The second part of our 2016 Summer Guide is position previews. For each position, we'll outline who's returning, who's gone and what the big question facing the unit is before finishing up with our projected depth chart for each position.
We flip sides of the ball to the defense, and start with the defensive line.
Returning Starters (career starts): Tyler Lancaster (Jr.) (13), C.J. Robbins (12)
Key Losses: Dean Lowry, Deonte Gibson, Max Chapman
Other Returners: Ifeadi Odenigbo (Sr.), Xavier Washington (Jr.), Jordan Thompson (So.), Greg Kuhar (Sr.), Fred Wyatt (R-So.), Heath Reineke (R-So.), James Prather (R-So.), Joe Gaziano (R-Fr), Trent Goens (R-Fr.)
Incoming Freshmen: Jake Saunders, Alex Miller, Tommy Carnifax, Mark Gooden
There are two huge issues on this line, and both regard the defensive end position. One is how Dean Lowry and Deonte Gibson are replaced. We already know, in all likelihood, who is doing the replacing: Ifeadi Odenigbo and Xavier Washington. Neither are as stout against the run as their predecessors were last year, and it will be key if either or both an develop into studs against both the pass and the run. Issue No. 2 is the depth at defensive end. Behind Odenigbo and Washington, there is no experience. Luckily for the Wildcats, their defensive tackle positions are full of experience and skill, and both starters from last year return.
Odenigbo was the top recruit in the Pat Fitzgerald era. He has shown the ability to get to the quarterback, but his ability to hold up in the run game is questionable at best. One of the major reasons Northwestern's defense as a whole was so good last year was that Mike Hankwitz rarely had to bring extra guys to stop the run or the pass. If that's the case this year, that will be of huge help. It will also mean Odenigbo has progressed majorly from what we've seen from him thus far. It's his last chance to shine and fulfill all the promise he once held.
What's the depth like at the end positions?
Odenigbo and Washington seem to be clear-cut starters, but what's behind them is a complete unknown. Trent Goens and Joe Gaziano are well-regarded but are yet to play a down of college football. Heath Reineke has played in two games, with absolutely no meaningful playing time. James Prather is a special teamer but is yet to contribute to the defensive side of things. We could see a guy like Fred Wyatt, who has put on considerable muscle since arriving in Evanston, step up. There could also be a opening for a true freshman. Tommy Carnifax enrolled at NU early out of high school but spent much of that time recovering from injury.
The defensive tackle position is one of the deepest on the roster. C.J. Robbins is a big run-stopper entering his sixth year of eligibility. Lancaster was very impressive last year with his athleticism and strength. Behind them, Thompson flashed his potential as a true freshman last year, and Kuhar came back admirably from a torn ACL to provide good depth. As discussed above, the depth behind Odenigbo and Washington at end is very fluid. We could even see Thompson play some outside, simply because there are so many guys in the middle. Tommy Carnifax could be in the mix for time outside as well given the head start he got on his fellow Class of 2016 recruits by enrolling early.