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.
Next up we have safety Godwin Igwebuike.
Tristan Jung (Igwebuike rank: 2): For this definition of “important,” I will be going off a pure talent-based perspective. I think that Igwebuike is the most talented defender on the roster heading into the season, and that deserves some mention on the scale of “importance.”
Igwebuike had 108 tackles and 78 solo tackles last season, which led the team. Those numbers were competitive with any Big Ten safety, and he also added two interceptions and a forced fumble. While Northwestern’s defense slipped from its lofty form in 2015, Igwebuike still helped Northwestern produce the 32nd-ranked defense by S&P+. He’s just a really good player, and Northwestern’s pass/run defense would not be the same without him.
In addition to being a good pass defender and a ballhawk, Igwebuike hits harder than just about anyone. His tackling and awareness really anchor Northwestern when things go south. You don’t want to have your safety cleaning up messes all the time, but with a defense lacking in defensive line experience and dealing with a hole at linebacker due to Anthony Walker Jr.’s departure, cleaning up is precisely what Igwebuike will be doing. In an ideal situation, Igwebuike is probably not the most important player on a college football team. However, the current state of Northwestern football is set up for a confident strong safety to solidify the defense.
Of course, if the stats don’t speak for themselves, you can always go with the leadership and experience argument for Igwebuike. On a still fairly young secondary, the redshirt senior is the most experienced player on the defense this season. He’s going to be the on-field player dictating how the secondary reads offenses and works through bad stretches. Fellow senior Kyle Quiero is also a strong presence there, but Igwebuike is a better player and has more experience. The “been there before” argument is not the best one, but I think it holds true for Godwin Igwebuike.
Will Ragatz (Igwebuike rank: NR): Godwin Igwebuike is one of the five most talented players on Northwestern’s roster. Honestly, he’s probably in the top two or three. Everything Tristan said above about Igwebuike, I agree with. In addition to being an extremely talented player, he’s an experienced leader and a super intelligent, interesting person. So...why do I have him outside my top 10? Well, if you’re a regular reader of this series, you know by now that importance can be defined in plenty of different ways. With that in mind, here’s why I kept Igwebuike off my list.
At this point in his career, we know what we’re going to get from No. 16 on and off the field. He hasn’t missed a start over the past two seasons, and, honestly, I can’t think of a dud of a performance from Igwebuike in any of those 26 games. His tackle numbers only went from 87 to 101 as a junior because he was forced to step into a larger role after losing Sky Team partners Traveon Henry, Nick VanHoose, Matt Harris, and Keith Watkins (read: pretty much the entire secondary). With only one career interception if you exclude his three-pick bonanza against Wisconsin in 2014, Igwebuike isn’t a flashy player. He’s just remarkably solid and dependable. Yes, those kind of players are rare and quite important to have on your football team. Northwestern is lucky to have such a reliable presence in the back.
But the point I’m trying to make is that Igwebuike’s play isn’t going to make or break Northwestern’s season. He’s going to be a stud at safety, flying all over the field to make impressive tackles that we take for granted at this point. He’s going to be a stalwart of the Wildcats’ pass defense, getting credited for 5-7 passes defended, as he’s done in each of his first three years, and disrupting countless other routes. He’s going to be the smartest player on the defensive unit and an invaluable resource for the inexperienced linebackers in front of him. For that reason, I have five defensive players ahead of him in terms of importance. All five are either less experienced or less consistent than Igwebuike, and their improvements will have a major impact on the 2017 season. That includes fellow defensive backs Montre Hartage and Kyle Queiro, who need to step up into larger roles and become more consistently productive this season.
Obviously, losing the emotional leader and best player (sorry, Tyler Lancaster and Nate Hall) on Northwestern’s defense to injury would be devastating, and it’s true that that is a measure of importance. But Igwebuike has proven to be a fundamentally sound tackler who knows how to stay on the field, only missing a single game so far in his career. Additionally, if he were to hit the DL for a short stint, the secondary is pretty clearly the deepest position group on that side of the ball for the Wildcats, so Mike Hankwitz could survive with Queiro and Jared McGee for a game or two. In all likelihood, Igwebuike will play all 13 games and be consistently productive throughout. The fact that he’s a known quantity just barely kept him off of my top 10 most important players for the upcoming season.