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2020 Northwestern football position previews: Defensive Line

The majority of the unit returns but with one very notable loss.

NCAA Football: Holiday Bowl-Northwestern vs Utah Jake Roth-USA TODAY Sports

It’s officially Northwestern’s summer and time to look ahead to the fall. Despite many uncertainties and potential alterations, the college football powers that be are planning for the 2020 season to start on schedule. We start our summer coverage by previewing every position group on the team. Today, we look at one of the most consistent units year-in and year-out, the defensive line.

Overview

Returning Starters: Jake Saunders (Sr.), Trevor Kent (Jr.), Samdup Miller (Sr.)

Key Losses: Joe Gaziano, Alex Miller

Returners: Earnest Brown IV (Sr.), Adetomiwa Adebawore (So.), Devin O’Rourke (So.), Joe Spivak (Sr.), Eku Leota (So.), Jason Gold Jr. (So.), Wyatt Blake (So.), Willy Boatman (So.), Duke Olges (R-Fy.), PJ Spencer (R-Fy.), Luka Trifunovic (R-Fy.),

Newcomers: Jaiden Cameron, Jordan Butler, Te-Rah Edwards and Sean McLaughlin

For the past few years, Northwestern’s defensive line has been one of its strongest position groups — this year should be no different. In 2019, the line saw key players suffer injuries, but it was nonetheless anchored by Joe Gaziano (30 career sacks, 100 solo tackles, 10 forced fumbles). The former defensive end, now off battling for a roster spot on the Los Angeles Chargers, left Northwestern as the program’s all-time sacks leader and is undeniably the line’s biggest loss this season.

The rest of the unit will look similar. Alex Miller is the only other starter from the 2019 who graduated; his younger brother Samdup and other players like Jake Saunders and Trevor Kent will hold down the front in 2020. Adetomiwa Adebawore, who shined in spots as a first-year, will be part of the regular rotation again, while Eku Leota, who impressed later in the season, should undoubtedly battle for significant playing time.

What’s more, senior defensive end Earnest Brown IV (who sustained a season-ending injury versus Iowa) earned preseason All-Big Ten honors for this year and is expected to be a prominent pass rusher.

Key Player

Samdup Miller

With the graduation of his brother Alex, the younger Miller brother Sam has big shoes to fill in his senior season. Sam started all 14 games in 2018 at defensive end, but missed a large chunk of the 2019 season due to injury. As a sophomore, he ranked fourth on the team with 53 total tackles and recorded a career-high 14 tackles in one game, which beat a 2002 program record. He also started every game as a freshman at defensive end.

If Miller is able to come out strong for the 2020 season, he will be a key leader for the position group. With his experience on the end, he will likely serve as the best direct replacement for Gaziano, while the slightly less experienced Brown IV will likely take Alex’s spot.

Big Question

Can the line avoid injury?

In 2019, this position group saw a fair amount of injury. Samdup Miller, Brown and Kent all missed large portions of the season (particularly towards the end). With these three slated to make up a large part of the usual DL lineup, it is crucial that all of them are able to perform to their full potential this year. Northwestern’s defense starts with limiting the opposing ground attack and forcing the offense to make big plays through the air, and despite their record, NU largely did that the first half of the season when everyone was healthy.

Though there is a fair amount of depth within this group, most of the experience rides in the hands of a few returning players. If they all stay healthy this season, there should be a solid starting lineup, but if injury plagues the group again, other players will be forced to step up and fill in the gaps. Marty Long and Mike Hankwitz just have to figure out how to get more pressure, whether this year’s talent lends itself to that or it’s through play calling.

Depth Chart

Defensive Line

Position 1st String 2nd String
Position 1st String 2nd String
DE Earnest Brown IV Eku Leota
DE Samdup Miller Adetomiwa Adebawore
DT Trevor Kent Joe Spivak
DT Jake Saunders Wyatt Blake