As a native of Chicagoland’s North Shore, a former defensive lineman at Winona State and a 10-year defensive coordinator, David Braun has always had a penchant for Northwestern’s defensive-oriented style of football, even watching the Wildcats defeat Notre Dame and the Citrus Bowl-winning squad in 2021. What stands out about successful NU seasons isn’t anything radical in the eyes of Braun.
“The best Northwestern defenses that I can recall, there was nothing sexy,” Braun said following Thursday’s spring practice. “It was just a bunch of dudes that loved one another, played really hard, played with good leverage and collaboratively as a team. They played off one another.”
After being named the ‘Cats’ new defensive coordinator on Jan. 17, Braun is looking to not only establish that type of cohesiveness and fluidity, but also to restore a sense of pride to that entire side of the ball. During the last two seasons under Jim O’Neil, Northwestern allowed 29 and 28.3 points per game, respectively, surrendering 30 or more points in 15 of 24 contests. In order to rectify major issues such as consistent tackling, communication in coverage and meshing among position groups, Braun has several tenets he hopes to instill.
“We’re gonna look to limit explosives,” Braun highlighted. “We’re gonna play with great leverage. We’re gonna look to take advantage of takeaways.”
Homing in particularly on turnovers, the Wildcats collected only 12 last season, a figure which was tied for last in the Big Ten. While takeaways can be based on the fortune of an oblong ball bouncing a particular way, they also come down to capitalizing on opportunities and being aggressive. In Braun’s mind, his defensive scheme and training should help augment the number of those chances.
“It’s easy to say that [wanting more takeaways]; what are you doing to create that?” Braun posed. “I feel like some of the coverages that we’ve installed, there’s certainly some elements of vision defense. We’re creating circuit work pre-practice to work on the mechanics of taking the ball away.”
Another facet of NU’s defense that did not manifest itself? A reliable pass rush.
Even with Adetomiwa Adebawore last season, the ‘Cats had 132 team pressures, which was third-to-last in the Power Five, per Pro Football Focus. In addition to emphasizing stopping the run to get to passing situations, Braun noted the work he and his staff have done to zero in on emerging rushers in multiple circumstances.
“We gotta find some opportunities to really let those guys go,” Braun said. “Coach [Christian] Smith is really identifying guys on third down, true pass-rush situations. Making sure that we get the best four pass-rushers on the field. We got some guys that are coming down from linebacker and working some pass rush. We’re looking to maximize our roster, and that’s [third-down pressure] gonna be a huge part of it.”
As Braun seeks to inculcate these values and traits in NU’s defense, he’s making a significant jump to the Big Ten; that’s accentuated by the fact that Braun has never coached above the FCS level. While the DC recognizes offensive question marks with new coaching staffs at programs like Wisconsin, Nebraska and Purdue, he also acknowledges that the level of play is tougher than when he was at North Dakota State.
“There’s gonna be some skill on the perimeter that, especially against some of the teams in this league, that can be very dynamic,” Braun said. “At the end of the day, [where] we’re gonna have to do a great job as a staff is really evaluating how the league is evolving. We’re gonna have to stop the run. I think some of the skill on the perimeter and some of the depth at the running back position is something that certainly stands out as you evaluate other teams in the league.”
On top of the transition from Fargo to Evanston, Northwestern’s new defensive guide has had to shoulder the responsibility of filling voids in his coaching staff. Braun hired Christian Smith (defensive line) and LaMarcus Hicks (cornerbacks), citing a wide-ranging process working alongside Pat Fitzgerald to land two major pieces.
“I feel like Coach Fitz has hit a home run with both hires,” Braun said. “Coach Smith and Coach Hicks are great teachers; they’re great mentors. Even more importantly, they’re just awesome people, and people that we want to surround our players with.”
What the fundamentals of Braun’s defense will look like on Sept. 2 in Piscataway, New Jersey, the site of NU’s 2023 opener, is still being incubated over the next few months. Despite his success at NDSU, Braun is intent on ensuring some carry-over from years of the past, estimating that 50% of his scheme will be a blend of successful elements that Mike Hankwitz and O’Neil installed.
“I think we’re gonna look to keep as much consistency to the structure as we potentially can,” Braun said, mentioning the use of a 4-3 system. “Where we’re gonna have to continue to evaluate is from a personnel standpoint. At our roots, in our foundation, we anticipate being [a] four-down, D-line-centric operation that they have been here for years.”
In terms of specific units, Braun noted “depth” at safety, including moving some players to nickel, plus veteran players at linebacker. On the other hand, the defensive coordinator discussed youth at defensive line and the desire for “immediate depth.” All told, Braun wants to ensure that his defense is molded based on what his athletes do best.
“You’re gonna see a defense that fits the players, fits the personnel,” Braun said. “I think that’s part of the process we’re going through right now is evaluating what our guys do well and maybe what some of the limitations are, and making sure that we put them in calls and in coverages and in leverages that they can be successful.”
While not complicating concepts is key, expect Northwestern to vary its looks, too. Whether through playing a safety in the box in a 4-2-5 — a position at which Braun expects a “field general” and “the ultimate hybrid athlete” — to switching pre- and post-snap appearance, the Wildcats will also include some wrinkles to make quarterbacks leery.
“I think what you’ll see is just guys that are very conscious of the presentation that they’re giving the quarterback,” Braun emphasized. “It’s not just about the perfect disguise on one play; it’s an understanding of what you’ve shown that quarterback on film, what you’ve shown that quarterback in the first quarter, and starting to play that game with him. I think you’ll see multiple coverage that complements one another and disguises off of each coverage.”
Wildcat fans would likely be content to witness mere stability or marginal improvement on defense based on the 2021 and 2022 seasons. As Braun gathers intel about his depth chart and team strengths, he admits there will be “growing pains” with a new system. Altogether, though, Northwestern’s nascent defensive coordinator feels that if his group can be unified, physical, tenacious and responsive, turnaround will arrive.
“This is really cliché, but I want to see growth each day throughout the course of spring, throughout the course of fall,” Braun said about his expectations. “I want to see a group that understands truly what complementary football is. If we can find that, the wins that we’re all looking for, they’ll come.”