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Northwestern football season in review: Defensive line grades

Despite losing an All-Big Ten first team sack master next season, this unit has real promise.

NCAA Football: Eastern Illinois at Northwestern Caylor Arnold-USA TODAY Sports

With the season in the rearview, it’s time to assess how Northwestern’s individuals performed this season. All classes are according to the 2016 season. We flip over to the defensive side of things starting with the linemen.

Ifeadi Odenigbo (senior): B+

16 solo tackles, 22 tackles, 10 sacks, 12 tackles for loss

Odenigbo’s senior season (and first as a starter) got off to a terrible start. He recorded just one sack in Northwestern’s first four games and was taken out of the starting lineup after the loss to Illinois State. The inconsistent pressure and inability to stop the run that had plagued his career persisted. Northwestern started 1-3 in those four games.

Then, against Iowa, he had 4 sacks and almost singlehandedly carried Northwestern’s defense to a 38-31 victory on the road. After Iowa, Odenigbo returned to the top of the depth chart and came into his own. Suddenly, Odenigbo looked like the top-level defensive lineman and the heir to Dean Lowry and Deonte Gibson that Northwestern hoped for when it recruited him. He was arguably the most important defensive player that Northwestern had during that three-game winning streak, and he remained effective for the rest of the season.

Because of his slow start and sometimes unreliable run-stuffing ability, I can’t really say that Odenigbo’s entire season deserves an “A.” Odenigbo struggled with consistency his entire career — a fact that Pat Fitzgerald stressed after Ifeadi’s breakout game. But for Northwestern’s wins over Iowa, Michigan State and Indiana, Odenigbo was the consistent pass rusher that was promised. He had 8 sacks in those three games. It looked like no one in the Big Ten could stop him.

For the rest of the season, Odenigbo wasn’t able to maintain the absurd impact he had in that three-game stretch, but he was still a good defensive lineman and a leader on the defensive end. In many ways, he is the manifestation of Northwestern’s turnaround after its 1-3 start. Not surprisingly, the team’s good play and patchwork secondary often hinged on Odenigbo’s ability to rush the passer.

C.J. Robbins (senior): A

21 solo tackles, 29 total tackles, 3 sacks

I think C.J. Robbins was absolutely critical for this Northwestern defense. Robbins, in his sixth year of eligibility, played very well and had his best season as a defensive tackle. His 21 solo tackles led the entire defensive line, and he also contributed 3 sacks to go along with his always-steady run defense.

However, Robbins’ most important role on the team was as a leader. During the middle of the season, C.J. Robbins was promoted to captain, and his place as the grizzled veteran of this defensive line, in part, inspired the team to its season-saving three-game run in the middle of the season. His dual ability as an interior pass rusher and a run-stuffer was huge for the defensive line’s turnaround, and his leadership cannot really be understated. He played both inside and outside and was promoted to a starter after NU’s run defense struggles. It was a great way to cap off a unheralded but excellent Northwestern career.

Xavier Washington (junior): B+

20 solo tackles, 38 total tackles, 4.5 sacks, 7.5 tackles for loss

After two years as a backup defensive end, Xavier Washington had a stellar first year as a starter. He was certainly the best run defender on Northwestern’s defensive line in 2016, and while he isn’t a truly dominant pass rusher like Odenigbo, Washington still showed an aptitude for getting into the backfield and disrupting plays.

Unlike Odenigbo, Washington really came into his own in the last few games of the season. Like the rest of the defensive line, he struggled in his first two games, but after a solid performance against Duke, Washington really settled into his role. He picked up 4 sacks in the final six games, all while anchoring Northwestern’s run defense. In the bowl game, Washington played quite well and made a huge impact when his hit knocked Pitt quarterback Nathan Peterman out of the game.

For his junior season, Washington played well, and we should expect a higher level of consistency from the speedy senior-to-be in 2017.

Joe Gaziano (redshirt freshman): A

Stats: 15 solo tackles, 24 total tackles, 4.5 sacks

Part of determining a grade is assessing expectations, and Joe Gaziano blew away all expectations in his first year on the defensive line. He didn’t receive as many snaps as the older players alongside him, but he was extraordinarily effective when he did get into the game.

I mean, just look at this play:

Picking up 4.5 sacks and playing a huge role on a defense with established veterans on the defensive side as a redshirt freshman is no small feat. He also had four quarterback hurries and broke up two passes. Gaziano could slide into the spot vacated by Odenigbo next year, and it looks like Northwestern is in good hands.

Tyler Lancaster (junior): B+

Stats: 14 solo tackles, 28 total tackles, 3.5 sacks

Tyler Lancaster came into this year with some breakout potential on the defensive line, but he fell a bit short of becoming a standout player on Northwestern’s defense. Don’t get me wrong, he’s still quite good, but he wasn’t quite the player he was while playing alongside Deonte Gibson and Dean Lowry.

Lancaster has a reputation as an excellent run defender. However, Northwestern fell off slightly in its run defense, dropping from 22nd to 38th in the country according to S&P. Lancaster and the rest of the defensive line had some poor run defending performances against Nebraska, Ohio State and Wisconsin. While those were three of the five best teams in the Big Ten, it did show that against more potent offensive lines and running backs, Lancaster needed more help on the interior. Still, he often requires double teams, and his value to the team can’t really be measured in numbers

Overall grade: B

Although Northwestern had some great individual performances, the defensive line play took a while to get going and still had some depressingly bad performances (Wisconsin and Minnesota) later on in the season. The defensive line was a huge factor in the Pinstripe Bowl win, however, and it’s definitely not a position of weakness for Northwestern heading into next season.