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2018 Northwestern position previews: Defensive Line

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The D-line should be strong this season.

Iowa v Northwestern Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images

Overview:

Returning starters: Jordan Thompson (25), Joe Gaziano (13), Samdup Miller (13)

Key losses: Tyler Lancaster (39 career starts, 101 tackles, 18.5 tackles for loss, two forced fumbles)

Other returners: Fred Wyatt (Sr.), Ben Oxley (Sr.), Trent Goens (Jr.), Alex Miller (Jr.), Jake Saunders (So.), Joe Spivak (So.), Tommy Carnifax (So.), Earnest Brown IV (So.), Mark Gooden (So.)

Newcomers: Andrew Leota, Devin O’Rourke (Fr.); Trevor Kent (R-Fr.)

Defensive line is the deepest, and probably the most talented, position group for the 2018 Wildcats. Headlining the group are defensive ends Joe Gaziano and Samdup Miller, who combined for 21 tackles for loss and 14.5 sacks in 2017, and defensive tackle Jordan Thompson, a steady presence inside for the past two seasons. The only loss among Northwestern’s nine lineman who saw time last season is Tyler Lancaster, now with the Green Bay Packers.

Gaziano is an unabashed star for Northwestern, a havoc-creating force inside who caused four fumbles and batted down five passes in addition to his nine sacks. Miller surprised many by earning the starting role opposite Gaziano as a true freshman. The Texan was named a Freshman All-American, and he led all Power 5 rookies with 8.5 tackles for loss.

Behind the two starters at defensive end is a stable of capable role players, including veterans Trent Goens and Fredd Wyatt. Keep an eye out for sophomore Earnest Brown IV, a former four-star prospect who player in twelve games last year, as well as redshirt freshman Trevor Kent. North Carolina native Andrew Leota was an early enrollee, like Miller was in 2017, and could earn some playing time at end.

Depth at tackle is a little thinner, and Lancaster’s departure leaves a 315-pound hole inside. I’m expecting Wyatt to shift inside to provide relief, while Alex Miller (4.5 TFL, two sacks) should earn the starting role next to Thompson. Ben Oxley and Joe Spivak should be able to spell Miller and Thompson inside.

Key Player:

Jordan Thompson

I’m a little worried about defensive tackle in the wake of Lancaster’s graduation. For this Northwestern defense, everything starts up front. The Wildcats featured a stingy run defense last season that ranked 20th in the country in adjusted line yards and 30th in stuff rate. Linebackers like Paddy Fisher and Nate Hall need the defensive lineman to occupy space so they can shoot into holes and stop ballcarriers.

Thompson has been solid as the starter alongside Lancaster the past two seasons. Now is his time to shine. Should Thompson become an All-Big Ten performer up front, Northwestern would feature one of the best units in the conference, a disruptive force on passing and running downs. If Thompson can’t take his game to the next level, it’s hard to project another defensive tackle stepping up, and we could see some regression in terms of run defense. Moreover, Gaziano and Miller would be under even more pressure to get to the quarterback.

Northwestern’s front seven should be the strength of the defense in 2018, but Thompson’s continued development could make it dominant.

Big Question:

Can Northwestern bring pressure in passing downs?

On paper, the pass rush looks like a strength for the Wildcats. Behind Gaziano and Miller, Northwestern finished sixth in the Big Ten with 32 sacks. Most of the disruption, however, came on first or second down. Northwestern finished 91st in the country in sack rate on passing downs, compared to 71st on standard downs. For a Power Five school, 91st in any category isn’t good at all, let alone for a team that hopes to win a Big Ten West title.

Getting to the quarterback in passing situations is even more important now that Northwestern’s secondary depth is thin following the graduations of Godwin Igwebuike, Kyle Queiro and Marcus McShepard. The defensive backfield probably isn’t going to be forcing a lot of coverage sacks, so the pressure is on the defensive line to get to the quarterback. Gaziano and Miller have proven their ability and will likely receive more attention up front in 2018. Can they still create havoc on third and long?

Depth Chart:

DL Depth

Position 1st string 2nd string 3rd string
Position 1st string 2nd string 3rd string
DE Joe Gaziano Trent Goens Tommy Carnifax
DT Jordan Thompson Fred Wyatt Jake Saunders
DT Alex Miller Ben Oxley Joe Spivak
DE Samdup Miller Earnest Brown IV Trevor Kent