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Northwestern football summer guide: Defensive line

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Will a promising position group live up to its potential?

Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images

Over the next few weeks, Inside NU will be releasing its 2015 Northwestern Football Summer Guide, a season preview that will look at each positional unit, address the biggest storylines, and answer the most pressing questions that face the Wildcats this fall.

First up, we have our position previews, which serve as a primer for how things could shake out for each group ahead of fall camp in August. The first defensive group is the defensive line:

Overview

Returning Starters (Career Starts): DE Dean Lowry (21) (Sr.), DE Deonte Gibson (11) (Sr.), DT C.J. Robbins (8) (Sr.), DT Sean McEvilly (13) (Sr.), DT Greg Kuhar (10) (Jr.), DT Max Chapman (8) (Sr.) 
Key Losses: DT Chance Carter
Other Returning Players: DE Ifeadi Odenigbo (Jr.), DE Xavier Washington (So.), DE James Prather (RS Fr.), DE Heath Reineke (RS Fr.), DT Tyler Lancaster (So.), DT Connor Mahoney (Jr.), DT Fred Wyatt (RS Fr.), DE/DT Ben Oxley (RS Fr.)
Incoming Freshmen: DE Trent Goens, DT Jordan Thompson, DE Joe Gaziano

The defensive line could very well be Northwestern's deepest and most experienced position group. Six Wildcats have seen significant time in starting roles and two more, Ifeadi Odenigbo and Xavier Washington, have been major factors in the defensive end rotation. Northwestern is legitimately two deep at each position on the defensive front. Dean Lowry could be an all-conference-type player on the outside. Deonte Gibson underperformed a bit in 2014, but with Odenigbo and Washington behind him, the production really shouldn't waver.

Key player

Greg Kuhar

For the past few seasons at least, one of the most common questions for Northwestern's defense has been who on the interior can stop the run? Who has the size, quickness and awareness to plug interior run gaps? Who can match up with the mammoth interior offensive linemen in the Big Ten? The six-foot-three, 310-pound Kuhar might be the answer. Kuhar, who made 10 starts in 2014, saw his role increase as the season progressed. He showed good power and burst to at least hold his own on run downs.

He was also involved in this play, one of the true highlights of Northwestern's season:

kuhar penn state

Yes, it's funny that two Penn State players end up blocking each other, but some of that is created by Kuhar blitzing the gap before the Penn State offensive linemen could react.

That type of burst and explosion could be the difference between the defensive line growing from a solid unit into a really good one in 2015.

Biggest question

Will production match potential?

Last season, Northwestern's defense actually was fairly good, especially accounting for the lackluster offensive performances. Northwestern was good at preventing big run plays and at defending the pass, yet the Wildcats weren't great when it came to short and middle-distance running. And with a linebacking group needing to replace veteran stalwarts, the onus really shifts to the defensive line in terms of protecting an inexperienced group in the middle. According to SB Nation college football stats guru Bill Connelly, last year's linebacking group largely protected an uninspiring line. This season, he argues, it has to be the other way around.

Still, stellar linebacking play likely made the line look better, and now three of last year's five LBs are gone. That might mean the line needs to improve just to offset regression. It probably will, but if we conclude the line is important for efficiency and the linebackers are important for preventing big plays, we could see more of an all-or-nothing defense.

Last season, Lowry and Odenigbo combined for seven sacks. The rest of the defensive front only collected 10. Production needs to increase to match potential to keep Northwestern strong defensively. With a really good back line, the front four just needs to increase its pressure a bit to become a really, really strong pass defense. And as far as the running game goes, the line just needs to be good enough to protect a young and untested group behind them.

Projected Depth Chart

Defensive End Defensive Tackle Defensive Tackle Defensive End
1st String Dean Lowry Greg Kuhar Sean McEvilly Deonte Gibson
2nd String Xavier Washington CJ Robbins Max Chapman Ifeadi Odenigbo

The two-deep on the line, at least on paper, looks really, really good. There's talent, experience and production. It just all needs to come together. All eight of these players will see time, especially the two back-up ends. They are really overqualified to be "back-ups" but both Odenigbo and Washington still have holes in their games that they must fill to be every-down players. Right now, though, they are valuable change-of-pace players off the edge.