Moving on in our Most Important Players series, we hit our first defensive player with No. 8, Jordan Thompson. Thompson was one of less than a handful of true freshmen to receive playing time last year, and he'll see an uptick in playing time this year with the departures of ends Dean Lowry and Deonte Gibson and tackle Max Chapman. Zach Pereles and Ben Goren debate how important the former four-star recruit is to the Wildcats' success in 2016.
Zach Pereles (Rank: No. 10): I only put Jordan at No. 10, but I believe he has the chance to be one of the most important players overall and perhaps the second-most important player on this defense behind Anthony Walker. Why? With the departures of Lowry and Gibson, I think Thompson is a candidate to play both outside and inside and become a three-down lineman — perhaps the only one on the team to do this (though I could see Ifeadi Odenigbo or Tyler Lancaster doing it). Thompson can play outside on first and second down and move inside for third down. Last year, he played behind Lowry, who played at both spots. Who better to learn behind than the current Packer? Ben, you see it differently, though.
Ben Goren (NR): I guess, yeah. I don't doubt that Jordan Thompson can be an incredible player for Northwestern this year. In fact, I'd be a little bit disappointed if he wasn't a great player as a true sophomore. But odds are, he's going to spend the vast majority of his time playing inside, and that means he's going to be part of the deepest position group on the roster this year. Even if Thompson doesn't explode this year, he's going to have Tyler Lancaster or CJ Robbins, or even Fred Wyatt or Greg Kuhar, right there to support him. The defensive tackles will have to cover for a lackluster defensive end group, but when you have so many talented dudes in the room, I'm just not sure how important one of those guys can be.
ZP: I think the biggest reason he'll be so important is because I'm a bit more confident in him than Ifeadi Odenigbo and Xavier Washington, and I'm not so sure he won't end up being a starter as early as a few games through the season. And even if he's not starting on the outside, he'll see a ton of time inside next to a very impressive Tyler Lancaster. The biggest thing to me, though, is that we saw how important good defensive linemen are to this defense first-hand last year. When Anthony Walker didn't have to deal with linemen between himself and the ballcarrier, he was a monster. But when linemen reached the second level, as they did for Michigan, Iowa and Tennessee, the defense was gashed and Walker struggled. The tape doesn't lie. Essentially, I'm high on Thompson because I think he's going to play a lot at both positions, and those positions are hugely important for this defense.
BG: That makes a lot of sense. If we're viewing Jordan Thompson as "Jordan Thompson Doing The Same Things He Did Last Year But Better," he becomes more of a cog in the machine than a gamebreaker. I don't think many people expect Washington and Odenigbo to be able to consistently set the edge in run defense against Big Ten lines, nor do redshirt freshmen Joe Gaziano or Trent Goens elicit exceedingly rave reviews. Some tackle is probably going to have to go outside. I think CJ Robbins could be that guy who goes wide though. I think Tyler Lancaster could be that guy. It could be all three of those guys. I just don't feel comfortable putting high expectations on anyone moving from end to tackle.
A quick aside about Walker: I fully expect him to improve taking on blockers next season. It's the one thing separating him from a first round draft selection, and he's a good enough player to make leaps and bounds in that aspect. It will be very important for the defensive line to make Joe Jones/Nate Hall/Jaylen Prater's jobs easier, but again, I see it much more as a "all hands on deck" proposition than a "it's going to be on this one or two guys" situation.
ZP: Regardless, the defensive line has a lot to prove this year. The responsibility will fall on several guys as you mentioned, and if Thompson has a good offseason, he could take on a major role for this team. He, along with Odenigbo, Washington and others, will have a major say as to whether the team can be as good defensively — or even close to as good as it was defensively — last year.