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2019 Northwestern football position reviews: Defensive Line

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Michigan State v Northwestern Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images

With our postseason coverage starting a bit early this year, it’s time to give out some individual grades and a small look at what’s to come in the 2020 season. We’re going to evaluate each position group as we deconstruct what went wrong for the ‘Cats this year.

We now move to the other side of the ball, where the composite grades and analysis will be more positive for an NU defense that finished 26th in the country in SP+.

Overall Grade: B+

Northwestern’s defensive line was the team’s strongest position group in 2019. The unit’s performance was largely overshadowed by struggles at virtually every other area, but a 3-9 record shouldn’t takeaway from the impressive strides the front seven made under the tutelage of Marty Long for yet another season.

A mix of both experienced and young linemen anchored the NU rushing defense to 40th in the country, allowing just 136.9 YPG on the ground despite facing some of the country’s best running backs week-in and week-out. The pass rush never really reached its full potential, but it’s hard to have much overall criticism for a group of guys that kept the Wildcats in games where every other position group was floundering, especially as they consistently battled injuries.

Long will lose a few critical guys up front next season (one that, hopefully, we’ll continue watching on Sundays), but that shouldn’t provoke too much concern moving forward. The Wildcats will still return plenty of experienced and developing talent, and the group should once again be ready for a strong campaign in 2020.

Player Grades

Joe Gaziano: A+

Stats: 49 tackles (34 solo, 15 assists), 9 sacks, 5 passes defended, 3 forced fumbles

To no one’s surprise, Gaz earns the highest grade among the defensive linemen this season. In a year of disappointment, the redshirt senior shined once again, imposing himself as a constant force in opponent backfields and earning his rank as one of Big Ten’s best defensive linemen.

The defensive end capped it all off by breaking the all-time Northwestern sack record, finishing with 30 for his career. Fans should be excited to see one of the best to ever don the purple continue writing his legacy on Sundays.

Alex Miller: A-

Stats: 41 tackles (19 solo, 22 assists), 4 sacks, 1 passes defended

The senior tackle had by far his most successful season from a production standpoint, setting a season-high in both tackles and sacks on his career. Miller’s stats weren’t anything to write home about, but it’s impact off the stat sheet where the senior earned his A- rating. Replacing Jordan Thompson, the lineman found himself constantly absorbing double teams on the inside, opening up the door for Northwestern’s linebackers to finish off plays.

The 300-pounder deserves a ton of credit for his performance this season, as things could’ve gone a lot worse for NU without him working hard upfront.

Samdup Miller: B+

Stats: 29 tackles (19 solo, 11 assists), 0.5 sacks

The younger Miller brother’s production dropped in 2019 as he battled injuries throughout the latter half of the season and also saw more time on the inside. After seeing 14 starts at defensive end in 2018, injuries limited Miller to action in just eight games throughout his redshirt junior season. Still, he was a solid contributor, posting 2.5 TFLs and half of a sack.

Miller should have a starting spot on the end locked down for his senior season, and looks ready to take the next step in a season that he can hopefully play at full strength.

Eku Leota: B+

Stats: 12 tackles (6 solo, 6 assists), 2.5 sacks, 1 pass defended, 1 forced fumbles

Leota was quietly one of the best and most surprising stories of this Northwestern defense. The redshirt freshman saw increased action with Samdup Miller and Earnest Brown battling injuries, and he capitalized by putting together a quality season throughout the ten games of action he saw.

Leota opened his account early when he combined for a sack at Stanford, and he kept things going, picking up two more sacks to go along with 4.5 TFLs on the year. He’ll likely be battling Earnest Brown next season for the second starting end spot alongside Sthe younger Miller.

Trevor Kent: B+

Stats: 8 tackles (3 solo, 5 assists)

Kent’s season was cut short due to an injury suffered at Indiana, but there was still plenty of positive to take away from the young tackle’s performance in his sophomore season. He cemented himself as a viable starting tackle alongside Alex Miller, and a healthy Kent should be the anchor of the interior of this Northwestern defensive line moving into 2020.

Jake Saunders: B-

Stats: 8 tackles (7 solo, 1 assist), 1 sacks

The junior spent the former half of the season splitting playing time with Kent at tackle before taking over as a starter after the starter went down with an injury. After seeing action in just three games throughout his first two season, Saunders played in 11 this year, picking up both his first career sack and tackles for losses.

Adetomiwa Adebawore: A-

Stats: 49 tackles (34 solo, 15 assists), 9 sacks, 3 forced fumbles

Tommy Adebawore made a serious case for most valuable true freshman on this 2019 team. He was so impressive that the ‘Cats elected to burn his redshirt, with the promising edge rusher action in seven games. It took until the latter half of the season for him to break through, but Adebawore had cemented himself into the regular DL rotation by the end of the year.

Above all else, he’s an exciting young piece that Mike Hankwitz has to work with moving forward, and with three years of eligibility remaining, Northwestern fans should be excited to see him continue to grow.

Joe Spivak: B

Stats: 8 tackles (2 solo, 1 assist), 0.5 sack

After missing last season with an injury, the former walk-on saw the most action of his career, appearing in 12 games, and earning eight tackles to go along with it. One of the most fun players on this NU team earns a passing grade on the year and will be a viable backup in 2020.

Earnest Brown IV: Incomplete

Stats: 15 tackles (8 solo, 7 assists), 2 sacks

Expectations were high for Brown heading into his junior season, and unfortunately, the campaign did not pan out how everyone hoped. His year got off to a rough start with a terrible and costly targeting penalty at Stanford, and he was one of many players on this team to have their season cut short due to injury.

Brown was still productive in the action he saw, but this was certainly not the breakout season many saw coming for the highly-touted prospect in his third year. His fourth season will provide a chance for a serious bounce-back performance as the NU defensive front looks to replace Gaziano’s production.