As we continue to prepare for the 2023 season, today we’ll examine Northwestern’s defensive line, which struggled last year — and looks radically different for the year ahead.
Returning Starters: Sean McLaughlin (Sr.), Aidan Hubbard (Jr.)
Key Losses: Adetomiwa Adebawore (NFL Draft, Indianapolis Colts), Henrik Barndt (graduation), Ryan Johnson (graduation), Devin O’Rourke (graduation), Taishan Holmes (UDFA), Jordan Butler (transfer portal), Jason Gold Jr. (transfer, Texas State), Austin Firestone (transfer, Missouri)
Returners: Najee Story (Jr.), P.J. Spencer (Sr.), Jaiden Cameron (Sr.), Carmine Bastone (Jr.), Peyton Warford (So.), Jaylen Pate (Gr.), Anto Saka (So.), Brendan Flakes (So.)
Newcomers: Richie Hagarty (Grad transfer, Southern Illinois), Matthew Lawson (Grad transfer, Fresno State), Reginald Pearson (Grad transfer, Bethune-Cookman), Tyler Gant (Fy.), Michael Kilbane (Fy.), Dylan Roberts (Fy.)
Whew, that’s a lot of names... Especially in that second section. It makes it easy to see that this unit’s turnover appears to be its biggest challenge heading into 2023. Not only did the D-line get hit harder than any other position group on the team when it came to outgoing transfers and graduates, it also lost its coach in Marty Long. Christian Smith and David Braun will fill the shoes of Long and former defensive coordinator Jim O’Neil, who were both fired last November.
The new crop of D-linemen that Smith and Braun are tasked with developing have its work cut out for them. Looking at nearly every metric, Northwestern struggled mightily against the run in 2022. And that was with a star player in Adebawore, who was the team’s best defensive player last year.
The grad transfers — particularly Hagarty and Lawson — will almost certainly be very key to any success the defense enjoys. In order for the line to improve, those two will need to take on a ton of snaps and give McLaughlin some support up front. That’ll make it a little easier for linemen whose snap counts could take massive jumps to transition into larger roles.
Story, who played in every game last year, is the beacon of continuity for a group that needs it. Whether that means a lot or a little, it’s definitely a positive that Northwestern has someone stepping into a starting role who has seen the field extensively already.
Beyond that, Story’s a versatile player, and his athleticism has allowed him to play from a couple of different spots up front. Chances are that the rising junior moves inside in 2023, given he bulked up from at least 250 pounds to 285 since last fall, according to Northwestern’s spring roster. Plus, assuming Braun sticks with the 4-3 scheme he ran at North Dakota State, the exodus of nose tackles leaves a spot open next to Lawson.
With fewer players in front of him on the depth chart, Story will have to maintain that versatility while also generating a consistent, three-down push on bigger guards and centers. If he can, that could free up McLaughlin and others in a variety of ways, and set the defensive line up for a little bit of success. Story should easily play enough to best his 25-tackle mark from 2022, but that can’t be the only sign of improvement as he transitions into an every-down role.
How much of an impact will Richie Hagarty and Matt Lawson make from the jump?
I wrote it above, and I’ll write it again: the grad transfers could determine how far the D-line goes more than any returning players will. It’s relatively inexperienced when it comes to playing time, and Lawson and Hagarty have played in a combined 50 games by themselves. For Braun, who’s helping younger returners adapt to a new scheme after they studied O’Neil’s for years (even though Braun’s maintaining some of JON’s elements), it’s critical to have players with on-field experience who can soften the learning curve.
Obviously, relying on grad transfers to secure starting roles isn’t new for Northwestern; Ryan Johnson and Taishan Holmes were in Hagarty and Lawson’s shoes last year. However, with much less depth across the line both inside and outside, the 2023 additions could need to spearhead the pass rush and the run defense alongside McLaughlin.
Hagarty played on the edge at SIU, and racked up 6.5 sacks for the Salukis last year. Lawson is likely set to work on the interior. There’s a decent shot both players take on the most snaps in those areas out of everyone besides McLaughlin and Hubbard. For NU to generate early in-game momentum defensively — something it almost always failed to do even in the games that were close — Hagarty and Lawson have to play huge roles in driving the change from the moment Northwestern touches down in Piscataway. Both will likely have the early opportunities to, but it will be intriguing to see how they take on what will be an accelerated transition to Big Ten competition.
Depth Chart (according to ourlads.com)
2023 DL Depth Chart (per Ourlads.com)
|Position||Starters||Second String||Third String|
|Position||Starters||Second String||Third String|
|DE||Sean McLaughlin||Jaylen Pate||Michael Kilbane|
|DT||Matt Lawson||Carmine Bastone||P.J. Spencer|
|DT||Najee Story||Reginald Pearson||Brendan Flakes|
|DE||Aidan Hubbard||Richie Hagarty||Anto Saka|