Spring ball has concluded for Northwestern football, and, while most of the 15 practices were closed to the media, some things are beginning to clarify themselves. With the spring season over, it’s a good time to reflect on where the team is at certain spots. In this article, the focus is on the strongest position group.
Based on reporting and limited access to practice, one position really stands out at the best: the defensive ends.
At the top of the depth chart, Northwestern brings back junior Joe Gaziano and sophomore Samdup Miller, both of whom turned in strong 2017 seasons. Gaziano led the Big Ten with nine sacks, and Miller impressed with 5.5 sacks of his own as a true freshman. The Wildcat pass-rush looked suspect early in the season, but this duo helped that unit regain its form, ultimately vaulting NU into the top half of the conference in sacks.
Gaziano, a bigger player, can bump inside to tackle on passing downs, but consistently got into the backfield throughout the season. After another offseason of weights and training, and as a leader on the defense, he should have an NFL decision to make after next season.
Miller, meanwhile, is a skilled technician for a player so young. He was relatively light for the position at 261 pounds a year ago, but a full year of a college weight plan should help him deal with bigger offensive tackles in 2018. He showed a quickness and burst that earned him a starting spot right off the bat, which bodes well for his future. He’s probably one of the biggest candidates on the team to break out.
The top-end talent puts the defensive ends over the top for this piece, but the unit still has something Pat Fitzgerald craves: competitive depth. Trent Goens is an experienced reserve, racking up four sacks in game action last season. Plus, Earnest Brown IV, the jewel of the Fitzgerald’s 2017 recruiting class, will hopefully develop into a productive rusher this season and takes some snaps from Miller and Gaziano. He was banged up a year ago, but he might have the most raw talent of any of the ends. Trevor Kent, another highly recruited player, is in a similar spot to Brown, though he redshirted last season. He has the kind of frame that makes you think he could play some tackle to find snaps.
The other positions I considered for being the best were the running backs and the receivers. Jeremy Larkin showed a ton of promise behind Justin Jackson last season, and Isiah Bowser has drawn strong reviews after enrolling early. John Moten IV and Jesse Brown have been impressive at times, too. For me, the uncertainty associated with Larkin being the bell-cow for the first time in his career and how Bowser will fare in his debut season gave me pause.
In the case of the receivers, there’s a ton of names, but I don’t see quite as much sizzle at the top than I do with the defensive ends. Bennett Skowronek and Flynn Nagel are solid options, and Skowronek could very well be a No. 1 guy, but we just haven’t seen it on the field week in and week out in the same way we have with Gaziano (that’s partially a function of other things, admittedly). What does excite me about the receivers is just how many options there are. Solomon Vault being back is exciting, and Riley Lees had a good first season in 2017. Jace James and Kyric McGowan should improve after playing as true freshmen, and Charlie Fessler provides a big target. Jelani Roberts is also a big play waiting to happen if he can find the space. If one or two of those more unproven names makes a big leap, the wide receivers will be dangerous.
But for now, the defensive ends lead the charge heading into 2018.