Northwestern has a lot of question marks coming into this season. A shaky offense, to say the least, and the overall skepticism in playing a full season left many fans looking to the consistently strong defensive unit as the one piece of certainty.
However, when the program announced last week that senior DL Samdup Miller and S Travis Whillock would opt out of the season, even the defense came into question.
The graduation of program-great DE Joe Gaziano last season meant Miller –– a three-year starter with 17.5 career TFL and 7.5 sacks –– alongside fellow senior Earnest Brown IV were expected to hold down the unit.
Whillock would have gone into his second year at starting safety after racking up 78 total tackles in 2019 and being named All-Big Ten honorable mention.
The D-line was projected to be one of the strongest units for the ‘Cats. With Miller gone, sophomore Adetomiwa Adebawore steps into a full-time starting role. The Kansas City native recorded five solo tackles and a sack in eight games as a freshman.
Defensive line coach Marty Long has a reputation for being able to replace talent with ease and will have his work cut out for him with losing Miller on such short notice.
Brown IV along with junior Trevor Kent will have to step up to be the leaders of the line. Brown IV is now the team’s strongest edge rusher, but coming off an injury that cut his season short, questions remain on whether he will be able to return to form or not.
In the secondary, Whillock’s absence opens the door for redshirt freshman Brandon Joseph, who saw action in four games last season and recorded four tackles. What would have been a strong safety tandem of Whillock and senior JR Pace now becomes a point of interest.
Redshirt freshman Coco Azema and junior Bryce Jackson are names to look out for to fill the safety role down the line. While Azema mostly showcased his speed on the offensive side of the ball when he rushed for 123 yards and a touchdown against Illinois, he holds great potential to be an impact player in the secondary.
Jackson is by far the most experienced of the three, appearing in 26 games over the past two seasons. He has 28 total career tackles and could emerge as a starter over the less experienced freshmen.
Outside of on-field production, the ‘Cats lose a tremendous amount of leadership in Miller and Whillock. In this season in particular, it’s critical to have veteran players be able to guide a team to success.
Even without two of its biggest contributors, the Wildcat defense still has potential to be one of the most stout in the conference and even the nation as it currently ranks sixth in S&P+. Paddy Fisher headlines a well-rounded and veteran linebacking core, and Pace leads a predominately upperclassman secondary that prepares to take on some of the best receivers in the country this season.