The rapid pace with which Northwestern has filled out eight slots in its 2014 recruiting class has been a bit difficult to digest. Every time the Wildcats land a new prospect, and you’d like a day or three to sit back and analyze how said prospect could fit in the Wildcats’ plans sometime down the line, Pat Fitzgerald snaps his fingers, invokes one of the nations most balanced recruiting pitches – top-notch academics and a rising football program, all packaged into one optimally situated Chicago-side campus – and voila: another verbal commitment. The Wildcats’ recruiting prowess has not gone unnoticed, and this class is turning into maybe the single best group of Pat Fitzgerald’s tenure.
The unbridled exuberance has drowned out one important fact – Northwestern still could use some youthful upgrades at a few positions.
The question of which position is in the most dire current state, in terms of promising talent making its way into Evanston either this summer or next, is debatable. Superback could use a fresh face. Adding a safety depth piece wouldn’t hurt. I’m willing to listen to any and all suggesstions, but for me, Northwestern’s biggest immediate recruiting need is rather simple to identify – it’s the defensive line.
I’ve exhausted more than one column or “take two” feature argument addressing this topic, so frequent readers of this space know exactly where I’m coming from, but if you’re new to Insidenu, here’s the deal: the defensive line appears to be Northwestern’s single biggest positional concern. Senior Will Hampton and juniors Chance Carter and Sean McEvily are the only players with actual game experience at tackle. Greg Kuhar and C.J. Robbins (who is also expected to see time at defensive end) are the two most qualified backups, both have endured various injury problems throughout the early parts of their careers and the depth situation is such that, unless someone switches positions before training camp or emerges into a reliable central D-Line anchor, they will be asked to play in large bulk right from the outset.
At defensive end, the concern is less immediate, more protracted. Tyler Scott returns as arguably the Big Ten’s best pass rusher. Ifeadi Odenigbo and Deonte Gibson offer first-class speed off the edge. Dean Lowry is a relentless edge force just barely scratching the surface of his abilities. Max Chapman has shown bursts in small samples. That is a deep and solid group through and through, but it only lasts this season. This iteration of the Wildcats’ line will mature and over time, once Odenigbo and Lowry and Gibson are beginning to enter their final seasons, ensuring a quality transition to the next generation of pass-rushers is absolutely pivotal. Right now, that next generation does not exist.
The defensive tackle situation has been addressed, both in this class and 2013. Tyler Lancaster and Eric Joraskie will enter the fold this fall (one of them very well could challenge for an important depth spot behind Hampton, Carter and McEvily) and Ben Oxley will join the mix one year later. The pass-rushing aspect of defensive line can’t fall back on the long-term security of young prospects competing and battling and pushing their more-experienced peers for playing time, simply because there are no 2013 or 2014 recruits slotted to play defensive end.
That is why Northwestern needs to identify, woo and secure at least one, and preferably two, ends in this class. Garrett Dickerson and Noah Westerfield are popular names, and Corona (CA) product Jaylen Johnson has been the latest chique subject of NU recruiting banter. If the Wildcats can get one or more of those guys, or reach out to other possible defensive end prospects, they will have preempted a potentially tenuous depth situation at an all-important position, akin to the uber-thin rotation at DT you see entering this season.
Thinking ahead in recruiting is how you avoid depth problems, and it goes without saying Northwestern is very much aware of their roster needs. This one deserves Pat Fitzgerald and his staff’s full attention, if it hasn’t captured it already, and I fully expect the Wildcats to pull in a DE before this class wraps up. Northwestern’s 2014 class is talented and eye-popping and overwhelming and unprecedented and quickly and decisively assembled. It is all of those things and more.
If defensive end isn’t addressed sometimes before signing day 2014, it could be incomplete.