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Northwestern football season in review: grading the defensive line

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The men up front turned in another stellar campaign.

NCAA Football: Northwestern at Iowa Jeffrey Becker-USA TODAY Sports

Now that we’ve had some time to reflect after Northwestern wrapped up its 2018 season with a Holiday Bowl victory, it’s time to go back and break down the performance of each position group during the nine-win campaign. We’ll give out some individual grades and also provide an early preview into what that unit will look like in 2019. Now we turn to what was likely the team’s deepest position group: the defensive line.

Overall grade: A-

The 2018 season was a really solid one for Northwestern’s defensive line. The NU sack rate (4.6 percent) was No. 115 in the country, which is less than ideal, but if you watched the D-line, you still saw disruption and production. With Jordan Thompson plugging the middle and Joe Gaziano and others setting the edge on the outsides, the defensive line helped the Wildcats finish the season as the 18th-best rushing defense in the country per S&P+.

The line consistently swallowed blockers and kept linebackers Paddy Fisher and Blake Gallagher clean, which allowed the linebackers to dart downhill to pursue runners. Rarely did the line make big mistakes, and, while there wasn’t always the explosion you want to see from the defensive ends, there were enough big plays to buoy the pass rush and help make the Northwestern defense one of the Big Ten’s better ones.

A lot of players contributed on the line this past season, but it makes sense only to grade the ones who played the most.

Player grades

Joe Gaziano: A

Stats: 35.5 tackles, 12.5 tackles for loss, 7.5 sacks, three forced fumbles

Gaziano followed up a strong 2017 campaign with a nice 2018 season. The Massachusetts native finished the season with 7.5 sacks and was routinely the best pass-rusher on the team. He had some really important plays — notably a forced fumble in the fourth quarter of Northwestern’s division-clinching win over Iowa and forced a fumble that led to a defensive score in the second half of the Holiday Bowl. Gaziano should be a terror off the edge in 2019 as a senior.

Jordan Thompson: A

Stats: 21 tackles, six tackles for loss, three sacks, two forced fumbles

Thompson is likely the most under-appreciated player on the team from an outside perspective. He was elite as a run-stuffer in the middle of the defense, and even showed enough twitch to notch three sacks and get into the backfield at times. With Tyler Lancaster leaving a gaping hole in the middle of the Wildcat defensive line, Thompson stepped up to help offset that departure. As a result, Northwestern’s run defense was better in 2018 after a strong showing in 2017. Losing Montre Hartage and Nate Hall will hurt in 2019, but Thompson will be the defense’s biggest loss.

Samdup Miller: B+

Stats: 53 tackles, 6.5 tackles for loss, 1.5 sacks, one forced fumble

Miller’s tackles for loss and sacks numbers dropped off this season, but those sack numbers are partly attributed to Earnest Brown IV playing more often this season on passing downs. Miller is clearly a talented defensive lineman. He posted a whopping 14 tackles in a win over Nebraska, which is just nuts for a defensive lineman. With two years of eligibility remaining, the arrow is pointing up on Miller. He was probably a bit unfortunate not to get more sacks than he did, but was a key contributor nonetheless for arguably the team’s best position group.

Fred Wyatt: B+

Stats: 28 tackles, 3.5 tackles for loss

There were big shoes to fill at Northwestern’s second defensive tackle spot with Tyler Lancaster gone for the NFL, and Wyatt did a nice job slotting in. He wasn’t the disrupter that Jordan Thompson was, but he turned in a solid season at defensive tackle, especially in the running game. Wyatt and Thompson have now exhausted their eligibilities, so NU will need some new blood to step in at defensive tackle.

Earnest Brown IV: B+

Stats: 22 tackles. 7.5 tackles for loss, four sacks

Brown was likely Northwestern’s most explosive defensive lineman, using his quickness and lateral movement to get into backfields and hit quarterbacks, particularly on passing downs. His fumble recovery for a touchdown was a critical play in Northwestern’s comeback win over Nebraska, and he played what was probably his best game of the season in the Big Ten Championship against Ohio State.

Outlook

At defensive end, Northwestern is set. Gaziano, Miller, Brown and Trent Goens are all back, and Devin O’Rourke should play more after playing in just four games so he could redshirt in 2018. Defensive end will be NU’s deepest position next year, and there’s room for growth with Miller and Brown becoming upperclassmen. Brown is clearly a plus-level athlete, and he could put this unit over the top next season if he can get more consistent. For the Wildcats’ defensive line to move from good to great, Brown probably has to overtake Samdup Miller at defensive end and becoming a premier pass-rusher in the conference.

Inside, there are more questions. With Thompson and Wyatt gone, the Wildcats will have to rely on inexperience to hold down the middle. Alex Miller has played in the middle of the line before, but he’s not the run stuff that Thompson is, and Miller is a bit undersized. Jake Saunders and Trevor Kent should also see reps, but neither has extensive playing time under their belts.

You should expect to see some lineups with Gaziano or Samdup Miller bumped into the middle on passing downs. It’s possible that the Wildcats’ top four D-linemen are all natural defensive ends, so Pat Fitzgerald could get creative in the defenses and lineup he plays if he wants to get his most talented players on the field. Regardless, there’s a lot of talent coming back up front, and Northwestern should be strong again in the front four.