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Northwestern football report card through the bye week: Defense

What was once a unit of definitive strength has struggled to find its stride in 2016.

NCAA Football: Northwestern at Iowa Jeffrey Becker-USA TODAY Sports

After every Northwestern football game, we hand out player grades as a way to assess the performances of individual members of the team. Now, with the bye week upon us, it’s time to take a step back and give out report cards that evaluate players and coaches over the first five weeks.

Here we have Part 2: the defense (coaching staff coming tomorrow). Whether it be a product of injuries, a lack of player development, poor coaching, or all of the above, Northwestern’s defense isn’t what it was in 2015. That much is clear. But let’s delve a little deeper and see how the individual parts of the unit are faring so far this season:

DE Ifeadi Odenigbo

Grade: B-

Stats: 12 total tackles (seven solo), five tackles-for-loss, four sacks, one forced fumble

Odenigbo was virtually silent through four games before delivering a dominant, four-sack performance against Iowa. We’d been waiting for Odenigbo to reach his lofty preseason expectations and this game was a promising step in that direction. He was at the forefront of the onslaught on C.J. Beathard Saturday, especially in third down scenarios.

But which Odenigbo will we see for the remainder of the season? As much as Northwestern’s defensive line had struggled going into Iowa City, Iowa has their own issues in the trenches, which the Wildcats were able to exploit. His grade is trending upward; continue to keep an eye on him in Northwestern’s upcoming gauntlet of games.

DE Xavier Washington

Grade: B-

Stats: 18 total tackles (12 solo), three tackles-for-loss, two sacks

We knew completely replacing the production Northwestern lost in 2015 starting ends Dean Lowry and Deonte Gibson would be unlikely, but Washington has performed admirably in stepping out of his reserve role this season. The junior had a tough week against Nebraska after a strong performance against Duke, but he bounced back against Iowa, registering five total tackles (two for a loss) and a sack.

There’s still obviously lots of room to grow for Washington, but if Northwestern’s defensive line continues to generate the push it did last weekend, it will substantially lighten the load on the Wildcats’ banged up secondary.

DL C.J. Robbins/Tyler Lancaster

Grade: C

The two returning starters on the defensive line in 2015 haven’t quite performed to expectation thus far in 2016. They have only 22 total tackles between the two of them and Northwestern’s run defense has been hot and cold. It currently ranks ninth in the Big Ten in rush yards allowed per game (157.8).

As upperclassman with starting experience, both of these guys are leaders on the defensive line. Earlier this week, Pat Fitzgerald named Robbins the team’s fifth captain in the absence of Matt Harris. He’ll have to build off his strong performance against the Hawkeyes to prove he deserves that honor. Lancaster has received plenty of blocking attention after his breakout 2015 campaign; perhaps Odenigbo’s emergence will draw double teams to the outside instead.

LB Anthony Walker

Grade: C-

Stats: 33 total tackles (five solo), 2.5 tackles-for-loss, one sack, two forced fumbles, two passes defended

This might be a little harsh — Walker’s been productive, but he hasn’t been his spectacular self so far this season. And when you have the hype he had, you’ll be graded on a tougher scale. However, like so many others on this unit, a season-best performance against Iowa (ten total tackles, five solo) offers cause for optimism.

Walker has struggled mightily this season against faster, spread-style offenses (i.e. Western Michigan and Nebraska). Luckily for ‘The Franchise,’ a trip to East Lansing next week to take on the bruising Spartans gives Walker a great opportunity to follow up last Saturday’s effort with another big game.

LB Jaylen Prater

Grade: A-

Stats: 46 total tackles (23 solo), one tackle-for-loss, one pass defended

Prater may not be Northwestern’s patented super-hero, but his 46 tackles currently has him atop the team leaderboard (he had 46 in all of 2015). This statistic is a tad deceiving because Prater hasn’t had a double-digit tackle game since his 18-tackle explosion against Western Michigan, but he’s been a solid presence in the heart of Northwestern’s nickel packages and will be instrumental in re-energizing the Wildcats’ defense. He’s been better than Walker so far.

LB Joseph Jones

Grade: B

Stats: 23 total tackles (11 solo), 2.5 tackles-for-loss, one sack, one fumble recovery, one pass defended

Jones has come on recently to establish himself as an important reserve piece in Northwestern’s defense. He had five total tackles (1.5 for loss) and a sack against Iowa. The senior has been a valuable special teamer for the majority of his career, but may have managed to carve himself out a role in Northwestern’s front seven.

S Godwin Igwebuike

Grade: B

Stats: 44 total tackles (34 solo), 4.0 tackles-for-loss, one interception, one forced fumble, four pass defended

Igwebuike is the buoy keeping this injury-ravaged secondary afloat. He’s second on the team in tackles behind Prater and has been a force moving downhill, registering four tackles-for-loss in five games.

Help is on the way for Godwin, though. Kyle Queiro returned to Igwebuike’s side Saturday, which will undeniably benefit the junior, who has been solid throughout.

Fresh Faces in the Secondary

With Keith Watkins gone for the season and Matt Harris’ recovery nowhere in sight, Northwestern’s secondary has had to completely reinvent itself with players who had little to no starter-level college football experience to fall back on.

  • CB Montre Hartage has looked hopeless at times (think Illinois State QB Jake Kolbe continually picking on him Week 2), but, to his credit, has made a couple big plays in the secondary. He’s been solid as a special teamer and is, like the other two in this category, a young guy who will continue to develop. Grade: C
  • S Jared McGee offers the most experience of this group (redshirt sophomore), but, with Kyle Queiro returning last weekend, he probably offers the least potential impact moving forward. McGee had 19 tackles and was disruptive although inconsistent in Queiro’s two game absence. Grade: B-
  • CB Trae Williams, like the two above him, has seen his up and downs this season. For the most part, though, he has looked extremely overmatched in man coverage. He did bounce back nicely with the game-sealing interception against Iowa after being burned for a 46-yard catch that directly led to a Hawkeye score. And so is the story of Northwestern’s defense in 2016. Grade: D+

These are guys who have personified the Northwestern defense’s ‘bend-but-don’t-break’ mentality. Expect more of them as the season wears on.

The Fallen

Northwestern’s defense has seen its fair share of injuries on the season. Here are a few guys who’s injuries have made it difficult to holistically evaluate their performance at this point in the campaign:

  • CB Matthew Harris appeared in the first two games of the season for Northwestern but has been sidelined ever since with a head injury. The recent naming of C.J. Robbins as the team’s fifth captain appears to indicate Harris is still a ways away from returning. Grade: INCOMPLETE
  • S Kyle Queiro returned against Iowa and outplayed his replacement Jared McGee. Queiro returns a much needed, veteran presence in the secondary. Grade: INCOMPLETE
  • DB Alonzo Mayo is a redshirt freshman who was expected to see extended time with all the injuries in the NU secondary, but had been sidelined for two consecutive games before returning for the Iowa contest Saturday. Grade: INCOMPLETE