Dean Lowry. Anthony Walker, Jr. Deonte Gibson.
Chances are, these are the names that pop up when thinking about the stout front seven Northwestern’s defense rolled out in 2015. Which makes sense, as all three were dynamic presences up front on an elite defense that propelled the Wildcats to a 10-win season.
To stop there, though, is to overlook a crucial contributor to the unit’s success. In fact, it’s entirely possible that Northwestern’s star-studded front seven would have been significantly less effective without the help of one lesser-known name: defensive tackle Tyler Lancaster.
Due to injury, Lancaster played just one game as a redshirt freshman in 2014, but he stayed healthy and put together a breakout sophomore campaign year last season. The former high three-star offensive line recruit started every game, recording 33 tackles and leading the team with two forced fumbles.
Lancaster is a lane-clogging force against the run, provides interior push on the pass rush, and is quick enough to keep contain on the outside when he has to. Not everything he does shows up on the stat sheet, though. His diverse skill set meant defenses often had to send double teams at him, making it easier for teammates like Lowry and Walker to rack up tackles and sacks.
Because of this, he is less of a household name than some of his fellow defensive players. That tends to happen when you do your work in the trenches, but Lancaster doesn’t mind.
“Not at all,” Lancaster said with a smile. “We are under-appreciated [as defensive tackles], but our job is hard...Anthony’s able to get over the top because we demand two people. Their success is a translation of our success.”
That lack of recognition seems likely to change this year. With Lowry and Gibson gone, Lancaster is the leader of the defensive line, and he is ready to be even better in 2016 with another strong offseason under his belt.
Let’s hit the film to see what makes Lancaster so valuable to Northwestern’s defense.
Lancaster was a major factor in Northwestern finishing 21st in the country in rushing yards allowed per game in 2015. He is excellent at breaking off of his blocker to bring down running backs (or quarterbacks) that try to gain yards up the middle.
On this first play, Lancaster is the lineman second-closest to the bottom of the screen. He gets blocked pretty well by Illinois left guard Chris Boles (No. 55), but when he sees running back Josh Ferguson heading towards him, Lancaster breaks away from Boles and flattens Ferguson with a strong tackle. The play, which initially looks decent up front, results in no gain.
(NOTE: All videos courtesy of BTN. Lancaster is No. 67 and lines up at right defensive tackle next to No. 13, Deonte Gibson, in all of these clips)
Here’s another example, this time against a read option. Lancaster begins pushing towards the middle of the field as he sees Ball State quarterback Riley Neal fake a handoff. But when Neal pulls the ball back and takes off, Lancaster again disengages his blocker and quickly closes Neal’s running lane, diving to bring the QB down by his legs for a short gain.
This time, Lancaster gets double-teamed by a pair of Michigan offensive linemen. However, he is able to use his strength and vision to fight through it, split the blockers, and grab onto the running back until his teammates arrive to help finish the tackle.
“I’m definitely proud of being a really hard run-stopper, playing power football,” Lancaster said.
Lancaster has great instincts against the run; he generally knows where running backs will be and when to ditch his blocker to bring them down. Additionally, it’s nearly impossible for linemen to move him out of the way to create running lanes because he’s so big and strong. Listed at 6-foot-3 and 310 pounds, he is the biggest and arguably the strongest player on the roster.
Lancaster’s strength is evident when he’s clogging the middle against the run, but it also shows up when he rushes the passer. Defensive tackles aren’t usually known as pass rushers, but having one who can pressure the quarterback from right in front of his face is extremely beneficial to a defense. Lancaster showed that ability at times last season, picking up 1.5 sacks and also forcing two fumbles, both against opposing quarterbacks.
In this next play, Lancaster goes into full-on beast mode in a critical situation. With Wisconsin driving late in a close game, Badger quarterback Joel Stave takes a five-step drop and looks downfield for a receiver. Lowry (No. 94) beats his man around the edge, forcing Stave to step up in the pocket. Unfortunately for him, Lancaster (second lineman to the top of the screen this time) has been driving his man backwards, eventually getting past him and leveling Stave with a big sack, knocking the ball loose in the process for a key turnover.
Watch how Lancaster first engages Wisconsin lineman Micah Kapoi (No. 75) at the 44 yard-line and drives him all the way back to the 39 before evading him and making the tackle.
Lancaster says that one-on-one battle is all about leverage.
“I try to stay parallel to the ground, the lower I can be, the better,” Lancaster said. “If the o-lineman’s not beneath me, I know I’m winning.”
Lancaster doesn’t need to use too much brute strength on this pursuit of Minnesota QB Mitch Leidner. Instead, he demonstrates a quick first step to blow past the Gopher lineman and share a sack with Gibson.
Here’s a great angle of Lancaster’s first forced fumble last season, one that resulted in a touchdown for the Northwestern defense. With Leidner trying to escape a tackle, Lancaster delivers a textbook punch of the ball, easily knocking it free.
Lancaster can also impact opposing passing games in a number of ways that don’t require getting to the quarterback. Commanding double teams in the middle means his teammates are more likely to have one-on-one matchups to beat. He can also use his height to affect the passing lanes for short routes, sometimes even getting his hands on the ball, like in this near-interception against Iowa, one of his two pass breakups in 2015.
One of the most surprising elements of Lancaster’s game is his speed. For such a large man, he is very athletic and deceptively quick in bursts.
A great example of that came in the first game of the season. Stanford tried to get tricky in the red zone with a fake handoff-reverse, but Lancaster isn’t having any of it. When he sees the man with the ball, Cardinal receiver Francis Owusu (No. 6), sprinting for the sideline, he turns on the jets—yes, he has jets—and beats him there with a diving tackle. This simply isn’t a play you see a lot of defensive tackles make.
Here’s another example of Lancaster beating an offensive player to the sideline with his speed. Iowa QB CJ Beathard, finding no open receivers, rolls to his left for a few seconds before deciding to take off and run, but Lancaster is able to cut off his angle and force him out of bounds for no gain.
Lancaster’s quickness can help him not only cover both sidelines, but it also comes in handy when chasing down runners from behind. In this example, Neal tucks the ball and gets through the first level of Northwestern’s defense. However, Lancaster doesn’t give up on the play. When he realizes Neal is running upfield, he turns and pursues the QB, bringing him down with a punishing tackle.
“We emphasize during practice to run to the ball every single play, even when we’re gassed,” Lancaster said. “We’ve been running and running and running, and that’s sort of ingrained in our DNA, so it’s definitely shown on the field.”
There are simply not many human beings as large as Lancaster who can move as well—both in short areas and to the sideline—as he does.
Lancaster broke onto the scene with a huge 2015, and still has two years left to keep getting better. Already a stout run defender, he says he wants to improve as a pass rusher, which starts with continuing to become more athletic.
“This camp, I’ve definitely made it a priority to get more in shape,” Lancaster said. “I’m staying the same weight, but I’m feeling faster.”
Lancaster wants to play at the next level, and he certainly has the strength to achieve that goal.
However, he also realizes he needs to string together multiple strong seasons on the field to garner significant attention from professional teams.
“How I do this year is gonna be crazy important,” Lancaster said. “Last year I was unknown, I came out and did my job and performed pretty well. This [year] might be my chance to show [NFL scouts] I can make it.”
His performance last year was a great start, but Lancaster still has a long way to go. He needs to continue to develop a well-rounded game and become more consistent; there were several games in 2015 in which Lancaster failed to have the impact he is capable of having. One of his biggest believers is his coach, Pat Fitzgerald.
“He’s a great football player,” Fitzgerald said. “He’s got an amazing work ethic in the weight room, he’s got an amazing work ethic on the practice field. I think he’s not only got a bright future here but I think he’s got an opportunity to play football for a long, long time.”
For now, Lancaster is focused on his job as the leader of Northwestern’s new-look defensive line. When you watch the Wildcats on defense this year, feel free to marvel at Walker Jr.’s dominance, Godwin Igwebuike’s all-around game and Matt Harris’ lockdown coverage skills.
Just remember to keep an eye on No. 67. After all, it all starts with him.