We’re bringing back a little feature we started up last season, back before Northwestern was considered a real contender in the Legends Division and a consensus preseason top-25 team. Things were different one year ago, but we were still able, with a similar degree of predictive accuracy, to gauge Northwestern’s 10 most important players. Like last year, it’s important to remember the criteria for this ranking aren’t hard or concrete or anything resembling scientific. They are what we make of them, so make sure to read each explanation before disputing a particular choice. And with that, it’s time to kick off 2013’s preseason most important wildcat countdown.
When it comes to depth, Northwestern's biggest concerns heading into the 2013 season are at cornerback and defensive tackle. The Wildcats graduated star defensive tackle Brian Arnfelt last season, and that leaves Sean McEvilly — who didn't even start the entire year — as the lone returning starter. There is still talent at defensive tackle — Chance Carter and the young guys have shown flashes, while senior Will Hampton has been steady when needed — but McEvilly has by far the most big-game experience of any of the DTs, and NU needs him to step up in 2013.
McEvilly seemingly came out of nowhere to become a starter last year. Originally, Carter and Hampton looked like the two most likely candidates for the starting spot opposite Arnfelt, but McEvilly passed them up during the season and contributed to a solid NU run defense. Last year's run defense ranked third in the Big Ten, allowing 127.62 yards per game. The year before that, the Wildcats ranked 10th in the conference, allowing 177.31 yards per game. With a green secondary, the defensive tackles' play in defending the run was crucial to making sure the safeties didn't have to cheat up.
This year, the secondary figures to be better, but it may not show if the Wildcats can't do their job up front. The defensive tackles must be just as good as they were last season, and that starts with McEvilly. He made a big jump last season and was still improving at the end of the year, meaning there is still room for growth. If he's average, the run defense could be average, and in a league with such good running backs — especially the ones on NU's schedule — that could be the difference between a Legends Division title and a trip to the Buffalo Wild Wings Bowl.
Expect NU's interior defensive line to have some growing pains at first — that's always to be expected when new players come in. However, the key will be how those players develop once Big Ten play hits and whether McEvilly can emerge as a true No. 1 defensive tackle. If he does, the Wildcats' defense could show great improvement from last year. If not, the run defense could be a weakness, like it was in 2011.