When Dean Lowry first put on a Northwestern uniform in 2012, he didn't accomplish much. Just one quarterback hurry in a crazy 42-41 Northwestern win against Syracuse at the Carrier Dome.
But fast forward to Oct. 24, 2015 and senior Dean Lowry is donning his purple number 94 for the 43rd time in Lincoln, Nebraska. He is setting a program record with six tackles for a loss. He is making 10 tackles, notching two sacks, and leading Northwestern to a huge road win.
Lowry's 43rd game as a Wildcat was a far cry from his first. In just four short years, Lowry has become one of Northwestern's best players, and quite possibly one of the best defensive ends in the Big Ten. With a strong finish to the season, he has a legitimate shot of playing professionally after graduation.
Lowry is also a far cry from who he was when he stepped onto the Carrier Dome field as a true freshman.
That Dean Lowry was one that Lowry himself calls "tall and lengthy" and one that college recruiters called ‘a work in progress.' A two-star recruit according to 247 Sports, the native of Rockford, Illinois did have offers from schools such as Iowa, Minnesota and Illinois, coming out of Boylan High School, but Lowry chose to come to Northwestern.
"I think it just sort of instilled a blue collar work ethic, that mentality that you want to prove people wrong," Lowry says. "I just really think it helps your work ethic each day to go out there and prove people wrong."
And prove people wrong he has, but not without a little help.
During the entirety of Lowry's freshman year he played mostly as the backup to then Northwestern junior and 2012 team defensive MVP Tyler Scott. Scott was a mentor to Lowry during both the 2012 and 2013 seasons, helping him learn the defense and get adjusted to college play. He also helped instill something else in Lowry, something more important than just defensive schemes.
"What I learned mostly from Tyler was work ethic and attitude, you know, it's your daily approach of how you do things and how you watch film, come to practice each day," Lowry says. "It's a long season, so you got to have the right mentality each day to be successful."
However, even the mentor could see that there was something special about Dean Lowry.
"He's a lot bigger than most freshman are, he's 6-6, 250," Scott said back in September of 2012. "It's pretty special stuff, and it's pretty cool to see how much he's picked up already."
It became clear pretty early on that Lowry had been underrated as a high schooler. But Lowry's story is more about what he's done to become the player he is today.
"He's developed, he's put on fifteen pounds every year, he's bought into our strength program," says Coach Pat Fitzgerald. "He's done a great job with Marty Long and developed really really well. I mean, his technique has really, really improved."
Getting bigger and stronger is something that Lowry also cited as a reason for his constant improvement. It allowed him to add another layer to his game, and turned his speed-oriented rushing style into a diverse, unpredictable one.
Here's the difference: when Lowry was smaller he had to be lined up on the outside because he couldn't match up physically with bigger offensive lineman. He's always been a talented enough pass rusher to beat opposing tackles with his speed, but his size seriously hurt his versatility and his rush defense.
This was Lowry as a freshman:
Lowry simply beats Michigan State's right tackle off the snap with his speed, no strength required.
Now that he's 40 pounds heavier, Northwestern can line Lowry up closer to the center, and instead of only rushing outside the tackles, he can now rush the B-gap between the tackle and the guard. This helps add more variability to his pass rushing, but most notably improves Lowry's rush defense.
That aspect of Lowry's arsenal was on display Saturday, when he regularly shot into the backfield:
Lowry now uses a combo of both speed and strength. He gets a great jump off the line to initially beat his man, and then muscles his way to the running back as Nebraska's tight end hangs off of him. Getting bigger and stronger has allowed Lowry the freedom to expand his game inside the tackles and he's taken advantage of it.
Getting stronger is only going to get you so far though. "I think a big key to a good defensive lineman is just effort, just the will to get there," Lowry says. "A lot of guys are big and strong and fast, but being able to have that motor and that relentless attitude to get to the quarterback is why guys have a lot of sacks."
The fourth quarter against Nebraska offered up a great example of the full Dean Lowry experience:
Lowry's increased strength has allowed Northwestern to move him around the defensive formation. Here, he's lined up as a defensive tackle. He gets double teamed, but is strong enough to push the guard who initially engages him back into the pocket. When his progress is stopped though, that's when the "motor" kicks in. He keeps pushing, eventually breaking free and taking down Tommy Armstrong Jr. as offensive linemen, worn down, just stand and watch.
Lowry's strength helps him and his will guides him, but his awareness is what makes him a great player. Many players with his size just put their head down and rush for the quarterback. Lowry always makes sure he knows what's going on around him. That's how he's tallied 18 pass breakups and three interceptions as a defensive end.
"It helps being a little taller than most guys so I can see over the tackles, so you can have that vision to know when to jump and get your hands up," Lowry says. "But also just film study, having the awareness to do that and having that repetition in practice and the second nature, the intuition to get your hands up there."
That intuition allowed Lowry to make one of the biggest plays of the season against Duke:
This is a JJ Watt-esque play from Lowry. It's a great tip and catch, but it's the read that's the most impressive part. As soon as he sees the right tackle disengage, he pulls up and waits for the throw. It truly is a brilliant piece of defense, and who better to break it down than Lowry himself.
"Duke, all game, was throwing more quick passes and three step drops, so our emphasis in that game was getting our hands up," says Lowry. "They were getting the ball out pretty quick, so we knew that we could affect the game by getting our hands up and tipping passes."
This, of course, wasn't Lowry's first interception. He had a pick-six in 2013. But when comparing the two, Lowry favors the pick against Duke, just not for the reason you'd think.
"I was really really tired that time, so I got the pick and we were off the field," says Lowry with a laugh. "So that was big for our defense."
As Dean Lowry finishes a stellar Northwestern career over the next month, it may be time to start thinking about the question that might literally be worth a million dollars: What about the NFL Draft?
"I really haven't [thought about it], no," says Lowry. "I think that if I play well this year, things will take care of themselves, so my focus is just one game each time, just getting this team to a bowl game and winning a bowl game."
It seems that Lowry has learned more than just football from Fitzgerald. But coach-speak aside, this is just who Dean Lowry is. He' s had to work every day to get to where he is now, and that mentality isn't ebbing away anytime soon. With the way he's been playing and has played the last four years, Dean Lowry should be expecting a phone call from someone very important next May.