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Top defensive position battles for Northwestern in 2020

Luckily, there are a lot of strong options on this half of the team.

NCAA Football: Michigan State at Northwestern Matt Marton-USA TODAY Sports

As we’ve covered in-depth over the last few months, there are many questions and concerns surrounding Northwestern football going into the 2020 football season. Since Fitz is notorious for keeping things close to the chest, we likely won’t have any answers until/if the ‘Cats take the field, but there are a number of key position battles to watch before fall camp begins. Here’s the overview for the defensive side:

2nd Cornerback

Players battling: Cam Ruiz, A.J. Hampton, Bryce Jackson

The loss of Trae Williams means that there is a hole to be filled in the secondary. Though we know that seniors JR Pace and Travis Whillock will hold down safety, it is up in the air who will play across from Greg Newsome.

Defensive backs coach Matt MacPherson has a few options to fill out his unit. With Williams injured for parts of last season, Fitz and co. cycled through a number of different lineups for the secondary — often Newsome and Ruiz started at cornerback with Pace and Whillock at safety, while sometimes experimenting with the younger A.J. Hampton as the replacement.

As was projected in the secondary position preview, it is most likely that Ruiz will get the nod, but there is still a layer of uncertainty. If he struggles early on, the leash may be short before Hampton or Jackson gets the call.

Projected starter: Cam Ruiz

Defensive End

Players battling: Earnest Brown IV, Adetomiwa Adebawore, Eku Leota

With the departure of Joe Gaziano from the defensive line, there is a significant hole for DL Coach Marty Long to fill. The first starting defensive end position will undoubtedly be filled by Samdup Miller, but the second slot is more up for grabs. Odds are senior Earnest Brown IV (InsideNU’s Most Important Player #10) will earn the role, but there are definitely other options for Long as well. After facing an injury last season, Brown IV was sidelined for most of the year, but expectations are high in 2020 as he was named to the Preseason All-Big Ten team by both Athlon Sports and Phil Steele.

Adetomiwa (Tommy) Adebawore exceeded expectations as a freshman in 2019 — so much so that the coaching staff chose to burn his redshirt and placed him in the starting rotation toward the second half of the season. As a younger talent, he will likely need more development before he truly cements a starting spot, but he is no doubt an asset for Long to work with.

Similarly, Eku Leota saw playing time as a redshirt freshman last season after both Brown IV and Samdup Miller suffered injuries. He appeared in 10 games in 2019, recording 12 total tackles, 2.5 sacks and 4.5 TFL.

Projected starter: Earnest Brown IV

Defensive Tackle:

Players battling: Trevor Kent, Joe Spivak, Jake Saunders, Jason Gold Jr., Wyatt Blake

Trevor Kent and Jake Saunders split time starting at tackle last year before Kent was injured against Indiana. The two are expected to anchor the inside of the DL this season, however, there are a few other players that could step up as well.

Senior Joe Spivak appeared in 12 games last year, earning a decent amount of playing time as a backup and recording eight total tackles. Alongside him at backup was also Jason Gold Jr., who saw action in six games last season as a true freshman. Gold also tallied eight total tackles and two TFL.

Lastly, Wyatt Blake saw his career debut at tackle last season, but will likely not be a huge contender in the lineup unless he can make more of an impact after the offseason.

Projected starter: Trevor Kent, Jake Saunders

Honorable Mention



As much as I would like to include linebacker, there is really no question about the starting three.