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Spring Defensive Line Breakdown: Who Will Replace Brian Arnfelt?

 by Chris Johnson (@ChrisDJohnsonn)

One of the unheralded elements of Northwestern’s 10-win surge last season was its defensive line play. It is impossible to overstate the importance of winning the line of scrimmage in today’s game, and what you saw from the Wildcats this season was a D-Line that generated a strong push on every down, forced quarterbacks to work in cramped pocket environments, created pressure off the edge, plugged running lanes and most importantly, turned a once-laughable run defense into one of the Big Ten’s stingiest units. In 2011, the Wildcats gave up an average of 4.49 yards per rush, good for 10th in the Big Ten. Thanks to last season’s improvements, they cut that number to 3.79. As they gear up for the 2013 season, a lot of effort will be focused toward making this season more like 2012 and less like 2011.

Returning starters: DT Sean McEvily (Jr), DE Tyler Scott (Sr)

Others returning: DE Max Chapman (So), DE Dean Lowry (So), DE Deonte Gibson (So), DT Chance Carter (Jr), DT Will Hampton (Sr), DT Connor Mahoney (RS Fr), DT Greg Kuhar (RS Fr), DT C.J. Robbins (So)

Incoming recruits: Eric Joraskie, Tyler Lancaster

Biggest spring question: Who will replace Brian Arnfelt?

Vague questions are always the best ones, because they allow for a wide range of responses. The one I posed above doesn’t have a clear-cut answer. No single player can realistically replace Arnfelt, the heart and soul of Northwestern’s D-Line resurgence last season. Of all the Wildcats’ senior departures, none may hurt more than Arnfelt. He really was that important. The Wildcats can’t easily replace him, straight up.

More reasonable is a reconstitution of his tremendous run-stuffing production through the efforts of multiple players. Sean McEvily progressed quite nicely under his watch last season, and should make a bigger leap in 2013 with another offseason under his belt. The other starting spot is far from settled; Chance Carter and Will Hampton are the most likely candidates, and unless an underclassman or two comes out of nowhere in spring practice, I don’t see anyone else making a run at that other tackle spot. The specific arrangements – whether it’s McEvily and Carter, Hampton and McEvily or (least likely) Hampton and Carter – will be resolved in due time.

For now, the realistic pool of replacements boils down to those three players – at least as far as starters are concerned. All three are capable starting Big Ten tackles, and their playing time this season will not undersell that description. These guys are going to get their work in. Finding reliable reserve charges is another matter.

There are plenty of reasons to be excited about the names listed above. Connor Mahoney and Greg Kuhar shined in scout team workouts last season, C.J. Robbins has steadily worked himself into the conversation and Joraskie and Lancaster, if high school game tape is any indication, might be ready to fight their way onto the field as early as this season. There is a lot to like here, and I’m willing to concede the fact that underclassmen have a habit of making their biggest improvements early in their careers, but if you were hoping to find a stable of proven veterans to sustain last season’s brilliant defensive line play, you won’t find it here. Besides Carter, Hampton and McEvily, the tackle spot is best defined as young and inexperienced.

Watching those youthful parts come together will be one of the more intriguing personnel developments of the spring. I see potential in this young but talented tackle group, and other players (namely, Arnfelt himself) have offered glowing praise about the players he’s leaving behind. If he’s right, if this tackle group is indeed ready to make 2013 a seamless continuation of last season, spring practice will lift the curtain on a largely unknown position group, potentially unearthing a promising youthful core of tackles, and the concerns about replacing Arnfelt won’t feel nearly as worrisome as they do now.

Position Battles

(DT) Hampton vs. Carter vs. McEvily: I’m including McEvily in this discussion to cover my bases. It’s not unrealistic to think Carter and Hampton could wind up with the two starting tackle spots next season; it’s just not likely. McEvily played himself into a starting role in 2012, and he maintained his position throughout the season. Unless he is thoroughly outplayed in spring and summer workouts, I don’t envision coaches leaving him out of the starting lineup when his play last season, coupled with Arnfelt’s remarkable consistency, was one of the main reasons why the D-Line turned into one of this defense’s biggest strengths.

So in the interest of eliminating one of the options, let’s move onto the other tackle spot. As I wrote above, Carter and Hampton are the two likeliest candidates to win the job. Carter is quicker, stronger and more athletic; Hampton is smarter, more self-aware and more experienced. Both played in every game last season, with Carter racking up 15 tackles to Hampton’s nine (Hampton finished the year with three tackles for loss, whereas Carter only had one).

One of the biggest takeaways from last season’s spring practice was Carter’s strength and athleticism. His presence, especially in the spring game, was undeniably positive, and he made an impact in limited action over the course of a successful 2012. This season, his goal will be to prove he deserves the starting spot over Hampton. The final decision won’t be resolved until the summer, but by the end of spring workouts, we should have a pretty good idea of who we’ll see lining up on gameday.

(DE) Deonte Gibson vs. Dean Lowry vs. Ifeadi Odenigbo: One defensive end position is as secure as any position on the roster. Tyler Scott will be starting when Northwestern takes the field for its first game, rest assured. The other side is less clear. Gibson showed flashes when called upon last season, Lowry was one of just three true freshmen to not only play but contribute in a major way and Odenigbo is arguably the most highly-touted recruit in program history. Even if there’s nothing beyond high school highlight tapes and scouting appraisals (along with summer workouts) to recommend his credentials, I won’t make the mistake of excluding Odenigbo.

Each player brings a unique style to Northwestern’s pass-rushing equation. Lowry is long (6’6’’) and quick, a relentless worker and someone who, as we saw time and again last season, can adjust during games to vary his pass-rushing techniques and keep opposing lines guessing. Gibson is pure speed – remember his cross-field spring-and-sack of Michigan quarterback Devin Gardner? And Odenigbo, in the small body of work there is to draw from, is by all accounts every bit the preternaturally gifted, explosive, dynamic edge force recruiting services made him out to be. And after a year spent rehabbing his shoulder and adding mass to an already powerful frame, Odenigbo could be an even more devastating pass rusher.

Whoever wins the job – and again, we won’t know for sure until the summer – there probably isn’t a wrong choice. Each can and will develop into a productive pass rusher down the road. Besides, when you think about it, “starter” is just an arbitrary designation anyway. All of these players are going to see the field at various times this season, and the answer to this question could wind up being a by-committee situation where Gibson, Lowry and Odenigbo split snaps in relatively equal measure. I’m just excited to see them compete in a competitive setting this spring, and you should feel the same way.

Our best guess at the depth chart

Defensive tackle
1. Sean McEvily
2. Will Hampton
3. Chance Carter
4. Greg Kuhar
5. Eric Joraskie
6. C.J. Robbins
7. Connor Mahoney
Redshirt: Tyler Lancaster

Defensive end
1. Tyler Scott
2. Deonte Gibson
3. Dean Lowry
4. Ifeadi Odenigbo
5. Max Chapman

*Note: DE Deonte Gibson and DT Will Hampton will not participate in spring workouts.
Check out our analysis on the other positions: Quarterback