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2021 Northwestern football positional previews: Defensive Line

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First team All-Big Ten Adetomiwa Adebawore, the people are saying.

NCAA Football: Northwestern at Michigan State Mike Carter-USA TODAY Sports

Overview:

Returning Starters: Adetomiwa Adebawore (Jr.), *Samdup Miller (Grad Student)

Key Losses: Eku Leota (Transfer to Auburn), Earnest Brown IV (Los Angeles Rams)

Returners: Joe Spivak (Grad Student), Jason Gold Jr. (Jr.), Trevor Kent (Sr.), Devin O’Rourke (Jr.), Jordan Butler (So.), Te-Rah Edwards (So.), Wyatt Blake (Jr.), PJ Spencer (R-So.), Jaiden Cameron (So.), Duke Olges (R-So.)

New Additions: Jeffery Pooler Jr. (West Virginia Transfer), Najee Story (Fr.), Aidan Hubbard (Fr.)

Despite being the least heralded position group among Northwestern’s elite 2020 defense, the ‘Cats along the defensive line still produced and filled their roles admirably last season. Much like an offensive line receives insufficient credit for the holes it opens up in the run game and the sacks it prevents from happening, NU’s defensive line occupied opponents’ backfields well enough to let one of the best back sevens in Northwestern history put all of their talent and experience on display throughout the year.

A slight decline in the group’s production was expected following the loss of Northwestern’s all-time sack leader in Joe Gaziano to the NFL, and unfortunately a similar issue could be on the table in 2021. In a very surprising turn of events, team-sack leader Eku Leota announced his transfer to Auburn at the season’s end, and a long-time starter in Earnest Brown IV has also left the program in being drafted in the 5th round by the Los Angeles Rams.

All that to say, Northwestern has its work cut out for it in terms of building up the ‘21 defensive line, but given Pat Fitzgerald and Co.’s success on that front throughout his tenure, there is definitely still room for optimism.

Key Player:

Adetomiwa Adebawore

Anyone who follow me on Twitter or has read some of my previous articles on this site knows that I am the creator, founder, owner, majority investor and all-encompassing emperor of Adetomiwa Adebawore Island. My adoration for him mainly stems from the ridiculous speed he possesses as a 265-pound defensive tackle. The list of D-Linemen who can close down a 10-yard lead from a running back on a screen pass, or burst out of his stance so fast as to disrupt the quarterback the moment he receives the snap is few and far between.

While his 11 solo tackles and a mere two sacks do not immediately scream “high impact player”, take into account all the plays Adebawore disrupted and prevented with his quick-twitch burst and relentless motor, and you have yourself an All-Conference caliber lineman.

With Eku Leota’s surprising transfer to Auburn, Earnest Brown’s departure to the NFL and Samdup Miller having missed the 2020 season due to a personal opt-out, Adebawore returns as the headliner of an otherwise unproven position group.

(Also of note — according to Northwestern’s team website, Adebawore has changed his jersey number from No. 49 to No. 99 for this upcoming season).

Big Question

Who is going to step up to complement Adebawore as a consistent starter?

As detailed above, this isn’t exactly a position group rich with experience. Miller and Pooler Jr. bring between them a combined 90 solo tackles and 14 sacks in their seven seasons of football played since 2017, but neither of them played in a Wildcat jersey in 2020. Miller was up there as one of the most dependable linemen alongside program career sack leader Joe Gaziano back in 2019, and it’s safe to assume he hasn’t lost any talent in his year away from the team, but with limited practice time and a lack of recent game film, no one can be certain how he’ll look in 2021.

As for Pooler, I detailed back in early May how he profiles as a plug-and-play starter. He’s not too flashy or explosive, and unlikely to be seen as any sort of X-factor or game-changer. Still, he brings good hand usage and a solid motor from his time spent at West Virginia, and should contribute to the ‘Cats’ success this year in several ways not seen in the box score, such as this play right here where his quick win on the edge helps flush the quarterback out of the pocket and eventually run out the clock on this first half drive.

After those three, one might have just as much luck guessing the fourth starter by throwing darts into the abyss. Trevor Kent might be a good bet due to his receiving a good bit of game reps in each of his first three seasons and impressive stature at 6-foot-6 and 300 pounds. Devin O’Rourke is another option, as he came to Northwestern with a four star ranking from 247Sports, indicating some latent potential, but he has yet to produce much of anything on the field in his first three seasons.

Joe Spivak is best known for his his role as the fullback in the goal line package during the 2020 season, as well as for providing the greatest media availability answer of all-time, but is likely to be more of a rotational piece on the D-Line rather than a three-down starter. Other players such as Jason Gold Jr., sophomore Jordan Butler who had some solid reps as a freshman and Najee Story — a three-star commit who was also recruited strongly by both Alabama and Ohio State — definitely have a chance to earn a spot given the opening in the starting rotation, but are probably less likely to earn it given the experience of those in front of them.

No matter who steps in to fulfill the shoes left by Brown and Leota, it is critical that the unit develops an identity and cohesive play style that allows them to let the hyper-talented back seven of the Northwestern defense shine, much like they did in 2020.

Depth Chart

2021 Defensive Line Depth Chart

Depth Chart 1st String 2nd String
Depth Chart 1st String 2nd String
Defensive End Jeffrey Pooler Jr. Jason Gold Jr.
Defensive End Trevor Kent Devin O'Rourke
Defensive Tackle Adetomiwa Adebawore Joe Spivak
Defensive Tackle Samdup Miller Jordan Butler