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.
Pass defense was Northwestern’s biggest flaw last season. This basic truth is hard to dispute: the Wildcats ranked seventh in the Big Ten in average yards allowed per attempt (6.6) and last in average yards allowed per game (250.5). When opposing teams wanted to advance the ball against the Wildcats, they typically did so through the air.
On most occasions, the calculus was fairly simple. Northwestern’s pass defense was better than it had been in most years, but it was nothing close to elite, and comparatively speaking, less effective than the run defense (which ranked fourth in the Big Ten at 3.77 yards per attempt). At the risk of painting too narrow a portrait, it must be mentioned that the pass defense did have its bright spots – the Gator Bowl, wherein Mississippi State quarterback Tyler Russell threw four picks on 12-for-28 passing for a measly 108 yards, was one highlight. The Michigan State game (Andrew Maxwell isn’t a great barometer by which to judge one’s ability to stop passing offenses, granted, but his flaws as a passer doesn’t completely gloss over what was a strong effort from NU’s secondary) was another.
The common denominator behind the pass defense’s occasionally lockdown performances? A strong pass rush. Tyler Scott, as you well know, is not only Northwestern’s best pass rusher, he is in the conversation for best overall pass rusher in the Big Ten. Scott returns for his senior season after finishing tied for the league lead in sacks (9.0) and posting career highs in games played (13), tackles (42), tackles for loss (18.5) and forced fumbles (3). He was arguably the Wildcats’ most valuable defender in 2012 (more on that later in the countdown), because without Scott, the pass defense that ranked near or at the bottom in the Big Ten in most measurable categories would have been even worse.
The reason Scott isn’t ranked closer to the top of this list is because Northwestern has three defensive ends who either project to be good enough, or already are good enough, to take his place. Deonte Gibson, Dean Lowry, Ifeadi Odenigbo (and even C.J. Robbins and Max Chapman) have all either proven themselves in game situations or shown enough in recent spring practices to inspire confidence they’ll be capable contributors this fall. That holds true especially for Idenigbo, who started to flash some of the athleticism and unexpected power that caught scouts’ eyes nationwide during his high school career.
Losing Scott would not help this pass rush; the Wildcats would be worse off, make no mistake. But I’m not ready to say his loss would absolutely devastate Northwestern’s ability to get after the quarterback. That’s not a comment on Scott’s abilities – which are, as most preseason Big Ten rankings and All American projections seem to believe, pretty good – so much as it is a hat-tip to the young pass rushers Northwestern has groomed over the past two seasons.
There are other players on this roster whose departure could have more drastic rippling effects. To find out, stay tuned for the rest of the countdown.