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2019 Northwestern football position previews: Defensive Line

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Will this end-heavy line be able to replicate the success of the 2018 season?

NCAA Football: Holiday Bowl-Northwestern vs Utah Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

Overview:

Returning Starters: Joe Gaziano (Sr.), Samdup Miller (Jr.)

Key Losses: Jordan Thompson, Fred Wyatt, Ben Oxley

Returners: Alex Miller (Jr.), Earnest Brown IV (Jr.), Trevor Kent (So.), Devin O’Rourke (R-Fy), Jake Saunders (Jr.)

Newcomers: Duke Olges, Adetomiwa Adebawore, Jason Gold Jr.

As one of the strongest and deepest position groups in 2018, Northwestern’s defensive line has some big shoes to fill this year. Jordan Thompson (51 games played, 91 total tackles, 3 forced fumbles) is arguably the biggest defensive loss the ‘Cats will suffer this season, and the hole he (literally) leaves behind on the inside must be filled.

Luckily, this group features some vital returners, including senior Joe Gaziano and junior Samdup Miller. With those two and impressive veteran contributors Earnest Brown IV and Trevor Kent, the Wildcats have each end slot more than covered.

On the inside, however, the defensive line looks rockier. The main returning tackle is Alex Miller, who, though he ended 2018 a little small for the position, has shown the potential to replace Thompson. Besides Miller, there are not many other players with the experience to step into this role. Potential prospect is Jake Saunders, who lacks experience but has the size needed to fill the inside, or Kent, who also has little experience but recorded one sack last season. Samdup Miller, though he focused on defensive end, filled both roles last season at various ties, and could be another option depending on how things shake out.

Key Player:

Joe Gaziano (Sr.)

There is no arguing that Gaziano will be the main force behind the Northwestern defensive line this season. His stats speak for themselves: with 16.5 sacks in the past two seasons, he ranks second in the Big Ten. In his first three years, he has already recorded 104 total tackles, seven forced fumbles and 19 overall solo sacks.

Gaziano is a flashy and powerful defensive end — in the 2018 season, he forced three crucial fumbles, including the one that secured the Big Ten West against Iowa. He has already proven that he is a significant asset to this team and can make the big plays needed to win. Now is the NFL prospect and potential #1 jersey-wearer’s chance to lead the defense to even greater heights.

Big Question:

Will Northwestern be able to fill the inside?

As mentioned above, there are concerns with the strength of the tackles inside Northwestern’s defensive line. With the exception of Alex Miller, this piece of the defense lacks experienced players. The run defense is likely to suffer without Thompson and Wyatt, and if this Northwestern defense starts to fall apart up front, the rest of it may go with. Linebackers like returners Blake Gallagher and Paddy Fisher need the defensive linemen to occupy space in order to make plays as consistently as they were able to last season, and right now, there are not many players that seem ready to do that.

If the ‘Cats are able to fill these defensive holes, then the bigger question will be which personnel they use to do so. Will Fitz fill all four linemen spots with players more suited to defensive end, even in non-obvious passing situations? If he and Marty Long want their most talented and experienced players out on the field, it may be the best option.

Depth Chart:

Defensive Line Depth Chart

Position 1st String 2nd String
Position 1st String 2nd String
DE Joe Gaziano Devin O’Rourke
DE Samdup Miller Earnest Brown IV
DT Alex Miller Newcomer
DT Jake Saunders Trevor Kent