmy Hall, Odenigbo, Timmy Vernon; MLB: Ariguzo, Ellis
If there was a stronger position group on either side of the ball in 2012, I can’t identify it without fabricating an argument. The linebackers played hard from week one through the bowl season, providing resilient and versatile coverage along the way while offering important leadership for the rest of the defense. David Nwabuisi may not have been the most talented or most athletic of the group, but he was its most respected. The unflappable poise and character Nwabuisi exhibited, on and off the field, permeated the locker room. Not only did he submit his best statistical season – his 97 tackles, two fumble recoveries and five passes defended were all career-highs – he helped fellow ‘backers Damien Proby and Chi Chi Ariguzo elevate their performance to new levels and set a precedent for next season and beyond.
The linebacking corps, even without Nwabuisi, is in great shape heading into 2013. The competition to replace Nwabuisi will be fierce. Redshirt freshman Drew Smith is the most obvious candidate. Sophomore Colin Ellis is right behind him and fared will in limited snaps this season. And then there’s the wildcard: Odenigbo. It is assumed Odenigbo will eventually line up as a pass-rushing end, but if his size and weight isn’t quite where it needs to be, Odenigbo is versatile and athletic enough to play outside linebacker. The bottom line is this: Odenigbo is far too talented to wither away on the sidelines. Whether he’s wreaking havoc off the edge or lining up in a two-point stance at outside linebacker, Odenigbo needs to be on the field.
These are all entirely good problems to have. Unlike the defensive line, the linebacking corps is well-positioned to improve next season. Ariguzo made huge strides and will only grow into a more complete player next season. Ellis is a ferocious tackler and an underrated athlete. Smith may be the most agile. And Proby has earned his stripes; he’s ready to take on Nwabuisi’s leadership responsibilities. With so much depth on hand, I would be surprised if any true freshmen LBs see the field. One guy worth keeping an eye on is sophomore Jimmy Hall. He’s dabbled in various positions during his time on campus, but could make a nice fit at outside linebacker or nickelback if things don’t work out at safety.
SecondaryReturning Starters: S: Ibraheim Campbell; CB: Nick Vanhoose, Daniel Jones Starters Lost: S: Jared Carpenter; CB: Demetrius Dugar Possible Replacements: S: Davion Fleming, Traveon Henry, Jimmy Hall, Godwin Igwebuike; CB: Keith Watkins, C.J. Bryant, Jarrell Williams, Mike Eshun
The biggest concern heading into this season was the secondary. Sophomore Ibraheim Campbell – a player who endured his share of struggles in 2011 – was the only returning starter. The other projected starters were either young or unproven. The group rallied around Campbell and senior Jared Carpenter to outperform expectations, however low, and eclipse last season’s poor pass defense, which boasted senior stalwarts Brian Peters and Jordan Mabin. The future is bright, even if the Wildcats will say goodbye to three major contributors: Carpenter, Quinn Evans and Demetrius Dugar.
Replacing Carpenter’s on-field production won’t be as difficult as finding ways to duplicate his intangibly beneficial leadership qualities. He helped Campbell morph into an elite Big Ten safety and guided young cornerbacks Nick VanHoose and Daniel Jones through rough patches. Either Davion Fleming or Traveon Henry are the best-chance fill-ins. Hall is a possibility as well, depending on whether or not he remains in the secondary or flips to linebacker (or nickelback). Campbell is obviously locked in at the other starting spot. Evans and Dugar started at various points as the Wildcats’ cornerback play faltered and injuries cropped up, but with VanHoose and Jones returning, and C.J. Bryant responding well when called upon, the cornerback rotation is mostly predictable.
The secondary, perhaps more than any other position group, features recruits who could conceivably make the leap to first team upon arrival. Four-star commit Godwin Igwebuike is a supremely gifted athlete with natural ball skills who could help out at safety as early as next season. Keith Watkins is not far behind, and – presuming he makes the switch from running back, his high school position – could slide in at cornerback. When you weigh all the options, and consider different scenarios, the end product is a young but promising collection of talented defensive backs.
The core of this year’s defense will be back. That is good news. My biggest question is at defensive tackle. I don’t think most fans comprehend just how crucial Arnfelt was to the line’s success. He may be Northwestern’s most devastating loss – and not just on defense, but at any position. I am confident the linebackers and secondary can patch up the holes left by Nwabuisi, Carpenter, Evans and Dugar. The line will figure it out, too, but there’s clearly a relative weakness in the middle of a front seven that powered NU’s defensive resurgence. If Hampton, Carter or McEvily struggle, are injured or don’t make expected improvements, the tackle position could turn into a crushing point of deficiency. The strength in the trenches is what made Northwestern one of the better run defenses in the Big Ten this season. Take away the leader of that unit, and, well, it’s something to think about. That’s all.