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A way too early projection of the 2016 Northwestern defensive depth chart

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Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

Northwestern's 45-6 loss to Tennessee in the Outback Bowl ended what was otherwise a remarkable season in Evanston. With a redshirt freshman quarterback at the helm, a third-straight 5-7 season seemed in order. Instead, the Wildcats won as many games as they did in 2013 and 2014 combined, using a talented and opportunistic defense en route to one of the best seasons in program history.

That defense finished its season as one of the top units in the nation. It also returns multiple starters at all three levels. Unlike the early outlook based on the offensive depth chart, there is little reason to think that Mike Hankwitz's defense won't be stellar again and may even improve in 2016. Here's how we see the depth chart shaking out right now:

Defensive End

1. Ifeadi Odenigbo, senior
2. Xavier Washington, junior

It's time now. Odenigbo has to show he can be a three-down defensive end. With Dean Lowry and Deonte Gibson taking a ton of snaps last season (deservedly so), Odenigbo's ability to defend against the run was hidden. It's simple. If he can defend against the run, he'll start. If he can't, he'll be set in his usual passing-down rush role. Washington is kind of in the same boat. After an exciting true freshman season, Washington did little in 2015. But a strong bowl performance may have jump-started his 2016.

Defensive Tackle

1. Jordan Thompson, sophomore
2. C.J. Robbins, senior

Thompson showed some really nice flashes this season and will be given the inside track at a starting spot. He will now have his first full college offseason to get stronger, which will definitely help his performance. Robbins was granted a sixth year of eligibility and, again, should play a critical role in the defensive tackle rotation.

Defensive Tackle

1. Tyler Lancaster, junior
2. Greg Kuhar, senior

Not many people had seen Lancaster play extended snaps at defensive tackle until this season and he was extremely impressive. The junior-to-be showed impressive footwork and speed, making tackles both in the interior and also on the perimeter. Kuhar has been an impact player on this defense since 2013 and he should continue to make an impact from his role as a backup in the defensive line rotation.

Defensive End

1. Joe Gaziano, redshirt freshman
2. Trent Goens, redshirt freshman

Originally in 2015, it seemed Northwestern was ready to play five defensive ends: Lowry, Gibson, Odenigbo, Washington and Gaziano, a true freshman. A combination of stellar play from veteran guys and the upside of waiting a year to get on the field forced Gaziano into a redshirt season in which he was named practice player of the week three times. Gaziano is an impressive athlete, a guy many around the program think can be an impact player from his first snap next fall. Prather is a bit of a question mark after playing exclusively on special teams in 2015. Another player to watch is true freshman Tommy Carnifax, a three-star defensive end from Ohio who has enrolled early at Northwestern.

SAM Linebacker

1. Nate Hall, junior
2. Tommy Vitale, sophomore

When Jaylen Prater's season ended due to an injury, Hall was impressive filling in for the veteran. Hall is a bit bigger than has brother Jimmy, but still has the good instincts and athleticism that made his brother an impressive player for Northwestern's defense. Once Prater went down, though, Northwestern didn't even list a player as Hall's backup on the weekly two-deeps. Right now, it seems Vitale could be in line for some playing time. Vitale is athletic, like his brother, and played on offense, defense and special teams at times last season, but it seems like his skill set aligns with the SAM linebacker spot.

MIKE Linebacker

1. Anthony Walker, junior
2. Cam Quiero, sophomore

It feels weird to write that Walker will still be a junior. But it's true, he has two more years left at Northwestern. Walker stayed on the field a ton this season with Quiero backing him up. Quiero gained valuable experience in 2015, playing in every game.

WILL Linebacker

1. Jaylen Prater, senior
2. Joseph Jones, senior

Once Prater gets healthy, there's no doubt his play in 2015 earned him a starting spot in 2016. Because of Hall's strengths as a more mobile SAM linebacker, Prater seems a likely candidate to make the transition over to the weak side. Jones primarily played behind Drew Smith in 2015 and will likely play in a similar role backing up Prater at the WILL linebacker spot in 2016.

Cornerback

1. Matt Harris, senior
2. Montre Hartage, sophomore

Harris is one of the most underrated cornerbacks in the Big Ten. While a lot of the attention went to senior CB Nick VanHoose, Harris was under-appreciated in his work and could be one of the top corners in the conference in 2016. Northwestern did not use a redshirt on Hartage, which was a bit surprising. But Hartage played well enough to earn a spot on the two-deep when Harris went out with an injury during the season. Although he played almost exclusively on special teams, the coaching staff seems to really like Hartage.

Safety

1. Godwin Igwebuike, junior
2. Jared McGee, sophomore

Another one of Northwestern's impressive 2015 sophomores, Igwebuike is poised to improve over his final two seasons in Evanston. He and Walker combine for a promising duo. Behind him is Jared McGee, a redshirt-sophomore-to-be, whose experience in 2015 came mostly on special teams.

Safety

1. Kyle Quiero, junior
2. Trae Williams, redshirt freshman/Alonzo Mayo, redshirt freshman/Steven Reese, redshirt freshman/ Jake Murray, redshirt freshman

Queiro's 2015 was cut short by a broken arm, but he had played really well mostly in nickel cornerback duty. His skill set is a bit different than the player he will be replacing, projecting to be a bit more of a centerfield safety as opposed to a downhill player like Traveon Henry. Someone from the group of young safeties will have to step up to solidify the depth at the position. Right now, Williams looks like the best prospect.

Cornerback

1. Keith Watkins, junior
2. Marcus McShepard, junior

Watkins got a few starts this season due to injuries to Harris and VanHoose. He played fairly well in those spots and was one of the few bright spots in Northwestern's bowl game. The defense shouldn't miss too much of a beat with Watkins playing opposite Harris. McShepard will probably be labeled as "second-string" in Northwestern's base defense but will find himself on the field a lot in nickel packages. Like Watkins, McShepard is a speedy, athletic corner who found himself on the field often in 2015.