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Time to Step Up: Defensive Tackle Reserves

The discrete components that mix an mash together to form football teams change each and every season. Players graduate. Offensive and defensive philosophies are tweaked. Injuries throw a monkey wrench into your most foolproof schematic plans. Northwestern keeps intact much of the core that won 10 games last season, but there are new roles and responsibilities – adapted specifically to accentuate players’ biggest strengths – littered about this year’s roster. The revisions and alterations made on last season’s team will foist new challenges on the Wildcats’ 2013 season. 

“Time to Step Up” is our humble attempt to capture those challenges in convenient little breakdowns, none of which must conform to any particular unit of a team’s construction. Players, coaches and vaguely defined team attributes are all fair game here. Oh, and one more thing: just because it’s time for, say, a certain player to “step up” doesn’t mean his performance lagged last season. So before you wail and stomp and clench your firsts, read (or at least skim) the entire post. Lazy title glancing defeats the entire purpose. Don’t be that guy.

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Defensive Tackle Reserves

There are three players with game experience within this year’s group of defensive tackles. After that? A green ensemble composed of redshirt freshmen Greg Kuhar and Connor Mahoney and sophomore C.J. Robbins, who will also split time at defensive end this season. This is not the picture of stability any team wants in the middle of its defensive line heading into the season, but that’s what recruiting’s for, right? Grooming new players to fill the voids left by graduated veterans. Unfortunately for Northwestern, the two defensive tackles who committed for the class of 2014 (Ben Oxley and Fred Wyatt) won’t be arriving until next season. In the meantime, the only player slotted to slide in to the DT mix this season is Tyler Lancaster, a converted offensive lineman.

Naturally, this situation is bound to raise some considerable suspicion as we move closer to preseason camp. Stopping the run is, well, something you want to do if your goals, as Pat Fitzgerald has made emphatically clear all offseason, include postseason stops in Indianapolis and Pasadena. Northwestern’s rush defense ranked fourth in the Big Ten against the run last season at 3.77 yards per play. Part of that had to do with Brian Arnfelt’s sterling individual play (as well as a heretofore-unachieved injury-free season), but a more convincing argument, for me, is the collection of efforts that came together to give the Wildcats more push and trench-side disruptiveness than most any NU DT group over the past half decade.

The defensive tackles were a remarkably consistent force last season, but as we look ahead to 2013, the danger of a regressive move back towards 2011, when the Wildcats ranked 10th in conference rush D, and away from last season’s improved mark, is readily apparent.

I’m not worried about the top-three DT options available this season (Sean McEvily, Chance Carter and Will Hampton) so much as I am the possibility one or more of those players will, for whatever reason, not play up to his considerable potential. Let’s say Hampton, who sat out spring practice with an injury, loses his season to a knee injury in the first quarter of the first game of the season. That would leave Robbins, Kuhar or Mahoney, none of whom have sniffed a college field (let alone been charged with a starting role) at any point during their time in Evanston, to plug the hole.

All three of those guys are capable players: Mahoney distinguished himself in scout team workouts last season, Kuhar was one of the most talented pickups of NU’s 2012 recruiting class and Robbins, beset by injuries in previous years, brought tenacity and explosiveness – the type of stuff lower extremity injuries make exceedingly difficult to evince – in spring workouts. Each player should contribute nicely to form a reliable pool of tackle depth.

Notice the phrasing; “should” is as far as I’m willing to go in outlining these players’ upcoming seasons. Sorry, but I can’t offer a more definitive assessment at this point, because without any game evidence to go off, my judgment goes no further than practice observations, sporadic coach chatter and general recruiting rankings. Needless to say, I’d like to see a little more before making sweeping conclusions about their respective capabilities.

To convince me, and anyone else who might be a little bit concerned about Northwestern’s defensive tackles entering 2013, that losing Arnfelt isn’t as big of a deal as it seems, that the depth concerns I’ve wasted countless words on this offseason are a huge stretch, I’ll need to see it borne out on the field. The top three players might well stay healthy all season, and maybe Kuhar, Robbins and Mahoney can slowly but surely ease their way into major college football. That would be ideal.

If something does go horribly awry – a season-threatening injury, an inexplicable lapse in performance, or whatever other doomsday scenarios you can think of – their first taste of Big Ten gridiron could wind up being too much to swallow.