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Northwestern football’s most important players — No. 5: Alex Miller

After losing their top three run-stopping defensive tackles, the Wildcats will need Miller to help the middle of the defense to hold strong.

NCAA Football: Northwestern at Purdue Thomas J. Russo-USA TODAY Sports

To kick off a summer of football preview content at Inside NU, we are counting down Northwestern’s Top 10 Most Important Players for 2019.

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 the best player. It could mean a player in a crucial role, or even players who have underperformed in past seasons who now need to step up.

Our staff has created a list that will undoubtedly cause plenty of disagreement, but ultimately highlights ten players that will factor heavily into the seasons success. For each player, we’ll enlist two of our writers to debate the merits of the player in question.

Coming in at fifth on our list is senior defensive lineman Alex Miller.

Claire Kuwana (Rank: 6)

Since his freshman year, Alex Miller has been an integral part of Northwestern’s defensive line. During his junior campaign, he recorded 14 total tackles (7 solo, 7 assisted) and 1 sack. Miller’s performance toward the end of the 2018 season is part of what cemented him in my ranking — he had three tackles and a sack during the Big Ten Championship, and three tackles in the Holiday Bowl win.

There is no doubt in my mind that it is going to be Miller who fills this important defensive lineman position this fall. He has the experience and skill Northwestern’s defense needs to help replace Jordan Thompson. Though Miller is smaller than Thompson, he still remains one of the biggest guys on the defensive side of the roster, listed at 6-foot-3, 268 pounds.

From the start of his career, Miller stood out as one of only three true freshman to play in 2016. Both his freshman and sophomore year, he appeared in all 13 games. In 2018, he missed two games due to an ankle injury, and as a result only appeared in 11 games. However, this otherwise consistent experience playing will help him in his senior year. If he remains a steady tackle, and hopefully throws in some occasional performances to match the Ohio State game, he will undoubtedly be an important player for the Wildcats this upcoming season.

Joe Weinberg (Rank: 5)

Northwestern’s run defense was the heart of last season’s improbable run to the 2018 Big Ten Championship Game. The Wildcats finished the season allowing just 129.6 yards per game on the ground, good for 4th in the Big Ten and 26th overall in the nation. All good teams must have an identity, and the 2018 Wildcats built their success around stifling other teams on the ground.

Jordan Thompson, Fred Wyatt and Ben Oxley — three of the heaviest guys on Northwestern’s 2018 defense front — have graduated, and the team’s depth at defensive line isn’t terribly promising. Defensive coordinator Mike Hankwitz will not change his commitment to utilizing “run-stopping first’ lineman in his defensive scheme despite not having as many big bodies this year around, especially considering the line is poised to have an immensely talented group of linebackers behind them.

As Claire wrote, Alex Miller is the most probable player to replace Thompson in anchoring the NU run defense by plugging space, drawing double teams and opening up the line of scrimmage for Northwestern’s linebacking corps to finish tackles. Although he’s a bit undersized, his strong finish to 2018 as well as his experience under DL coach Marty Long, who has now produced NFL-caliber defensive tackles in back-to-back seasons with Tyler Lancaster (Packers) and now Thompson (Colts), should thrust Miller into the primary role on the line of scrimmage.

Big Ten games are won in the trenches. Miller will probably have to be the one to lead the charge in that regard for the Wildcats.