Northwestern officially started its 2016 season by kicking off training camp with a team meeting on Sunday, August 7. The team will be in Evanston for a week and then head up to Kenosha, Wisconsin, for a grueling week of workouts and practices in the summer heat, a time for the team to come together on and off the field. Kenosha will go a long way in determining who wins key position battles, who ends up where on the depth chart and much, much more. It’s the equivalent of NFL training camp, except compressed into about one week. We count down the biggest questions—two per day—facing Pat Fitzgerald’s team heading into camp.
We continue the countdown with No. 9: How will the defensive line—especially the ends—hold up?
Last year, Dean Lowry and Deonte Gibson combined for up over 90 tackles, collected an absurd 26 tackles for loss, and recorded a 12.0 sacks between the two of them. Gibson’s 9.0 sacks were fourth-most in Northwestern single-season history, and he was an All-Big Ten third-team honoree. Lowry, meanwhile, had one of the most impressive seasons for a defensive lineman in recent Northwestern history, earning second-team All-Big Ten honors. He had six tackles for loss in one game against Nebraska, and went on the be drafted in the fourth round by the Green Bay Packers in April.
But now both of those guys are gone. Luckily for Northwestern, the cupboard is nowhere near bare. Ifeadi Odenigbo and Xavier Washington both saw significant playing time last year, not only as pass rush specialists, but even on first and second down as Pat Fitzgerald tried to keep his players in the trenches fresh.
Still, defensive end is one of the more concerning positions on the team and probably the most concerning position group on the defensive side of the ball, especially considering the lack of depth. It’s one thing to have to replace two outstanding starters. It’s another thing to replace them and have no experience behind the replacements. Given how much Odenigbo and Washington played last year, it seems as if guys who have not played a down of college football—redshirt freshmen Joe Gaziano and Trent Goens and even perhaps true freshman Tommy Carnifax—will play a major role while Odenigbo and Washington take a breather.
All-American middle linebacker Anthony Walker doesn’t expect much of a dropoff if any, though. From Ian McCafferty’s story at Media Days:
"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."
Part of the reason why the concerns at defensive end may be alleviated is the impressive talent and depth at defensive tackle. Tyler Lancaster burst onto the scene last year as a guy with outstanding strength and impressive mobility given 6-foot-3, 310-pound frame. C.J. Robbins, a sixth-year veteran, is a solid run defender. And unlike the defensive ends, this group also has strength in numbers. Jordan Thompson showed flashes as a freshman. Greg Kuhar is a solid veteran space-eater. Overall, the unit looks to be as good if not better than last year.
Training camp will not only show if Odenigbo and Washington are up to the task of somewhat filling the large shoes of Gibson and Lowry, but will determine who are the primary backups as well. Having experienced backups—as Northwestern did at defensive end last year—is not a luxury the Wildcats will be afforded this year.
Two years ago, Deonte Gibson recorded 14 tackles and one sack—the same numbers Xavier Washington had last year—before having a monster 2015. Two years ago, few people mentioned Dean Lowry as one of the top defensive linemen in the Big Ten, but that’s exactly what he became last year. With outstanding athleticism and now three years of experience in Evanston, Ifeadi Odenibo could be on the same path. While fulfilling their shoes will be a major challenge, it’s certainly not out of the realm of possibility that they will do a solid job. If the young depth behind them develops and the interior line continues its terrific play, the dropoff from last year may not be as exaggerated as feared.
With over three weeks to go until the regular season, training camp will provide all players with ample time to prove themselves. And for Northwestern to be similarly successful as it was last year, the defensive ends in particular will have to do just that.