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Northwestern Football’s Most important players — No. 7: Joe Gaziano

Joe Gaziano appeared to be on the brink of a breakout last season.

NCAA Football: Pinstripe Bowl-Northwestern vs Pittsburgh William Hauser-USA TODAY Sports

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.

We continue with No. 7: defensive end Joe Gaziano. Davis Rich and Tristan Jung discuss:

Davis Rich (Gaziano Rank: 8) -- As I thought through this piece, I quickly realized I should have ranked Joe Gaziano, who will slide into a starting defensive end slot this fall, higher than eighth on my list. Northwestern’s defensive success in 2016 was due in large part to the chaos created by its veteran defensive line. Anchored by seniors Ifeadi Odenigbo and C.J. Robbins, the Wildcats were fifth in the Big Ten in rushing defense and considered one of the premier units nationally. However, Northwestern’s defensive live could turn into a weakness this fall. The Wildcats lose 81 percent of their defensive line sacks from 2016, with the graduation of Odenigdo and Robbins, and the season of senior defensive end Xavier Washington in jeopardy.

The 4.5 sacks that remain belong to Joe Gaziano. The Gatorade Player of the Year in Massachusetts and one of the jewels of Pat Fitzgerald’s 2015 recruiting class, Gaziano redshirted his freshman year and saw a healthy amount of action as a backup but never earned a start. Wildcat fans will surely remember Gaziano’s colossal sack and safety against Michigan State. Let’s watch it again, just for kicks.

However, the 6’4”, 265-pounder had a host of other highlights as the season progressed. The redshirt sophomore recorded two sacks against Purdue before a strong performance in the Pinstripe Bowl, with a career-high four tackles and half a sack.

To remain competitive, Northwestern must reload instead of rebuilding on the defensive line (a cliché yes, but a true one). Winning the battle in the trenches has implications for the success of the secondary, too. Given his pedigree and impressive play from last year, Northwestern will look to Gaziano to provide pressure from the edge in lieu of the NFL-bound Odenigbo, especially if Washington cannot play.

Tristan Jung (Gaziano Rank: 8) — I ranked Gaziano eighth, but I stand by my decision to keep him behind players like Godwin Igwebuike and Justin Jackson. It’s hard for me to automatically ascribe Gaziano more importance than his more experienced teammates. Despite his excellent debut, ranking him even higher is hard when he still has a lot to prove on the field, although he certainly has the talent to do so. Joe Gaziano will be a critical part of the defensive line, but there’s too much uncertainty for him to become truly indispensable. He’s still young and will need to improve his run defense and hone his pass rushing skills to make the largest possible impact.

Gaziano had his moments, but I noticed that he also no-showed against Minnesota and Illinois. Perhaps it was due to a hidden injury, but he was on the depth chart both weeks, so what gives? We really haven’t seen the full Joe Gaziano yet. He’s impressed in limited stretches, but there are specialized defensive lineman who can perform that role without making a huge difference overall (early career Ifeadi Odenigbo comes to mind). I think he’ll be more than that, which is why I still have him at No. 8, but I’m not willing to put him higher just yet.

I think Gaziano will get good competition on this Northwestern depth chart, which is not as barren as we think. Tommy Carnifax, Trent Goens, the Miller brothers, and Earnest Brown IV are all really good defensive line prospects. Fitzgerald likes to rotate in his pass rushers, and Gaziano might suffer if his production drops at any point. Alternatively, if you believe Northwestern’s defensive line depth is actually bad, Gaziano’s effectiveness will drop as teams realize he’s Northwestern’s only threat. Michigan State’s Malik McDowell was an absolute monster last year. Michigan State’s defense was still terrible. One good pass rusher can be negated by three bad ones.

Also, if Northwestern’s pass rush is weaker than last year, there’s an even greater burden on the secondary to play a huge role on this team. I suppose arguing whether a really good safety or a really good pass rusher is more “important” to a team is highly subjective, but given that Igwebuike will be the undisputed leader of the position group and probably making a boatload of tackles, I give the safety the edge.

I assume Joe Gaziano will promptly become the second coming of J.J. Watt and make this take look very, very bad. I look forward to it. Someone has to supply the bulletin board material, after all.