Northwestern’s defense was one of the best in the nation in 2015, holding opponents to only 18.6 points per game and finishing fifth in defensive S&P+. However, five big parts of that defense walked out the door after the season.
Northwestern loses veterans across the board. Deonte Gibson and Dean Lowry on the line, Drew Smith at linebacker and Nick VanHoose and Traveon Henry in the secondary. That’s a combined 265 tackles, 40.5 TFLs, 15.0 sacks, 6 interceptions and 23 pass breakups, which is a lot of defensive production to lose all at once. However, the Wildcats are fortunate enough to have players ready and capable to fill those gaps by stepping into much bigger roles in 2016.
"Keith Watkins has played a lot of football for us at corner and expect him to jump in there right away and fill that position that Nick graduates from," said Northwestern head coach Pat Fitzgerald at Big Ten Media days. "Same with Kyle Queiro at the safety position, and up front Xavier Washington and Ifeadi Odenigbo had outstanding seasons."
That foursome of players, along with linebacker Nate Hall, will have the task of stepping in and making sure the defense doesn’t miss a beat from last season. It’s a tall order, but Fitzgerald believes they’ll be up to the task.
The player with the biggest upside is also the player with the most starts last year, Nate Hall. Hall was thrust into a starting role following Jaylen Prater’s season-ending injury against Penn State, and performed admirably. He racked up 36 tackles in Northwestern’s last four regular season games, and looked like one of the most athletic players on the field.
"His ceiling is as high as he wants it to be," said Anthony Walker. "Nate is a great player, he’s very coachable. That’s what I like about him, he doesn’t think he knows everything. Probably one of the more athletic linebackers that we have, he played safety in high school so you know he can cover, you know he can tackle well. I’m very very excited to see what he can do this year."
Considering Hall already has starting experience, there appears to be very little to worry about at linebacker, especially since Anthony Walker is lining up next to him. The loss of Drew Smith should pretty much be mitigated, as long as Hall keeps up his high quality of play.
For the defensive line, there might be a bit more to worry about. Northwestern loses both of its defensive ends, who were arguably the team’s two best pass rushers. Dean Lowry was one of the best players on the entire roster a year ago and Deonte Gibson was a team captain at the other end position. However, they’re not being replaced by greenhorns. Xavier Washington and Ifeadi Odenigbo played in 25 games combined last season, collecting a combined 34 tackles, 8.5 TFLs and 6.0 sacks. While they may not have started, they have plenty of experience.
"You can’t replace anybody, but guys have to step up that were right next to them," said Walker. "Guys like Xavier Washington, Ifeadi Odenigbo and Joe Gaziano, they understand that, okay I have to step my game up and play as well as, if not better than, Dean and Deonte did."
Fitzgerald spoke a lot about competitive depth on Monday, and defensive end is one of the few spots on the defense where there isn’t a ton of it right now. Last season the line was so deep because guys like Washington and Odenigbo were able to play in reserve roles. Now that they’re required to pick up the slack and start, it’s unclear what exactly there is behind them. Redshirt freshmen like Trent Goens and Gaziano will likely be thrust into the spotlight earlier than expected.
Finally, the secondary loses half of last year’s "Sky Team," but just like up front, they slide in two players that have already shown they can produce at Northwestern.
"You lose Nick VanHoose, you lose Traveon Henry, and in walks Keith Watkins and Kyle Queiro, who played a lot last year," said Walker. "So those guys aren’t new to the ballpark, they know what’s expected of them and they understand the game and understand the system really well."
Watkins and Queiro have both had their own injury problems over the last couple of years and have only been able to see the field in spurts. But as both are healthy heading into 2016, they appear to be primed for breakout years.
Where the secondary differs from the line is in its depth. Behind Watkins and Queiro, there are young, up and coming players like Trae Williams and Montre Hartage. Hartage saw the field a bit last year, and according to Fitzgerald, Williams was "very close to playing a year ago" and will have "a major impact this year."
The biggest positive to those two young defensive backs, along with fellow DB Alonzo Mayo, is that they all bring something a little bit different to the field.
"Trae Williams, he will come and he’ll bring the heat," said cornerback Matthew Harris. "He’s a big hitter, as well as [Alonzo Mayo]. Montre [Hartage], he’s just an explosive player, he can make plays, he goes out there and works hard each day. They’re all very good players and I can see them all on the field."
Harris and Godwin Igwebuike will have half the field on the lockdown during the upcoming season, so it will be up to Watkins and Queiro, as well as the younger guys, to make sure that the ‘Sky Team’ retains its full form.
Northwestern’s defense loses a lot of veterans all over the field, but there are experienced players already waiting in the wings to pick up their former teammates’ production. Only time will tell how good the defense is in 2016, but the one thing that is clear is that this is not a rebuilding year.
"If you want to rebuild, we don’t call it rebuilding," said Walker. "You don’t lose and just say ‘oh, now we have to rebuild,’ no, you have to have guys step up and just do what they do."