To kick off a summer of football at Inside NU, we are counting down Northwestern’s Top 10 Most Important Players in 2021. We’ve put our heads together as a staff, used the unruly power of democracy and created a list that has already caused plenty of disagreement.
The list’s criteria simply consisted of players we believe to be the most important to Northwestern football in 2021. However, we know that is up for interpretation. For some, it could mean the value of one player over his backup. It could mean players in crucial roles. It could also mean players who have underperformed and need to step up.
Only one thing is known: no two lists from our staff members are the same. That’s why for each player, we’ll have at least one member break down their placement for the aforementioned player.
Jack Izzo (6)
Samdup Miller is a player I not only think will be important to Northwestern’s success next year, but a player that I’m excited to see play again. Miller chose to opt-out of the 2020 season due to COVID-19, and I think his return will be incredibly helpful for the defense, especially should he return to the form he’s showed in his earlier seasons.
I ranked Miller No. 6 on my list, which was the second-highest placement amongt the Inside NU staff. While I do tend to favor the defensive side of the ball, the real reason I placed him so high is because of the uncertainty surrounding Northwestern’s overall defense following the retirement of long-time defensive coordinator Mike Hankwitz and the loss of a large chunk of starters.
New defensive coordinator Jim O’Neil has massive shoes to fill, and Miller could be crucial in that process. Northwestern’s defensive line was a bit shaky at times without Miller last year, with major responsibility falling upon Eku Leota, Earnest Brown and Adetomiwa Adebawore to generate pressure. Brown now plays for the Los Angeles Rams, Leota for the Auburn Tigers, which isn’t a great sign considering that they combined for five of the team’s 14 sacks last year. Fortunately, Miller has shown he’s capable of producing those numbers, as he posted 5.5 sacks way back in 2017. Yes, that’s four years ago, but the point stands — Miller has the potential to be an absolute monster on the defensive side of the ball.
Under Pat Fitzgerald, the linebackers have often done a lot of the work towards stopping the run. For instance, 2020 starting linebackers Paddy Fisher, Blake Gallagher and Chris Bergin combined for 41.6% of all of the tackles Northwestern’s defense made — 248 tackles out of 595 total. For comparison, Wisconsin’s three best linebackers totaled just 118 of the team’s 372 tackles (31.7%).
Fisher and Gallagher have graduated, and the linebacking core will certainly take a step back in their absence. Therefore, having an experienced player in Miller back on the defensive line will be a massive help towards stopping the run.
Miller has proven to be fallible at times. He hasn’t come close to matching his sack totals since 2017, and after he recorded 53 tackes in 2018, he only had 29 in 2019 (in his defense, he only played eight of 12 games). However, if he has a good season, like the numbers suggest he is capable of doing, the Wildcats’ defensive line will have a leader to rally behind and a beast on the field.