At No. 5 in our Most Important Players series, we have Ifeadi Odenigbo. Arguably the biggest recruit Pat Fitzgerald has even gotten, Odenigbo has had a disappointing few years in Evanston. In 2015, Odenigbo had 4.0 sacks, but much of his production came early on in the season against weak non-conference opponents. He almost completely disappeared during conference play. However, after an exodus of talent at defensive end this offseason, the redshirt senior will need to step up as a starter this fall. Ian McCafferty and Tristan Jung debate how important of a role Odenigbo will play in the Wildcats' success in 2016.
Ian McCafferty (Rank: 3): The 2015 Northwestern defense was one of the best in the nation, and much of that had to do with fantastic play from the defensive line. Anchoring the ends of that line were two stalwarts in Deonte Gibson and Dean Lowry. Gibson finished 2015 with 39 tackles, 12.5 TFLs and 9.0 sacks, while current Green Bay Packer Lowry had 52 tackles, 13.5 TFLs, 3 sacks and 7 pass defenses. Each of them pretty much won a game by themselves last year: Gibson at Wisconsin and Lowry at Nebraska. That is quite a lot of production walking out the door all at once, and it's why their replacement, Ifeadi Odenigbo is so important in 2016.
Odenigbo was a huge recruit when Pat Fitzgerald landed him back in 2012, but he hasn't really panned out as many had hoped. He was a originally a 3-4 pass rushing outside linebacker, but decided to come to Northwestern, which plays a 4-3, and switched to defensive end. The switch hasn't been easy, and Odenigbo has not been very productive in his time in Evanston. But now's the time. He's the clear cut starter going into the season and Northwestern is going to need some sort of production out of the senior if they want to have a great defense once again.
Tristan Jung (Rank: NR): Ifeadi Odenigbo is a good football player, but his presence won't make or break Northwestern's season. Last year, he was effective at times, but he was hardly a dominant defensive lineman. He had four sacks in 2015-16, but his inconsistency as a pass rusher and run defender make it difficult to peg him as a critical player for Northwestern next season. He will definitely have to step up to fill the loss of Dean Lowry and Deonte Gibson in the pass rush department, but other players like Jordan Thompson and Xavier Washington are equally important in establishing Northwestern's defense.
IM: I do think the defensive tackles will be better than the defensive ends this year, and that will negate some of the pressure on Odenigbo, but that doesn't make him less important. In fact, if the tackles are as good as advertised, then Odenigbo becomes even more crucial to the defense. Suddenly, opposing teams will start doubling inside, leaving the defensive ends one-on-one off the outside, with either a tackle or a tight end. Similarly, in the run game, teams will want to run outside the tackles, and Odenigbo will need to be there to keep contain.
Also let's not sell Odenigbo short here, the man is really strong and for a brief moment last season looked like he had finally put it all together. He's important purely from a scheme standpoint, but if he can recapture some of his pass rushing potential, he may be in for a career year.
TJ: If Odenigbo can put it all together, he could definitely be an impact player, but his impact will be limited by the players around him. As good as he is, we haven't seen him show the skills to take over a game and lead Northwestern's defense, unlike Lowry or Anthony Walker or even Gibson. In terms of importance, the combined efforts of the defense outweigh any individual contribution we can expect from Odenigbo this season.
IM: The problem with that though is that you're essentially punishing Odenigbo for having good players around him, which I don't think makes him any less important as I specified earlier. If we were ranking the Top 10 best Northwestern players, I would agree with much of what you said as I'm not sure Odenigbo would be on that list, but in terms of importance, Odenigbo has to be there. If Odenigbo disappoints once again this year, it will have a ripple effect throughout the defense and he'll probably have to be replaced as a starter. Northwestern's defense relies too much on defensive line play for that to not be the case.