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Northwestern football’s most important players — No. 8: Joe Gaziano

The big defensive end looks to build on an All-Big Ten season in 2017.

NCAA Football: Northwestern at Maryland Tommy Gilligan-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 2018. 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.

No. 8 is junior defensive end Joe Gaziano.

Noah Coffman (Rank: 6):

Last season, Northwestern’s front seven was arguably their most impressive unit. And with the Wildcats returning five of seven starters in that area and nearly every other contributor, the unit has a chance to be elite. Much of that chance, in my opinion, will rest on the broad shoulders of Joe Gaziano.

After the Massachusetts native’s breakout 2017 campaign, Big Ten defenses will likely key in on him, especially in passing situations. But even if Gaziano’s constant disruption doesn’t produce sacks in the conference this season, his presence should do wonders for his talented teammates. The Wildcats are beginning to amass talented pass rushers, and if Gaziano continues to trend upwards he will set up his teammates, even if his own numbers aren’t there.

With a bit of uncertainty in both the defensive and offensive backfields, the men in the trenches will likely have to lead the strong start to the season that has recently eluded Northwestern. The Wildcats must control, and at times even dominate, the line of scrimmage to consistently win against their tough schedule. If he can continue to improve each facet of his game the way he did last offseason, Gaziano’s presence will free up opportunities for him and his teammates to establish themselves. If he can’t, the Wildcats will struggle mightily to keep opposing quarterbacks on their toes, and might take a step back defending the run as well.

By no means is Joe Gaziano the most important player for Northwestern, but the junior has shown that he’s more than just the sacks. The last few games in 2017 showed that Gaziano has become a defensive cornerstone, one that the Wildcats can ill afford to see struggle.

Davis Rich (Rank: NR)

Joe Gaziano is a star. Last season, he racked up 12.5 tackles for loss, nine sacks, and four forced fumbles. There’s a strong case to be made for Gaziano as Northwestern’s best returning defender, and perhaps its highest draftee in 2019 (depending on how teams feel about certain tall, mobile, big-armed quarterback).

I didn’t ranking Gaziano in my top 10 simply because we know how excellent he is. As I mentioned in our discussion of Rashawn Slater on Tuesday, I tend to regard players who are more unknown into my list. Gaziano has shown his star power. As a redshirt freshman, he amassed 6.5 tackles for loss and 4.5 sacks in backup duty. When he progressed to a starter role in 2017, his production increased to an All-Big Ten level. Even with increased attention, Gaziano should be able to replicate his 2017 production.

As Noah mentioned above, Northwestern’s front seven is strong. Along the defensive line, I am more interested in how Samdup Miller and Jordan Thompson adjust to increased roles as opposed to expectations around Gaziano’s production.