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2014 spring defensive line breakdown: how good will Odenigbo be?

The InsideNU spring guide is back as we get set for Northwestern’s spring football practice. Practice starts February 26 and runs through the spring game on April 12, with a break for finals and the school’s regularly scheduled spring break. We’ll run through each position unit to let you know what to watch once practice begins, starting with the quarterbacks.

Returning starters: DT Chance Carter (Sr.), DT Sean McEvilly (Sr.), DE Dean Lowry (Jr.)

Others returning:  DE/DT Max Chapman (Jr.), DE Ifeadi Odenigbo (So.), DT Tyler Lancaster (RS Fr.), DT Greg Kuhar (So.), DT C.J. Robbins (Jr.), DE Deonte Gibson (Jr.), DT Connor Mahoney (So.), DT Eric Joraskie (RS Fr).

Incoming recruits: DE Xavier Washington, DT Fred Wyatt, DT Ben Oxley, DE James Prather

Biggest spring question: How good will Ifeadi Odenigbo be?

It probably wasn’t fair to expect Odenigbo – even with an offer sheet that comprised a host of top programs – to shine as a freshman. Freshmen are, by their very nature, hard to assess. He played in one game, injured his elbow and sat out the rest of the season. Odenigbo received a medical hardship waiver, which meant he didn’t burn a year of eligibility.

Odenigbo played his first full season in 2013, and his performance left fans and media asking the question you see above. Odenigbo wasn’t dominant. He wasn’t even the best pass rusher on his own team. Scott was. But Odenigbo did begin to display some of the traits – tremendous speed, a quick burst off the line of scrimmage, power – that had scouts doing backflips during his high school days. Odenigbo recorded 5.5 sacks and 6.5 tackles for loss, good for second and fourth on the team, respectively.

He probably could have had more, but Odenigbo played mostly on third downs and in passing situations last season. How coordinator Mike Hankwitz plans to use him this season, whether Odenigbo plays more often and how he builds off a promising season are all interesting questions that I decided to bundle into one vague one. I think Odenigbo’s pretty good. That’s what practically every recruiting analyst thought when he was coming out of high school, anyway, and last season he began to show it on the field.

Trying to predict how good he will be this season is a different matter altogether. We can try to quantify it in sacks; maybe he’ll have eight or nine. Or we can just say that Odenigbo is one of Northwestern’s most athletic players, is dripping with potential (has more Twitter game than you or any other Wildcat) and should be able to help mitigate the impact of losing Scott.

I think defensive line will be one of Northwestern’s strongest positions this season. Part of that belief hinges on the answer to this spring question. If he’s really good, like double digit sacks-good, Northwestern’s D-line could be one of the best in the Big Ten. If Odenigbo’s marginally better, it’ll still be good. Odenigbo’s high school credentials suggest he can be much more than good, which sort of explains why I think the 6-foot-3, 235-pounder was just getting his feet wet last season.

Odenigbo set a baseline, and remember, he was only a freshman. In his second full season, Odenigbo should be much better. I’m talking about all of this, of course, before spring practice, which probably isn’t the best use of my or your time, because we’ll have all summer to talk about Odenigbo. But after Northwestern’s debacle of a season, you’re practically begging for some premature and possibly misguided hype, right? Odenigbo’s the perfect guy for that.

Let’s see what he can do in spring ball.

Position battles

There shouldn’t be any competition for the two starting tackle spots. Those’ll go to Carter and McEvilly. Lowry’s got one defensive end spot locked up, while Gibson, Chapman or Odenigbo could get the other. All three figure to get a lot of playing time. Chapman could actually see time at end and tackle, as was the case last season.

I’ll be interested to see how the D-Line reserves perform. Guys like Robbins, Kuhar and Joraskie could wind up playing a lot of snaps this season. They can make a good impression in spring workouts.

Our best guess at the depth chart

DE - Dean Lowry, Max Chapman
DT - Chance Carter, Greg Kuhar or Eric Joraskie
DT - Sean McEvilly, C.J. Robbins
DE - Deonte Gibson or Ifeadi Odenigbo