As spring practice begins to come to a close, Inside NU will be embarking on a new series of stories regarding the most important questions for Wildcat football to address in the offseason. With coaches and players coming and going and potential position battles galore, Northwestern has plenty to focus on going into its season opener in late August. With these stories, we will highlight what we feel are the most important questions that this team is facing as they try to build on nearly unprecedented success. Next, we take on the run defense, which was arguably the most impressive part of the team last season but loses three linchpins.
The Northwestern run defense was spectacular last year. The Wildcats finished 25th in the country in rushing yards allowed per game at a hair under 130, 18th in defensive rushing S&P+, and perhaps most impressively, seventh in opponent rushing marginal efficiency. Essentially, that last stat means the defense was extremely good at keeping opponents off-schedule in the run game: not letting teams pick up short-yardage firsts on 3rd/4th in addition to stuffing opponents on early down run plays.
That being said, Northwestern lost both of their starting defensive tackles from last season. Jordan Thompson, one of the most underrated players in the Big Ten, and Fred Wyatt, an unheralded but key piece alongside him, have graduated. Important depth piece Ben Oxley is gone as well. With Nate Hall leaving an additional gap at outside linebacker, there’s legitimate concern as to whether the Wildcats can repeat the run-stopping ability that was so crucial to last season’s success.
Who will fill the gaps?
Prior to last season, many diehard Northwestern fans had qualms about the run defense. The departure of Tyler Lancaster, one of the best run-stoppers in program history, certainly left a difficult hole to fill, but Thompson stepped up in a major way and put together the best season of his career. Wyatt moved back to the inside position permanently and played a pivotal role in holding up blockers so Wildcat linebackers could come in and make the stop.
This year, the options on the line aren’t as plentiful.
The Miller brothers will have to step up if Northwestern has any chance of recreating last year’s success, though both have some weight to put on if they want to match last year’s tandem. Alex Miller was listed at 268 pounds last year, and played the majority of his snaps inside during passing situations. The same goes for his brother Samdup, who tipped the scales at 258. The former mentioned his muscle gain at a recent practice, saying he had hit 300 pounds for the first time ever, which bodes well for a potential transition to a run-stopping role. For reference, Thompson and Wyatt were listed at 292 and 288 respectively last year.
Options beyond the Millers are relatively scarce. Rising juniors Jake Saunders and Joe Spivak have the size at 300 and 293 pounds respectively to compete for playing time, but both have seen very limited action in their Northwestern careers up to this point. Joe Gaziano could always be moved inside (and was at times last year on passing downs), but his proven reliability and value as an end both against the run and the pass makes it hard to believe that he’ll be taken away from that spot.
The battle to replace Nate Hall at outside linebacker is wide open. Paddy Fisher and Blake Gallagher obviously have their spots locked down, but Chris Bergin, who replaced Hall when he was injured last year, will have a battle on his hands with younger faces like redshirt freshman Khalid Jones and highly-touted first year Michael Jansey Jr.
How precarious will the run defense be?
Gallagher and Fisher had phenomenal years statistically in 2018. On the basis of their numbers alone, the Wildcats should be fine against the run once more next season. However, a large part of their statistical success at linebacker can be attributed to the fact that they were often single-teamed or left completely free thanks to Thompson and Wyatt drawing double-teams and clogging things up at the line of scrimmage.
Of the potential tackle replacements mentioned above, zero have significant experience playing inside for run situations. A hole at tackle could severely hinder Northwestern’s chances of replicating last season’s success even if the talented group of returning defensive ends steps up like they did last year. It’s far from guaranteed (and perhaps even unlikely) that whoever Pat Fitzgerald and Marty Long put in the middle of the line will be able to replicate last season’s success.
The Miller brothers have a long road ahead of them both in terms of building pure muscle mass to clog space on the line as well as transitioning to the mindset required for a run-first defensive tackle in Mike Hankwitz’s system. We saw Northwestern pull off a similar transformation last season with Wyatt, but they won’t have as many big bodies to throw at the middle of the line in 2019. Even if the rest of the defense is firing on all cylinders, the replacements at defensive tackle will have a tough time replicating last season’s remarkable success.