In continuing our summer football coverage, we are counting down Northwestern’s Top 10 most important players in 2022. We’ve created a composite averaging the rankings of each of our staffer’s respective lists, revealing who we believe to be the most crucial to the Wildcat’s upcoming success.
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.
No. 8, S Coco Azema
Ignacio Dowling (7)
Nine months ago, much of the optimism that Northwestern’s defense would recover from a rough 2021 season centered around Brandon Joseph’s presence. Now that Joseph has transferred to Notre Dame, Coco Azema will have to fill the shoes of NU’s only All-American in two decades. If that doesn’t make a player important, then what does?
Azema might have been the most underrated player on the team last year. Playing next to Joseph, he quietly emerged as one of Northwestern’s most consistent defensive playmakers. Azema’s prowess as an open-field tackler kept the ‘Cats from surrendering more explosive runs and earlier deficits, particularly against Michigan on the road. He finished with 72 total tackles — good for fourth on the team — and his role grew as the season progressed.
The junior will depend on players like Cam Mitchell and Adetomiwa Adeboware to maintain that production by virtue of his position, but he still might be Northwestern’s defensive centerpiece. Jim O’Neil deployed Joseph in a ton of different spots in 2021, but the defense was still especially susceptible to passes in the middle of the field. If Azema can improve his versatility and disrupt more plays in coverage, he will take lots of pressure off Pat Fitzgerald’s inexperienced linebacking corps. That, by itself, would begin to right the ship.