This week marks the start of our This Year vs. Last Year series. Essentially, it's just like it sounds — we'll break down how each unit looks this year compared to last year. First up is the defensive line.
Key Losses: DE Quentin Williams, DT Brian Arnfelt
Returning Starters: DE Tyler Scott, DT Sean McEvilly
Other Key Returning Players: DE Deonte Gibson, DE Dean Lowry, DT Will Hampton, DT Chance Carter, DE/DT CJ Robbins
Why 2012 Was Better: Northwestern ranked third in the Big Ten in rush defense in 2012, allowing just 127.62 yards per game, after coming in 10th in the conference the year before. Much of that improvement was due to the interior defensive line, which did a lot of rotating players, but was still effective. Will Hampton, Chance Carter and Sean McEvilly all saw significant time at one tackle spot — McEvilly won the starting job by the end of the year — while Brain Arnfelt was a consistent force at the other spot. The defensive tackle spot — and thus the entire rush defense — could take a major hit without Arnfelt in the lineup.
As good as the tackles were, the ends may have been better. Tyler Scott has quietly grown into one of the most underrated defensive ends in the Big Ten, while Quentin Williams was a solid, steady veteran on the other side. They were particularly dominant in the Gator Bowl, but were effective throughout the season. NU finished fifth in the Big Ten with 28 sacks, a major improvement over a 2011 season where the Wildcats finished last in the conference with 17 sacks.
Statistically, 2012 was the best year for NU's defensive line since 2008. It was perhaps the most improved unit on the team form the year before, and it continued to improve throughout the year. It had an interesting mix of young guys and veterans, but that mix seemed to work very well.
Why 2013 Will Be Better: Yes, the defensive line loses a great tackle in Brian Arnfelt, and there's no doubt that will hurt. However, there is still plenty of experience returning at tackle. Sean McEvilly improved a lot throughout the season, and Will Hampton and Chance Carter are both proven players. If just two of them make a jump next season, the interior defensive line could be even better than expected.
NU does lose Quentin Williams on the edge, but the pass rush should be even better this year. That's not a shot at Williams; rather, it's a comment on just how good the rest of the ends can be. Tyler Scott has the potential to be a First Team All-Big Ten player, while his counterparts have the potential to do the same in the future. Deonte Gibson impressed last year and Dean Lowry could break out after a surprisingly productive freshman season. There's also still Ifeadi Odenigbo, the highly-touted recruit who has a reputation as a great pass rusher.
This Year or Last Year: Toss-Up
I know this is the easy way out, but it's really still too early to tell which year's defensive line will be better. If I had to make a gut decision, I'd say the run defense will be a little bit worse, but the pass rush will be a little better. However, both have the potential to be better. The biggest key will be how the interior defensive line steps up to replace Arnfelt. If Sean McEvilly continues to improve, Chance Carter shows the promise he's capable of achieving with more playing time and Will Hampton saves his best for his senior year, the line will be just fine. However, those are big "ifs.
Expect the pass rush to be good, even without Williams. We already know that Scott is a top player, but if Lowry and Gibson can break out — they certainly have the potential — and Odenigbo continues to develop, this could be one of the best pass rushes in the league. Overall, the potential is there for the defensive line to be better than last year. We'll have to wait until the season gets rolling to see if that potential is realized.