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2020 Northwestern Football Position Reviews: Defensive line

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This young group leaves lots of hope moving forward.

NCAA Football: Northwestern at Michigan State Tim Fuller-USA TODAY Sports

After a shortened season capped by a Citrus Bowl victory, it’s time to begin our postseason coverage by handing out grades and taking a look at what’s to come in the fall. We’ll evaluate each position group and discuss how well they performed, as well as what the future might hold. Up next is the defensive line.

Overall grade: B+

Before the season even started, Northwestern’s defensive line lost an important player with the opt-out of Samdup Miller. His absence ultimately led to more playing time for Eku Leota, who many felt would be Northwestern’s next great pass-rusher by the season’s end.

Leota was just one of many players who stepped up along the defensive line this season. Pre-season starters Jason Gold and Trevor Kent both suffered injuries that lingered throughout the year, and their playing time was allocated towards Joe Spivak, Tommy Adebawore, Jake Saunders and a few others.

Northwestern’s defense finished seventh in the Big Ten in both rushing yards allowed with 156.5 and sacks with 14. These numbers largely indicate Northwestern’s defensive line was a middle-of-the-pack unit in the conference. Given the strengths of Northwestern’s defense (the secondary and linebackers), their performance was more than good enough to get the job done. And given the numerous setbacks this group faced throughout the season, it exceeded expectations.

Player Grades

Earnest Brown IV: B

Stats: 1 sack, 28 tackles, 7.5 TFL, 3 QBH

Being overshadowed by Joe Gaziano while on campus, Brown IV never had an opportunity to start until his senior season. He came to NU as a highly-rated recruit and recorded four sacks in his sophomore season as a rotation pass-rusher. Entering his senior season, there were lofty expectations for EB4.

Brown started the season slowly but began to generate more pressure on the quarterback as the season progressed, even though he finished with just one sack on the year. He effectively establishing the edge and proved that he can stop the run rather than just being a third-down pass rusher in his senior season. He will now look to take his talents to the next level and battle his way onto an NFL roster.

Tommy Adebawore: A-

Stats: 2 sacks, 17 tackles, 6 TFL, 7 QBH

Due to Jason Gold and Trevor Kent’s injuries, Tommy Adebawore had a golden opportunity to solidify himself as a key cog along the defensive line in 2020. He did exactly that.

He will enter next season along with Brandon Joseph as possibly the most exciting players on Northwestern’s defense. He possesses speed unseen before from a Northwestern defensive lineman, and his ability to sniff out screens helps distinguish himself from the rest of the line. Next season, it is imperative for Adebawore to take the next step and become a dominant pass rusher.

Eku Leota: A-

Stats: 4 sacks, 13 tackles, 5.5 TFL, 4 QBH, 1 FF

As previously mentioned, Leota had a fantastic season for the Wildcats. In just eight games, he was able to register four sacks. Leota possesses a rare combination of power and speed that allowed him to rush the quarterback so successfully.

For Northwestern fans, it is a shame that he will not be donning the purple next season, as he plans to trasnfer. But, with the recent news of Malik Washington returning to NU after entering the portal, anything can happen.

Joe Spivak: B+

Stats: 1 sack, 14 tackles, 1.0 TFL

Spivak’s weekly “WOW!” videos alone could have earned him an A on the season.

In all seriousness, Spivak came to Northwestern without any other offers from a Power 5 school besides Michigan State. It is a testament to his determination that he was able to work himself into one of Northwestern’s best rotational defensive lineman and a force in short-yardage situations.

Jake Saunders: B

Stats: 1 sack, 14 tackles, 4.5 TFL

Perhaps no Wildcat defensive lineman was more impacted by Jason Gold and Trevor Kent’s injuries than Jake Saunders. In his senior season, he was called on to start various games and contribute as a backup in a few games as well. He played eight games and saved his best for the Big Ten Championship where he notched a sack and two tackles for loss. Saunders was never the star of the defensive line, but he served as a steady presence that Mike Hankwitz and Marty Long could always rely on in the middle of their defense.

Trevor Kent: Incomplete

Stats: 7 tackles, 1 FR

Kent battled injuries throughout the season and only appeared in four games. His loss was significant when he was not on the field, but he made a notable impact in one of his games against Wisconsin where he recovered a fumble and had three tackles. With Brown and Leota likely gone, Kent will step into an even bigger role next season.

Jason Gold: Incomplete

Stats: 1 tackle, 1 TFL

Like Kent, Gold was a preseason starter who battled injuries throughout the year. He notched his first career start against Maryland but did not take the field again all season long. However, he is just a sophomore and has lots of opportunities to lead the line in the years ahead.