As summer gets underway and we get closer (hopefully!) to college football’s return, Inside NU is carrying on an annual tradition by counting down the players our staff has judged as most important to the team’s success in the coming season.
The definition of importance in this setting is, of course, up for interpretation, but that just makes this exercise all the more intriguing and, potentially, revealing. If you want to check out last year’s list, follow this link, and if you need a refresher on our overall rankings this time around, click on this one.
For each placement on the list, we’ve enlisted two of our writers to debate the merits of the player and their ranking. To kick things off, we’re taking a closer look at a capable pass rusher, but one coming off of an injury-shortened 2019 and facing what are, by any definition, massive shoes to fill — Earnest Brown IV.
Noah Coffman (10)
Amongst last year’s significant team-wide struggles, one position stood out as a consistent positive for Pat Fitzgerald’s Wildcats: the defensive line. Marty Long, the most consistently successful position coach on Northwestern’s staff (especially when longevity is factored in), worked his magic yet again, and Joe Gaziano led a group that produced solidly even as contributors fell by the wayside on a near-weekly basis.
But now Gaziano is off to the pros, and with Alex Miller having graduated alongside him, Long has significant holes to fill. Traditionally, that’s not something he and Fitzgerald have had a problem with: Gaziano replaced Ifeadi Odenigbo’s production after he headed off to the Vikings, with Odenigbo having filled in well as an edge rusher in Dean Lowry’s stead himself; Miller was stepping in at tackle for Jordan Thompson, who had taken over for another NFLer in Tyler Lancaster.
This time around, the heir apparent, at least in the pass-rushing department, is the outgoing, energetic Brown. And though similar transitions may have gone smoothly in the past, plenty is on the shoulders of the former four-star recruit.
After a promising sophomore year, in which he garnered four sacks and even managed a defensive touchdown against Nebraska, an injury against Ohio State took him out for the season before he really got the chance to get going. Now, he will almost certainly be relied upon as the team’s top pass rusher and will likely need to take on some of the leadership that Gaziano brought to the table alongside fellow senior Samdup Miller.
If Brown can’t help take some of the pressure off a back seven with a few more question marks than we anticipated at this time a year ago, the heavily relied-upon Wildcat defense may well be stretched dangerously thin. A group that relies on pressure from its front four will be pinning much of their hope on Brown. If his flashes of talent become more consistent, things will be looking up on Pat Fitzgerald’s favorite side of the ball.
Claire Kuwana (7)
Like Noah said, Earnest Brown IV will be one of the most vital players this season because of his potential to replace Joe Gaziano. Though the defensive line is not a position group that Northwestern fans normally need to worry about, it is losing the star of 2019 in Gaziano, and there will be a desperate need to fill in for him this fall.
Over the past few years, the ‘Cats have been able to rely on their defensive line to keep them in games, especially last year when the offense was struggling. This unit is always crucial, making any player who might be leading it important as well. There is no doubt that Brown will be one of these senior leaders alongside Samdup Miller. Brown is the more aggressive and high-powered pass rusher of the two — he beats both Gaziano and Miller in height at 6-foot-5-inches and will be a force to reckon with on the line.
Both Miller and Brown suffered injuries last season, so the majority of both players’ experience comes from the 2018 season (their sophomore year). Nonetheless, to echo what Noah said, Brown executed an impressive sophomore year campaign. He especially shone toward the end of the year, leading the team with six tackles for loss in the last four games of the regular season and then going on to set a team-high of 2.5 tackles for loss against Ohio State in the Big Ten Championship.
If Brown can come back from an injury-ridden season and replicate this type of production, or even raise it to try and fill Gaziano’s role, he will prove to be one of the most important players for the ‘Cats in 2020.