The Inside NU spring guide is back as we get set for Northwestern's spring football practice. Practice starts February 25 and runs through the spring "game" on April 11, 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.
Returning Staters: DE Dean Lowry (Sr.), DT C.J. Robbins (Sr.), DT Greg Kuhar (Jr.), DE Deonte Gibson (Sr.)
Other Returning Players: DT Sean McEvily (Sr.), DE Ifeadi Odenigbo (Jr.), DE Xavier Washington (So.), DE Max Chapman (Sr.), DT Connor Mahoney (Jr.), DT Tyler Lancaster (So.), DT Ben Oxley (RS Fr.), DT Fred Wyatt (RS Fr.),
Biggest Spring Question: How will the rotation evolve?
The question is phrased like that because a rotation is undoubtedly what it will be. Northwestern's depth on the defensive line is nothing short of outstanding. There's an ideal mix of proven veterans, capable specialists and promising underclassmen ready to contribute. What remains to be seen is how Pat Fitzgerald, Mike Hankwitz and defensive line coach Marty Long utilize what they have at their disposal.
Dean Lowry is the only every-down starter. The soon-to-be senior has impressed ever since cracking the starting lineup as a sophomore. He'll come off the edge on standard downs, but could also be moved inside on passing downs, as he was at times last season.
On the other edge, we'll see some combination of Deonte Gibson, Ifeadi Odenigbo, Max Chapman and Xavier Washington. Gibson entered 2014 as the standard-down starter, with Odenigbo the primary passing-down specialist. As the year progressed though, we saw more of Chapman and Washington in the mix as well. Oftentimes on passing downs, the coaching staff would even opt to go with two or even three of the four alongside Lowry.
It'll be interesting to see who emerges from this group in the spring. Everybody would love to see Odenigbo progress, but we've been waiting for that raw talent to transform into production for a while, and it hasn't yet on a consistent basis. Is this the offseason where everything finally clicks? Maybe. Even if it is though, Odenigbo is a rotation guy, and somebody else will have to step up as well. The identity of that player is anybody's guess.
On the interior, the rotation is also unclear. Sean McEvily was an unquestioned starter in 2013, but hasn't seen the field since a foot injury cut his season short. He was ruled out for 2014 over the summer, but is back in 2015 after being granted a sixth year of eligibility. He'll contend for playing time with C.J. Robbins, who was a consistent starter last season, and Greg Kuhar, who played beside Robbins but suffered a serious knee injury against Notre Dame. Don't expect Kuhar to be ready for spring practice.
Those three are the leaders for playing time coming out 2014. However, none of the three are standouts, and two have had injury issues, so a lot could change in the coming months. Expect the likes of Tyler Lancaster, Ben Oxley and even true freshman Jordan Thompson to make some noise. Connor Mahoney also provides depth. McEvily and Robbins might still be considered the favorites to start, but as many as six defensive tackles could see the field.
As explained above, really everybody outside of Lowry is locked in a position battle. The most important single battle might be the one for the two starting spots as standard-down defensive tackles.
Projected Depth Chart
LDE: Dean Lowry, Xavier Washington
DT: C.J. Robbins, Tyler Lancaster, Connor Mahoney
DT: Greg Kuhar, Sean McEvilly, Ben Oxley
RDE: Deonte Gibson, Max Chapman AND Ifeadi Odenigbo