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Northwestern football season in review: Grading the Defensive Line

This may have been Northwestern’s best position group.

In tough times, Northwestern's Tyler Lancaster is there for his family John J. Kim/Chicago Tribune/TNS via Getty Images

Now that we’ve had some time to reflect after Northwestern wrapped up its 2017 season with a Music City Bowl victory, it’s time to go back and break down the performance of each position group during the 10-win campaign. We’ll give out some individual grades and also provide an early preview into what that unit will look like in 2018. After covering the offensive line last time, we are switching to the other side of the trenches.

Overall Grade: A-

The defensive line has been one of Northwestern’s biggest strengths in a largely successful decade of football. Churning out potential NFL contributors seemingly left and right, veteran coach Marty Long has consistently gotten the most out of his front four. But outside of Ifeadi Odenigbo’s late sack explosion, last year was a slight regression for the line in run and pass defense. With Odenigbo and CJ Robbins graduating and Xavier Washington’s status uncertain, the Wildcats were set to enter the season without three of four d-line starters from 2016. But thanks to major steps taken by young edge rushers and Tyler Lancaster showing consistent dominance on the interior, the Wildcats turned a potential weakness into a definite strength.

The most impressive piece of the defensive line’s performance during the 2017 season was their ability to stop the run. Some of the credit for Northwestern’s elite rushing defense must, by necessity, go to the linebackers, but it was the big boys up front, especially Lancaster, Joe Gaziano, and the Miller brothers, who did the dirty work and either took away running room or occupied blockers to allow the LBs to make plays. The Wildcats finished with 94 credited tackles for loss as a team, which is good for over 7 a game and 20th in the country. Gaziano, Lancaster, and Samdup Miller alone combined for 30.5 of them, and created opportunities for countless others. But aside from just creating opportunities for negative plays, Northwestern’s defensive line cracked down on explosive plays and general running success as well. After the Nevada game, the Wildcats did not allow a team to rush for 4 yards per carry in any of the last 12 games. The level of consistency on both sides of the trenches, but especially within the defensive line, was a key component in Northwestern’s ability to reach 10 wins for just the 4th time in program history.

On the pass rush side, things were slightly worse. The Wildcats’ sack rate was pedestrian at best, hovering around 5.5% and 87th in the country. Outside of Joe Gaziano, there did not seem to be a pass rusher who was any kind of consistent threat to get to the quarterback. In back-to-back weeks against Michigan State and Iowa, Gaziano was the only player to record a sack for Northwestern. Their lack of pressure didn’t outright cost them any close games, but it allowed seemingly inferior teams like Iowa, Purdue and Kentucky to hang around, which could come back to bite them in 2018 unless improvement is made in getting to the quarterback.

Player grades

(DE) Joe Gaziano, SO: A+

Gaziano’s pass-rush prowess was discussed in the above section, but we will go into a bit more detail here. The sophomore from Scituate, Massachusetts came up with 9 sacks on the season, enough to tie him with highly-touted Nick Bosa for the Big Ten lead. The 6-foot-4, 280-pound end knows how to use both his strength and his quickness, displaying a variety of moves over the course of the year to get to the quarterback. But Gaziano is more than just a pass rusher: he was heavily involved in the run game, finishing with 3.5 tackles for loss and serving as a stalwart in the line’s consistent push, and even batted down 5 passes, good for fifth on the team. The well-rounded Gaziano is already a star Big Ten lineman, and he has two years to take the next step. I know I’m looking forward to watching him.

(DT) Tyler Lancaster, SR: A

Lancaster, honored by his teammates with the prestigious No. 1 jersey before the year in recognition of his leadership role on the team, went out on the best season of his career. The anchor of Northwestern’s best facet as a team, interior run defense, Lancaster managed to rack up career highs in tackles (27) and TFLs (9.5) despite being double or even triple teamed on nearly every play. The 315 pound senior, who went semi-viral in the offseason thanks to a video of him benching 225 pounds a whopping 37 times, put his immense upper-body strength to good use, allowing successful plays (40% of the necessary yardage on first down, 60% on second down, 100% on third and fourth down) on just 7.5% of his tackles. Thanks in large part to Lancaster and his 14 run stuffs (when a player makes or assists on a tackle for no gain or less), Northwestern finished 7th in the country in defensive power success rate, allowing opponents to convert on 3rd/4th and 2 or less just 53.7% of the time. Lancaster will be remembered as a phenomenal leader, a guy who was willing to do the dirty work, and one of the few players in Northwestern history to be a part of two 10-win teams. He will be missed.

(DT/DE) Samdup Miller, FR: A-

Miller led freshmen linemen in tackles for loss with 8.5, 5.5 of which were sacks, good for second on the team. Rotating both inside and outside, the early enrollee showed off raw power but also a surprising amount of technique for a true freshman. Miller’s potential is huge, and if he continues to trend upward there’s no telling how good he could get.

(DT/DE) Alex Miller, SO: B+

Samdup’s elder brother didn’t quite put up the same eye-popping numbers, but Alex Miller showed off his versatility despite his deficiencies rushing the passer. The sophomore, like Joe Gaziano, batted down 5 passes at the line of scrimmage. 10 passes deflected at the line is a lot for a duo. Those are key plays, especially for a defense with a relatively thin secondary. Miller has the ability to play and play well at every position on the line, and though he may never grow into an elite pass rusher he already appears to be a solid contributor.

(DT) Jordan Thompson, JR: B-

Thompson was a highly-touted prospect coming out of high school, and he’s shown distinct flashes of ability during his three years at Northwestern. But the junior tackle still hasn’t been able to put it together for a full season, and he’s beginning to run out of time. Operating across from Tyler Lancaster for the third and final season, Thompson managed 8 run stops and 2.5 sacks, but missed his share of tackles. The quickness and size are there, but as Thompson presumably steps into a leadership role in his senior year, the gregarious tackle will need to improve upon his consistency.

Other contributors: B

The only other junior who started training camp on the defensive line, Fred Wyatt began the season in the starting lineup, but proved too slow for a Big Ten defensive end and saw limited snaps for the second half of the season. Sophomore Trent Goens played sporadically but made significant contributions to the pass rush with 4 sacks. Former guard Ben Oxley made the switch to defensive tackle in late August and performed admirably considering the abrupt switch. Four-star recruit Earnest Brown IV didn’t see the field enough to record any official stats, but did get pressure twice in garbage time scenarios during Big Ten play.

Looking ahead to 2018

A young defensive line will remain young in 2018, but that’s suddenly starting to look better and better. With Tyler Lancaster as the only major graduate, the Wildcats are suddenly looking at a plethora of talented edge rushers, with the aforementioned Brown figuring to enter the picture in addition to Gaziano, the Millers, and Goens, and stud four-star 2018 signee Devin O’Rourke potentially throwing his hat into the ring as well. There’s a bit more uncertainty on the interior, as it will be tough for any one player to fill Tyler Lancaster’s shoes, but the veteran core of Thompson, Oxley, Alex Miller, and maybe Wyatt or Jake Saunders should produce a solid rotation. My guess for the starting four: Gaziano, Thompson, Alex Miller, Samdup Miller.

Marty Long is regarded as one of the best defensive line coaches in the business, and now he has the most talented defensive line room that he’s ever had during his tenure at Northwestern, with a core comprised of guys who will almost certainly be around until 2019. Despite the departure of Lancaster, the defensive line is set up to continue and even improve upon their 2017 success in the 2018 campaign, and Northwestern fans should be excited.