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Northwestern Football 2016 Spring Guide: Defensive line preview

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There is so much depth at defensive tackle.

Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images

Football is back! Almost. Kind of. Okay, not really. But spring football is approaching, and for those of you who are dearly missing the pigskin, that's a positive sign. It's only been a month-and-a-half since Northwestern's 10-win season ended on a sour note in Tampa, but in the interim, Pat Fitzgerald has welcomed 20 recruits to the program, added four verbal commits to the Class of 2017 and announced all of his assistant coaches will be retained. The Wildcats get to strap the pads back on beginning Feb. 23 for the start of spring practice.

As the program heads into a new season, it's time to get refreshed and geared up. Over the coming week, we'll be delving into the outlook for the team in 2016. We'll go position by position, breaking down strengths, weaknesses and position battles. Today, we turn our attention to the defensive side of the ball, starting with the linemen.

Personnel

Returning Starters: DT C.J. Robbins (Sr.), DT Tyler Lancaster (Jr.)

Other returning contributors: DT Greg Kuhar (Sr.), DE Ifeadi Odenigbo, DE Xavier Washington (Jr.), DT Jordan Thompson (So.), DT Fred Wyatt (So.), DT Ben Oxley (So.), DE Heath Reineke (So.)

Redshirt freshmen: DE Joe Gaziano, DE Trent Goens

Incoming freshmen: DE Tommy Carnifax, DT Jake Saunders, DT Alex Miller, DE Mark Gooden

Overview

About six months ago, defensive tackle was a major question mark for Northwestern. Sean McEvilly had retired, Greg Kuhar hadn't yet recovered fully from ACL surgery, Tyler Lancaster had missed almost all of his redshirt freshman campaign due to injury, and Jordan Thompson was a true freshman.

But heading into 2016, defensive tackle figures to be one of Northwestern's best and deepest position groups. Max Chapman is gone, but NU's three most talented tackles — C.J. Robbins, Tyler Lancaster and Jordan Thompson — are back, as is Greg Kuhar, who will be another year removed from the ACL tear. The Wildcats are loaded on the interior.

Now it's at defensive end where there is worry. Northwestern has two massive holes to fill. Dean Lowry and Deonte Gibson were fixtures coming off the edge for two straight seasons. It'll be up to Ifeadi Odenigbo, Xavier Washington, and a pair of redshirt freshmen to step up and ease the burden on the rest of NU's defense.

Position Battles

Standard down defensive end

We ask the question every year: Is this the year Ifeadi Odenigbo breaks out? Odenigbo's physical talent is immense, but he's not yet a complete player. Here's what defensive coordinator Mike Hankwitz told me prior to the 2015 season:

"He's got pass rush ability. He's still got to learn to be a two-way player. Otherwise you're going to be [limited] to play in pass situations. And we've had some pretty good defensive ends who could do that on earlier downs."

Those defensive ends are no longer here, so Odenigbo will be thrust into a starting role. Whether or not he can hold onto it will depend on his ability to become that two-way player, and the performance of his competitors. Xavier Washington figures to step into a starting role as well, but he hasn't been much more than a pass rush specialist either. Joe Gaziano has the physical tools to play as a redshirt freshman, but will need to learn the intricacies of the game. Trent Goens, Gaziano's classmate, will also be a factor.

Odenigbo and Washington should see the majority of snaps on passing downs. That's not the issue. The issues is whether they can hold up against the run. On first and second down, either underclassman will have the opportunity to beat out either upperclassman for playing time. Either way, a rotation between the four is probable. It's the nature of that rotation that is up in the air.

Defensive tackle rotation

Northwestern will have at least three starting caliber players in the middle.  Robbins is a proven above-average Big Ten tackle. Lancaster might have been the best of the bunch in 2015. Thompson could become the best of the bunch as early as the start of the 2016 season. All three will be on the field plenty. The question marks are Greg Kuhar — can he get back to full strength and belatedly fulfill his potential? — Fred Wyatt — who has talent, but has battled injuries and is a bit of an unknown — and Ben Oxley — who would've been good enough to play on a lot of other FBS defensive lines last year, but has been overshadowed by the talent in front of him. One or two of those guys will get significant snaps. But there's not room for all three.

Burning question

Will any of the defensive tackles see time at end?

This likely won't be a question that gets answered in spring ball. But at some point over the offseason, it might come into play. Northwestern has a grand total of zero proven running down defensive ends on its roster. It has two extremely athletic defensive tackles in Lancaster and Thompson, and maybe even a third in Wyatt. If Odenigbo and Washington don't prove themselves against the run, Fitzgerald and Hankwitz might have to make a move out of necessity. In obvious running downs it's not crazy to think that NU's front four could be Gaziano, Robbins, Lancaster and Thompson.

Breakout player to watch

Joe Gaziano

Gaziano will play. How much he'll play is unclear, but he will play. In fact, he might have played last year if Northwestern wasn't set at defensive end with mainstays like Lowry and Gibson. Instead, the second highest-rated player in Northwestern's 2015 recruiting class won three practice player of the week awards while he redshirted and is primed to make an impact in 2016.

Depth chart projection

1st String 2nd String 3rd String
Defensive End Ifeadi Odenigbo Trent Goens Jordan Thompson
Defensive Tackle C.J. Robbins Jordan Thompson Ben Oxley
Defensive Tackle Tyler Lancaster Greg Kuhar Fred Wyatt
Defensive End Xavier Washington Joe Gaziano Heath Reineke