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Who deserves the blame? A look at which units are not cutting it, Part II: Defense

The Wildcats have regressed on this side, but not nearly as much as one would think.

Illinois State v Northwestern Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images

Any time a team struggles, one of the first areas to examine is the coaching staff and the performance of each coach’s unit. Through two games, there have been ample struggles for Northwestern on both sides of the ball, and with that, there is a plenty of reason to call into question the performance of the coaching staff. Going coach-by-coach can help determine the root of the problems and perhaps answer the question regarding who belongs on the hot seat.

This is part two of a three-part series. Offensive coaches were discussed on Tuesday and Pat Fitzgerald will be discussed on Thursday.

Before we get into assessing every coach, it’s important to note that through two games, the decline of Northwestern’s defense has not been nearly as pronounced as some believe. The Wildcats are 11th in the nation in defensive S&P+. By comparison, last year’s outstanding unit finished fifth. So unlike yesterday, this article won’t quite analyze the performance of the defensive coaches—which has been very good—but rather mainly the performance of each coach’s unit.

Mike Hankwitz: Defensive coordinator

Hankwitz was the mastermind behind last year’s elite defense, the best unit to call Evanston home in recent memory. As the defensive playcaller, he’s in charge of what happens pre-snap. His job, just like his offensive counterpart Mick McCall, is to put his players in a position to succeed based on a combination of his own players’ strengths and weaknesses, the opposing teams’ strengths and weaknesses, the personnel packages on the field, opponent tendencies based on careful film study and the score, time and down-and-distance situations.

And he did an outstanding job of that in 2015. Based on his 2016 numbers, he’s been pretty good, even with the dissapointment of an 0-2 start.

The biggest criticism of Hankwitz this season can be his more conservative approach when it comes to applying pressure.

Last year, opposing teams attempted 452 passes against Northwestern, and the Wildcats had 31 sacks, a rate of about one sack per every 14.5 attempts. This year the Wildcats have just four sacks and have faced 77 pass attempts, a rate of one takedown per every 19.25 attempts. The difference may not seem all that jarring, but applying that number to last year’s 452 attempts, Northwestern would have only collected just about 23 sacks, eight fewer than last season and a mark that would have ranked near the bottom quarter of FBS. We’ve seen less pressure being applied to the quarterbacks but this is for a variety of reasons, not just because of the playcalling.

Marty Long: Defensive line

Northwestern could win with four guys up front last year. Dean Lowry and Deonte Gibson were equally adept at stopping the run and the pass, and that allowed Anthony Walker and his fellow linebackers free reign to attack. It’s no secret that a great defensive line makes linebackers look better.

This year’s replacements have been far, far worse. Ifeadi Odenigbo, who was counted on to finally fulfill his potential as a senior with a major role this year, has five tackles to his name through two games but had just one on Saturday. He’s now been benched, and it’s because of plays like this.

Odenigbo gets manhandled by 255-pound tight end Donnie Ernsberger. It’s almost an exact replica of the plays I looked at this summer in a comprehensive Odenigbo film review. Here are two similar examples from last year that show that not only is Odenigbo unable to hold up in the run game, but other teams know that and are willing to use just a tight end to block him.

When the offense needs only a tight end to block a defensive end, that leaves five offensive linemen against three defensive linemen. It’s a simple numbers game, and one that’s left Tyler Lancaster facing constant double teams. So Fitzgerald and Hankwitz mixed up the depth chart, putting CJ Robbins, a bigger, stronger guy (and former defensive tackle) at end. Robbins collected a sack against ISU, and the Redbirds ran for under three yards per carry with a front four of Robbins, Lancaster, Fred Wyatt and Xavier Washington being the featured group.

The lack of development from Odenigbo is very disappointing and perhaps a mark off of what is otherwise an impressive resume for Marty Long. Arguably the best recruit in NU history, Odenigbo never learned how to play the run effectively. If the current lineup holds, he will leave Evanston as a career backup.

Randy Bates: Linebackers

Walker is yet to live up to his billing as “The Franchise.” As we saw in Week 1, he struggled against the spread, and Zach Terrell’s play-action abilities really confused him. Fitzgerald admitted he thought his star was trying to do too much, and in Week 2, Walker looked better, albeit still not making the game-changing, jaw-dropping plays we saw from him last year. Fitzgerald said that was because of a lack of opportunities, and that’s a reasonable explanation—he didn’t have the glaring mistakes from Week 1, but he needs to be more involved going forward.

The good news from this group is the impressive play of Jaylen Prater. He looks fully recovered from a season-ending knee injury and even better than last season. The third spot, a rotation between Nate Hall and Joe Jones, hasn’t done much of note. Jones is the speedier option, but like the change up front, Hall could start to see more time in order to beef up the run defense.

Jerry Brown: Secondary

Do you have college eligibility and athleticism? If so, there’s a position open for you as a Northwestern cornerback! In all seriousness, this is what has happened since last season ended.

  1. All-Big Ten performer Nick VanHoose graduated.
  2. Marcus McShepard and Steven Reese moved to wide receiver.
  3. Keith Watkins tore his ACL, causing him to miss the entire season.
  4. Matt Harris and Alonzo Mayo suffered significant injuries in the same game.

That’s a laundry list of moves that in some or another way weakened a position group that currently has four healthy scholarship players: a sophomore (Montre Hartage), a redshirt freshman making his first career start this weekend (Trae Williams) and two true freshmen (Roderick Campbell and Brian Bullock). Bullock was expected to redshirt.

In order to combat this, Fitzgerald, Hankwitz, Bates and Brown have had to get creative, including using Jones, an outside linebacker, as a slot zone defender, and using Kyle Queiro as a third corner and rotating in experienced backup safety Jared McGee into his normal spot.

It’s obvious that the losses have been and will continue to be tough to overcome. Hartage came up with a big interception last week, but there’s a reason he’s on track to make nearly 100 tackles this regular season: quarterbacks are targeting him. Of his 16 tackles, 15 have been individual efforts. Now with even less experience on the other side, this is an alarmingly-weak unit. Brown will have to hope his players learn the ropes quickly, and that learning might have to come the hard way. Duke threw for 332 yards last week.

Again, this defense has been solid if not quite as spectacular as last year. Still, the issues up front have hurt the Wildcats, especially in short-yardage situations. A change in personnel up front should help to not only improve the run defense, but also allow Anthony Walker to get back to attacking and making plays, which is what he does best. A small change may go a long way in terms of front-seven production. And with better play there, Northwestern hopes its young cornerbacks survive a trial by fire.