There was one thing that really stood out at Northwestern’s spring practice on Tuesday. Redshirt freshman Eric Joraskie, who is listed at 6-foot-4, 260 pounds, at defensive tackle, on NU’s spring roster, was taking reps at defensive end. Not just some of his reps, but most of them; enough to think NU’s coaching staff is at least thinking about playing him there this season.
My first thought: why? Why does NU need another defensive end, when it already has plenty of depth at that position? Ifeadi Odenigbo, Deonte Gibson, Max Chapman and Dean Lowry figure to get the majority of reps there. Adding Joraskie, who was recruited as a tackle, to that rotation doesn’t seem like the best way to use him. Where Northwestern needs more depth is at defensive tackle, which is why Joraskie’s potential move to end is puzzling.
It’s too early to be picking nits and pointing out roster warts. I get that. And what I’m about to say was an issue we covered in depth last season. But it’s hard to look at NU’s defensive tackle rotation and not think the Wildcats are going to be vulnerable against the run this season. The two starters, if the season were to begin today, would be Sean McEvilly and Chance Carter. Both of those players are OK; neither is great. The starting rotation, though, isn’t the issue. It’s that NU has virtually no one behind them that’s proven much of anything.
The two top backups at tackle are C.J. Robbins and Greg Kuhar. Kuhar got some playing time during the second half of the season and acquitted himself fairly well. Robbins played in all 12 games and was just OK, but he missed his entire redshirt freshman season with a foot injury. If either McEvilly or Carter were to sustain an injury – McEvilly did last season and is sitting out spring practice – either Kuhar or Robbins would be thrust into the starting lineup. While saying neither player can handle that role would be an unfair speculative leap, it’s inarguably true that neither Kuhar nor Robbins has done anything to indicate he’s good enough – or durable enough – to handle a starter’s role for a significant number of games.
This is not an unfamiliar argument. You heard it prior to last season, when Carter, McEvilly and Hampton were the only three defensive tackles with actual playing experience. How did NU fare against the run? It ranked eighth in the Big Ten in yards allowed per play (4.15), 57th in Football Outsiders’ Rushing Defense S&P + metric and allowed Ohio State and Wisconsin – the two marquee opponents NU faced to open conference to play – to gash the Wildcats for a combined 534 yards on the ground. Hampton left in the offseason, which leaves McEvilly – who, again, is coming off an injury that forced him to miss seven games in 2013 – Carter and two reserves, Kuhar and Robbins, with very little experience. It's not clear how effective redshirt freshman Tyler Lancaster could be this season and I don’t suspect either of NU’s freshman DT recruits, Ben Oxley and Fred Wyatt, will play.
You’d think NU would like to use a talented and physically gifted player like Joraskie at a position (DT) of need – not one that already has three starting caliber contributors in Lowry, Odenigbo and Gibson. The weirdest part, in my view, is that Joraskie was recruited as a tackle. Why would NU’s coaches, mindful of the lack of depth at tackle, decide to switch his position? The standard spring practice disclaimer applies here. It’s too early to say whether Joraskie will ultimately play end or tackle. I’m extrapolating based on what I saw at spring practice on Tuesday.
And anyway, even if Joraskie were to play tackle, it’s highly unlikely he’d transform that position group from “weak” to “world-beating.” Joraskie would add depth and competition to a unit that needs both. NU doesn’t need to beef up its end rotation; Odenigbo, Lowry and Gibson comprise a capable unit, probably one of NU’s stronger positions. The Wildcats’ tackle rotation is lacking, though, and Joraskie could bolster it. But it’s looking like NU wants to use him at end.
I’m fairly certain we will be revisiting this topic at some point over the next few months.
UPDATE: Coach Pat Fitzgerald reportedly said at practice today that Joraskie will be playing end at NU.