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2022 Northwestern football position previews: Defensive line

Adetomiwa Adebawore’s veteran presence is key.

NCAA Football: Northwestern at Michigan Rick Osentoski-USA TODAY Sports


Returning Starters: Adetomiwa Adebawore (Sr.), Sean McLaughlin (Jr.)

Key Losses: Joe Spivak (Graduation), Samdup Miller (Graduation), Jeffery Pooler Jr. (Graduation), Jeremy Meiser (Graduation), TeRah Edwards (Transfer), Trevor Kent (Graduation), Wyatt Blake (Transfer)

Returners: Najee Story (So.), Aidan Hubbard (So.), Devin O’Rourke (Sr.), Jason Gold Jr. (Sr.), Duke Olges (Jr.), P.J. Spencer (Jr.), Jordan Butler (Jr.), Jaiden Cameron (Jr.), Carmine Bastone (So.)

Newcomers: Ryan Johnson (Grad transfer, Stanford), Taishan Holmes (Sr. transfer, UMass), Henrik Barndt (R-Sr. transfer, Indiana State), Jaylen Pate (Sr. transfer, Wyoming), Anto Saka (Fy.), Brendan Flakes (Fy.), Austin Firestone (Fy.), Payton Warford (Fy.)

Northwestern’s defense performed well below expectation last year, and a major reason for the drop-off was the poor play of the Wildcats’ defensive line. All year, Marty Long’s DL struggled to control the line of scrimmage, rush the passer or make stops: the ‘Cats posted just 19 sacks, the second-fewest in the conference and the team’s fewest in a full year since 2014.

Entering 2022, NU must replace four of its primary five defensive linemen in Spivak, Meiser, Miller and Pooler; in fact, the Wildcats return just 32.5% of their 2021 snaps from defensive linemen. Much like Peter Skoronski for the team’s offensive line, Adebawore must unequivocally be the anchor along Northwestern’s defensive front.

Entering his senior campaign, Adebawore has proven to be one of the better pass rushers and edge defenders in the Big Ten. Among defensive linemen in the conference to play 275+ pass rush snaps last year, the Kansas City native ranked eighth in pass rush win rate (15.6%), though he has just 7.5 career sacks. Adebawore also flashes skill in stopping the run, prowess that helped him earn preseason Second Team All-Big Ten honors.

To help fill existing vacancies, Fitzgerald and his team added a myriad of transfers, including Johnson (Stanford), Holmes (UMass), Barndt (Indiana State) and Pate (Wyoming). The ‘Cats also have some exciting first-years, such as four-star recruit Saka, but don’t discount sophomores like Story and Hubbard seeing increased snaps.

Key Player:

Sean McLaughlin

Northwestern figured to have a formidable pass-rushing duo in Adebawore and Miller last year, but the latter played in just seven contests, totaling nine pressures and two sacks. When Miller went down to injury, McLaughlin took over the starting reigns.

After playing just 39 snaps in his first year in Evanston, McLaughlin saw 274 in 2021. The sophomore saw time in every game, amassing two sacks, nine pressures, six hurries and one quarterback hit. At the same time, McLaughlin encountered challenges when making stops: his 38.9 missed tackle percentage was the worst on NU among players with 100 or more snaps.

McLaughlin is in position to retain a starting role entering 2022, but he faces fierce competition in youngsters like Story, Hubbard and Saka. The junior is at risk of dropping in the defensive line pecking order if he does not refine his play.

Big Question:

Who will man the last starting defensive tackle spot?

It’s a certainty Adebawore will be starting at left defensive end, and Johnson’s versatility inside and outside should garner him a starting spot. However, that leaves room for one more technical starter at DT.

The battle will presumably come down to transfers Holmes and Barndt, who bring experience from lower-tier programs. If it counts for anything, the ‘Cats saw Barndt firsthand last season when they defeated Indiana State on September 11.

While one defensive tackle will technically be a starter, expect both Holmes and Barndt to see meaningful playing time.

Depth Chart

2022 Projected DL Depth Chart

Position First String Second String Third String
Position First String Second String Third String
LDE Adetomiwa Adebawore Aidan Hubbard Anto Saka
DT Ryan Johnson Jason Gold Jr. Brendan Flakes
DT Taishan Holmes Henrik Barndt Jordan Butler
RDE Sean McLaughlin Najee Story Devin O'Rourke