Now that the season is over and the coaching cycle is spinning, it’s a good time to look back and review each position group. Next on the list: the defensive line.
Overall Grade: B-
This position group was one of the hardest to grade, as there is so much that goes into solid defensive line play. Unfortunately for Northwestern, it struggled to win in the trenches on both sides of the ball the entire season. For as good as Adetomiwa Adebawore was on the interior, the collective group did not make as big of an impact as Wildcat fans have become accustomed to during Pat Fitzgerald’s tenure as head coach.
The ‘Cats were 66th in total defense this season, allowing an average of 374.6 yards a game. Northwestern was also ranked 111th in the nation in rush defense, giving up 191.3 yards a game on the ground, the worst of any team in the Big Ten. The ‘Cats struggled to set the edge all year, allowing opposing teams to take advantage in the stretch and jet sweep games.
In the passing game, NU struggled to get to the quarterback. The Wildcats only had 18 sacks on the season, tied for 110th in the nation, averaging just 1.5 sacks a game. Northwestern was ranked 84th in scoring defense, giving up an average of 28.33 points per game. It was enough for Fitzgerald, as he announced on Tuesday that both defensive coordinator Jim O’Neil and defensive line coach Marty Long would not be retained for the 2023 season. While the staff evaluation seems to be completed on the defensive side, it is time to evaluate how each player faired this season.
Adetomiwa Adebawore: A
Stats: 38 total Tackles, 27 solo, 11 assisted, nine tackles-for-loss, five sacks, three quarterback hits, two forced fumbles, one pass breakup
Adebawore’s senior season was everything both the ‘Cats, and he, could have asked for. He was a bright spot for a team that did not have many and saw his draft stock rise. The senior was a staple in the middle of the defensive line, anchoring Jim O’Neil’s defense. The Kansas City native was stout in the run game, wrecking multiple inside runs as he defeated double teams to make the play. Adebawore was also very strong in the pass game, leading the team in sacks and forcing the ball onto the turf. His play earned him an invitation to the Senior Bowl and it is expected that he will hear his name called this April in the NFL Draft.
Sean McLaughlin: B-
Stats: 31 total tackles, 17 solo, 14 assisted, four tackles-for-loss, one quarterback hit, one forced fumble, one pass breakup
It was a solid year for the junior, who was a great compliment on the interior to Adebawore. McLaughlin held down the fort and helped Northwestern stuff the running game inside the tackles.
However, McLaughlin struggled in passing situations. He failed to get to the quarterback all year, not recording a single sack, and only had one QB hit. It is a major fault in his game, and needs to improve with NU’s lead pass-rusher going pro. McLaughlin went quiet in the final stretch of the season, so it will be interesting to see how he bounces back as he begins his senior campaign.
If McLaughlin decides to stay in Evanston for his senior year, he’ll play under a new defensive coordinator and defensive line coach. He has big shoes to fill, but definitely has a high ceiling. The junior is a quality run-stopper, and if the new staff can unlock his ability as a pass-rusher, there is little doubt that he will be on an NFL big board.
Devin O’Rourke: B-
Stats: 28 total tackles, 14 solo, 14 assisted, three tackles-for-loss, one and a half sacks, two quarterback hits, one pass breakup
It was a solid senior campaign for O’Rourke, as he showed his ability to stuff the run and was a decent complement to Adebawore. He also struggled to get to the passer this year, but was able to hold his own in the trenches.
Taishan Holmes: B-
Stats: 12 total tackles, five solo, seven assisted, 0.5 tackle-for-loss
After suffering an injury against Wisconsin on Oct. 8, Holmes did not appear in a game for the rest of the season. Like most of this unit, Holmes looked very good against Nebraska and played a huge part in shutting down the Huskers on the ground. For the most part, he continued to be an effective run defender through the first month of the season, especially when he helped hold Penn State’s dangerous rushing attack to about four yards per carry. However, the Massachusetts grad transfer often struggled to generate pressure on pass plays.
Aidan Hubbard: C+
Stats: 17 total tackles, 12 solo, five assisted, one tackle-for-loss, one sack, two quarterback hits
It was a good development year for the sophomore. In a year that started out slow, Hubbard came into his own in the home stretch. Another year of development will be good and under a new staff, he is another name to watch to take a big leap.
Najee Story: C
Stats: 25 total tackles, 12 solo, 13 assisted, two tackles-for-loss, one sack, one quarterback hit
The sophomore was not as productive as the Wildcats had hoped for, as he struggled to become an impact player. Like most of Northwestern’s front, Story needs to work on getting to passers and creating pressure, but has all the physical traits to do it. It will be interesting to see how he develops under a new staff.
Ryan Johnson: C
Stats: Six total tackles, six solo, three tackles-for-loss, two sacks, three pass breakups
The Stanford graduate transfer started the year strong, earning his first sack in purple and white in Dublin against the Cornhuskers. Johnson helped contribute to a three-sack team performance against Southern Illinois, and generally, the defensive line struggled to get to the quarterback in the early part of the season, despite his efforts. Against Wisconsin, Johnson left the game with injury, keeping him out the remainder of the season.
Jaylen Pate: C-
Stats: 10 total tackles, eight solo, two assisted, one tackle-for-loss, one quarterback hit
It was a disappointing season for the graduate transfer from Wyoming. Expected to be a staple for the ‘Cats in the middle, Pate missed a good amount of time this year. Pate only appeared in eight games, and did not make an impact when he was on the field. For someone NU was hoping could blossom into a key component of their defensive line, Pate was not as effective as the Wildcats were hoping for.