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Northwestern football’s most important players — No. 3: Joe Gaziano

Having finished second in the Big Ten with 16.5 sacks over the past two seasons, the senior will be a driving force behind the Wildcat defense.

NCAA Football: Northwestern at Maryland Tommy Gilligan-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.

Next up is the man who will be getting after opposing quarterbacks

Eli Karp (2)

I’ve been watching a lot of Northwestern football highlights from the past two seasons lately. One commonality among the games is that Joe Gaziano usually appears in each reel at least once. As a defensive end, he got the opportunities to make the flashy plays that unsung trench heroes Jordan Thompson and Ben Oxley did not, and he made them count.

The Massachusetts native is the clear cut number one talent on the defensive line. With the plethora of pass rushers and lack of distinguished run-stoppers, Fitz may toy around with who gets moved to the interior and who stays on the edge, but Gaziano is one guy he probably won’t mess with. His 2018 impact-play numbers — 12.5 tackles for loss, 7.5 sacks — speak for themselves, and though the Wildcats struggled to pressure the quarterback at times last year, he consistently wreaked havoc on opponents.

More so than just his stats, which place him among the Big Ten pass rushing elite, is his ability to make timely plays. Along with his 44 tackles last year, he forced three fumbles, including the Big Ten West-sealing fumble versus Iowa and the strip sack against Utah in the Holiday Bowl that turned into Jared McGee’s 82-yard scoop and score to really change the momentum of the game.

Gaziano has the ability to pressure the quarterback better than anyone else on the Northwestern roster. He and Paddy Fisher will be the men who make this defense feared by opposing coaches and offenses. Teams need to design game plans around him, and that should open up some opportunities for players like Earnest Brown and others. NU will face quality offenses, and especially with a thin secondary, the opposing quarterback can’t be comfortable. That’s where Gaz goes to work.

Avery Zimmerman (3)

In football, many see the three most important players as the quarterback, the player that protects the quarterback’s blind side and the player going after the quarterback, so it’s fitting that Gaziano checks in at third here.

The recent graduate is a star, plain and simple. He is a dominant force on the defensive line for NU and will be the team’s main factor in getting to the quarterback this year. In 2018, he stepped into the role of leading defensive end, and he did it flawlessly. Gaziano continued to build on his sophomore campaign with a 44 tackle season that included 12.5 tackles for loss and 7.5 sacks. He is the most disruptive weapon NU has and will again be a crucial part of the team’s success.

Sam Miller, Earnest Brown IV and maybe a newcomer like Eku Leota will step into bigger roles on the end, but the group’s achievements will largely revolve around Gaziano. If he isn’t able to consistently get to the quarterback, Northwestern’s defense will be in trouble. Luckily, he’s given us no indication that getting to the quarterback will be an issue.

He even slimmed down this offseason in an effort to get into better shape. Gaziano knows that he’s the unit’s leader and anchor this year, and that role will be perfect for the NFL hopeful. Further importance will be placed on Gaziano early in the year when Northwestern squares off with two of 2018’s top-25 passing offenses, with one of them being the second best, Ohio State. But Northwestern fans know their trust will be in good hands with Joe Gaz.