To kick off a summer of football at Inside NU, we are counting down Northwestern's Top 10 Most Important Players in 2017. We've put our heads together as a staff, used the unruly power of democracy, and created a list that will undoubtedly cause plenty of disagreement.
We've chosen to loosely define the criteria for our list as the players "who will have the biggest impact on the overall outcome of the season." However, we recognize that that's still open to interpretation. For some, it could mean the value of a player over his replacement. It could just mean best player. It could mean players in crucial roles. It could mean players who have underperformed who need to step up.
One thing is certain though: no two lists will be the same. That's why for each player, we'll enlist two of our writers to debate the merits of the player in question.
To start, we have defensive tackle Tyler Lancaster. Tristan Jung and Ian McCafferty discuss:
Tristan Jung (Lancaster rank: 5) — Every year, Northwestern graduates some pass rushers. Usually, someone steps up to take over the burden. Last year, Dean Lowry went to the Packers and Deonte Gibson graduated. Ifeadi Odenigbo and Xavier Washington stepped up in the gap. This time, Northwestern is losing Odenigbo and Washington’s status is in serious doubt after his unfortunate drug arrest earlier this year. That leaves Tyler Lancaster, the sole senior on this line and, in my opinion, one of Northwestern’s most important players.
Lancaster totaled 28 tackles and no sacks last season. Last year, C.J. Robbins, who was also a run-stuffing defensive lineman, developed a semblance of a pass-rushing game last season, and that will be important for Lancaster as well. Northwestern desperately needs Lancaster to improve quickly, especially with Xavier Washington out. Joe Gaziano is an impressive talent at defensive end and Northwestern has new talent like Alex Miller and Earnest Brown IV in the pipeline. However, none of them have the Big Ten experience that Lancaster does.
In the past, Lancaster has had veterans to help him along. This time, he’ll have to do it all himself. He certainly has the physical tools and athletic ability to make it work. However, Northwestern needs him to play well and stay healthy. If Northwestern does not get solid production out of Lancaster up the middle, we could be back to the early season run defense we saw in 2016, in which Northwestern could not stop anybody from running the ball. Remember when Nebraska’s Tommy Armstrong Jr. and Terrell Newby cut through Northwestern’s defensive line for 310 rushing yards and 6.6 yards per carry en route to a comfortable 24-13 win at Ryan Field? Yeah, I fear we’re going to go back to that if this young defensive line struggles. Thus, Lancaster needs to be an anchor at defensive tackle. Luckily, he’s certainly more than capable of being that guy.
Ian McCafferty (Lancaster rank: NR) — As Pat Fitzgerald always likes to remind us, Northwestern wins and loses games in the trenches, and for the most part that’s true. However, it’s usually on the other side of the ball (*tries to repress memories of the Illinois State game*). The strange thing about Northwestern’s defensive line over the past few years is that the big time contributors have all been defensive ends. Part of this is because defensive tackle is not exactly a glorious position. Lancaster doesn’t get to the quarterback a lot because he’s not really designed to. He could certainly get there a bit more often, but getting pressure up the middle is not the easiest thing. His real job is stuffing the run. At this point you would have to consider what’s more important to Northwestern right now, getting to the quarterback or stopping the run. It’s a hard choice given the thin secondary and thin linebacking corps.
However, a big part of my decision-making comes from the way that offenses approached Lancaster last season. He was consistently double-teamed up the middle as opposing teams dared Northwestern’s defensive ends to beat them. Lancaster is one of the lynchpins of the defense for sure, but there will be more important defensive players this season simply given circumstance. In a weird twist of fate, Lancaster’s seniority actually makes him a less pivotal player heading into the season because we pretty much know what we’re getting. I suppose my argument is not that Tyler Lancaster is not important, it’s simply that there are more important players than him heading into the season. There are a few players at linebacker, safety and cornerback that will make or break Northwestern’s defense in 2017. Meanwhile, Lancaster will just continue to do his job down low.
Tristan Jung — That’s a good point about Lancaster drawing offensive linemen away from the play. However, I think that adds to his value rather than detracting from it. Simply by virtue of his presence, he will make Gaziano and...well, Trent Goens’ (?) job much easier. With Washington out at least to start the season, it’s also up to Lancaster to provide a leadership role on that defensive line, and you can never discount those pesky intangibles.
I agree that Lancaster is slightly underrated because he, as they say, “does his job,” but on a defensive line that is suddenly much thinner than usual, his role will be amplified. We shall see how the season pans out, but it’s fair to say that Lancaster will still have his biggest role in his Northwestern career.