Having wrapped up another slate of spring practices, it is time to revisit Northwestern’s position units in painstaking detail as they hit the weight room and finish spring quarter in advance of preseason workouts. We last dove into each position group after the bowl game, and spring practice – spotty and inconclusive as the visual evidence can be in this setting – occasions another thorough inquiry into depth chart happenings and position battles.
Returning starters: DE Tyler Scott (Sr), DT Sean McEvilly (Jr)
Others returning: DE Dean Lowry (So), DT Chance Carter (Jr), DT Will Hampton (Sr), DE Deonte Gibson (So), DT C.J. Robbins (So), DE Ifeadi Odenigbo (RS Fr), DT Greg Kuhar (RS Fr), DE Max Chapman (So), DT Connor Mahoney (RS Fr)
Depth Chart Projection:
DE: Tyler Scott, Ifeadi Odenigbo
DT: Sean McEvilly, Greg Kuhar OR C.J. Robbins
DT: Chance Carter OR Will Hampton
DE: Dean Lowry OR Deonte Gibson
Explaining the Depth Chart
Spring practice is more about development than it is position battles, so expect most NU position battles to continue well into the fall. That's especially true on the defensive line, because even though there will be plenty of fighting for playing time in the fall, there wasn't much in the spring due to injuries. Deonte Gibson was hurt this spring, but he'll be in contention for a spot at defensive end, but Will Hampton will be in contention for a spot at defensive tackle, despite missing the spring due to injury.
As far as the depth chart goes, Tyler Scott has firmly earned a spot at defensive end and will challenge for Big Ten — and possibly national — awards. However, NU really has three starting-caliber defensive ends in Scott, Dean Lowry and Deonte Gibson. Only two can play at a time, but expect to see a lot of all three of them. Ifeadi Odenigbo will also see time, particularly on third downs. At defensive tackle, Sean McEvilly — last year's starter — likely has a spot nailed down. Chance Carter and Will Hampton will battle for the spot opposite him. Carter came on last spring, but couldn't nail down a starting spot. He'll have a chance this year against the senior Hampton. Meanwhile, Greg Kuhar and C.J. Robbins have both been mentioned by their teammates as players to watch, and Robbins could also see some time at defensive end.
Stock Up: C.J. Robbins
It's kind of amazing how much we've heard Robbins' name from his teammates as a potential "step up" guy this season, especially considering he's yet to see a college field. It's unlikely that he'll start, since he has three experienced players ahead of him, and coach Pat Fitzgerald tends to reward experience, at least early in the season. However, Robbins will certainly see the field, maybe even at both defensive tackle and defensive end.
Robbins was slated to play in a backup role last year, before having to miss the season due to injuries. Considering how much respect he's garnered among his teammates, he as the potential to have a breakout year in 2013. His versatility to play either defensive tackle or defensive end gives him an added edge in earning playing time, as Fitzgerald can plug him in different positions in specific situations.
Stock Down: Will Hampton
This isn't really fair to Hampton, since he hasn't had a chance to compete for the starting spot at defensive tackle. However, that's exactly the point: Hampton wasn't able to play, while his main competition — Chance Carter — got in reps. Carter is a talented player who looks poised to break through on the depth chart eventually, but Hampton will certainly get a fair shot. He started at DT last season, earning the spot in fall camp, but was eventually passed up by McEvilly. He'll need another strong fall camp to win the starting spot for the opener once again.
I'm supposed to pick a position battle to watch here, but I'm equally intrigued by both of them, so I'll just comment on each one.
I mentioned earlier that NU essentially has three starters at defensive end in Scott, Lowry and Gibson. The problem is, only two of them can start. Regardless of who starts, all three of them will play, and defensive end figures to be one of the Wildcats' strengths on defense this year, along with the safeties and the linebacker unit as a whole. Lowry really came on as a productive player last year, and he's on course for a breakout year in 2013. Gibson was a consistently solid player who could also take the next step. It will be an interesting position battle to watch, especially since both players are so good.
Carter and Hampton both bring something different to the table, and both are capable starters. Hampton was the opening day starter last year, and he's a senior, which will work in his favor. He also showed the ability to win a job in the fall last year. However, he lost his starting job last year, and the younger Carter could be poised to take the next step as a productive starter on the defensive line. Will Fitzgerald go with experience o the young challenger? History would suggest the former, but every situation is different, and from what we saw of Carter this spring, he's certainly capable of winning the job.
Biggest Offseason Question: Can this group be as good as last year's?
Last year's defensive line was much better than expected, and that was due in part to its seniors: DT Brian Arnfelt and DE Quentin Williams. NU will undoubtedly miss both of them — particularly Arnfelt because of the depth at tackle — but can this year's group be as good as last year's? It's tough to tell right now, because the talent and potential are there, but the lack of experience might hold the unit back.
Despite the loss of Williams at defensive end, NU could be even better there. Scott's progression will start to level off eventually, but he'll be one of the top defensive ends in the Big Ten in 2013 and could be mentioned for national awards. Opposite Scott, both Deonte Gibson and Dean Lowry have the talent to be solid Big Ten players, and if they have breakout years, they could be mentioned for All-Big Ten lists down the road. And don't forget about Ifeadi Odenigbo, who at the time, was the top-ranked recruit NU had ever gotten. He'll have to keep putting on weight, but he could make some noise on third downs this year.
At defensive tackle, things get a little bit more murky. Arnfelt was clearly the leader of the interior defensive line, and his presence will be missed, but McEvilly, Carter and Hampton are all capable players. Will the lack of experience hurt? Probably at the beginning, and the run defense could struggle early on, but if things start to piece together, the defensive line could be just as good as last year's unit, or maybe even better. The potential is there, but the line has a long ways to go to reach that potential.
Post-Spring Breakdowns So Far