As summer gets underway and we get closer (hopefully!) to college football’s return, Inside NU carries on an annual tradition of 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 this one.
For each placement on the list, we’ve enlisted two of our writers to debate the merits of the player and his ranking. This edition will display two players who were tied for the number nine position. We’re taking a closer look at two senior defenders who are looking to regain their form from impactful 2018 seasons.
Ben Finkelstein — JR Pace (6)
The defensive back corps looks set to become one of Northwestern’s biggest assets during the upcoming season. Led by veterans JR Pace, Travis Whillock and Greg Newsome II along with Cameron Ruiz, this group could be talented enough to successfully execute NU’s bend-don’t-break scheme and limit explosive plays.
While Whillock is the shot-caller of this group, Pace is the silent leader most pivotal to Northwestern’s 2020 success. He arrived at Northwestern ranked as a consensus three-star prospect and provided an immediate impact as a first-year, playing meaningful snaps in all but one game.
The Atlanta native followed this up with an unbelievable 2018 season in which he looked primed to become one of the nation’s top safeties. Pace led the ‘Cats DBs with 82 tackles (4.5 for loss), 11 pass deflections, and four interceptions (all current career highs). His season culminated with both Holiday Bowl Defensive MVP honors as well as All-Big Ten Honorable Mention.
With expectations at an all-time high, 2019 was marked by a few big moments including a highlight-reel interception at Wisconsin, amid largely inconsistent play.
Pace comes in at number six in my rankings and second on the defense behind only Paddy Fisher. This placement is based on Northwestern’s dominant 2018 defense that proved it was at its best when JR was a centerpiece. In 2020 the defense needs Pace in prime form to operate at its highest level.
Lia Assimakopoulos — Blake Gallagher (4)
Over the past three seasons, Gallagher has remained one of the most consistent pieces of Northwestern’s defense. The senior linebacker led the team in tackles in both 2018 and 2019, recording 127 and 91, respectively. He will maintain his leadership role as a senior in 2020 and co-anchor the team’s most prolific position group alongside Paddy Fisher and Chris Bergin.
In addition to his team-high 91 total tackles and 47 solo tackles last season, Gallagher also led the team with three interceptions (in three consecutive games) and tied for a team-high three QB hurries.
After three seasons of consistent production, one can only expect and hope Gallagher will continue this trend in 2020. If he can produce similar numbers this coming season, he will remain one of the most significant contributors on the defensive unit.