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Northwestern football season in review: Defensive line player grades

Led by senior bookends, this was a very good unit

Jeff Hanisch-USA TODAY Sports

With Northwestern's regular season over, and only the bowl game remaining, it's time to evaluate the Wildcats' 2015 season. Over the next two weeks, between Monday, Dec. 14 and Christmas, we'll be going position by position and doling out grades to every Northwestern player that was a significant contributor this year. We'll start with the quarterbacks, progress through the offense, move over to the defensive side of the ball, and then finish up with special teams and coaches on Christmas Eve.

Now for our first defensive unit, the linemen.

On a defense stocked with playmakers at every level, it seemed the onus was on a different group each week to come up with a big play (or, in many cases, multiple). In the middle of the defense, Anthony Walker's star shined brightest and behind him, it was Nick VanHoose, Matthew Harris, Traveon Henry and Godwin Igwebuike and a host of others who actively supported the run and locked down opponents' passing games. But in front of both of those groups stood an athletic, opportunistic defensive line; one that dominated Stanford, set the tone against Nebraska after back-to-back losses and salvaged a win in Madison.


In Northwestern's two losses, the defensive line disappeared. Defensive end Dean Lowry was a non-factor in both of those games and while his partner on the opposite side Deonte Gibson racked up three sacks in Ann Arbor, their impact on the outcome was barely felt. But for the vast majority of the season, Gibson and Lowry anchored a group that would set the tone for Northwestern's defense.

Sophomore tackle Tyler Lancaster was the season's biggest surprise on the defensive line, showing off a rare athletic ability for a 300-pounder. Along with Lancaster, Jordan Thompson, Greg Kuhar and CJ Robbins played well when they weren't subbed out in favor of Lowry moving inside on passing downs. As far as Northwestern's backup ends were concerned, junior Ifeadi Odenigbo proved yet again to be an adept pass-rusher, but not much else. Sophomore Xavier Washington didn't live up to the hype he stirred up on multiple occasions during his freshman campaign.


I'm not sure what more could be said about Lowry and his time at Northwestern. He turned out to be a standout player and an All-Big-Ten-level performer. Aside from those two games against Michigan and Iowa, proved to be just as important as Walker for this defense. Against Duke, for example, it was Lowry's leaping interception that began to turn the game in Northwestern's favor. His seemingly constant pressure on Nebraska's Tommy Armstrong was a major factor in Northwestern escaping Lincoln with a two-point victory. Of course, a little more production as a pass-rusher would have been nice, as his three sacks were his lowest since his freshman season.


In his second season as a starter, Gibson made his mark as a talented pass-rusher. After notching six sacks in his first three seasons combined, Gibson contributed nine this season, leading the team by a wide margin. While he may not have been better than Lowry from an overall perspective, the fact that Gibson is even in that conversation shows his growth. He had always had the ability to be a top-end pass-rusher in the Big Ten, head coach Pat Fitzgerald and his defensive coaches have said, but he was finally able to produce consistently with those skills this season.


This was the year that Odenigbo could have made a leap. He wasn't ever going to play over Lowry or Gibson consistently, but he could have showed some improvement defending the run, potentially expanding his role. Alas, his role remained the same: pass-rush specialist. And he did well in it, racking up four sacks on the year. But without showcasing much improvement against the run and failing to earn his coaches' confidence in run situations, Odenigbo looks uncertain to fill the shoes left by seniors Gibson and Lowry.


After a solid freshman season, Washington played even less than Odenigbo did in 2015. Those highlight plays he contributed in 2014 were nowhere to be found in 2015. He didn't have a sack this season after collecting 1.5 a season ago. Like Odenigbo, Washington will have a lot to prove during spring practices if he aims to take a step up in the absence of Gibson and Lowry next year.


For a player that has only been playing defensive tackle for three seasons after being a highly rated center recruit, Lancaster burst onto the scene with a excellent tackle in space against Stanford and his strong play continued throughout the year. While Walker and Igwebuike are the sophomores getting the accolades, Lancaster is one to watch as a player that can fortify the defensive line for the next two seasons.


Nothing about Jordan Thompson's stats will leap up off the page at you, but the true freshman was a solid contributor in the defensive tackle rotation this season. He showed some flashes of really solid play holding his own against interior runs and getting into the backfield to disrupt a few plays. Thompson will undoubtedly improve as he gets bigger and could make up a fearsome tackle tandem with Lancaster over the next couple seasons.


Kuhar and Robbins played basically the same role: veteran rotation player. On non-passing downs, Kuhar, Robbins and Thompson would mostly rotate alongside Lancaster and, on passing downs, would sit as Lowry moved inside and Odenigbo took a spot on the outside. Robbins, a senior, will be back next year after getting an extra year of eligibility. He and Kuhar, a junior, will probably compete with Thompson for snaps next to Lancaster next year.