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2023 Northwestern football position reviews: Defensive line

The Wildcats’ front seven had a decent 2023 campaign.

NCAA Football: Las Vegas Bowl-Utah at Northwestern Stephen R. Sylvanie-USA TODAY Sports

With our offensive reviews in tow, we continue looking back at Northwestern football’s individual position groups and transition to the Wildcats’ defense, beginning with NU’s defensive line.

Overall Grade: B

Northwestern’s defensive line was undoubtedly one of its stronger position groups this season, and it played a pivotal role in the key wins that allowed the team to reach (and win) its first bowl game since 2020.

Leading the charge for the Wildcats was junior Aidan Hubbard, whose stellar year culminated in an honorable mention in the All-Big Ten Honors. And, while some players fell well short of expectations, there was much progress among many of the younger members of the DL room like Anto Saka.

In comparison to the Big Ten, Northwestern’s front seven fared well. The Wildcats were seventh in the conference in sacks, recording 30 for a total loss of 187 yards. Additionally, they were fourth in the Big Ten in forced fumbles with 12, many of which were caused by the men up front.

While there was certainly some room for improvement this year, the defensive line was generally effective and reliable.

Player Grades

Jaylen Pate: B

In his senior season, Pate was a solid contributor to Northwestern’s front seven. Throughout the campaign, he posted 27 total tackles, three sacks and one forced fumble. His statistics were not flashy, but his impact was certainly felt.

Pate got off to a slow start in 2023 but heated up when it truly mattered, recording a sack in each of the final three weeks of the season, including ones in the Wildcats’ crucial wins over Purdue and Illinois.

Anto Saka: B+

Despite missing five games this year, Saka turned it up in his sophomore season after not playing in 2022. He recorded 13 tackles, 5.5 sacks and a forced fumble (in the loss to Penn State).

Saka beautifully capped off his impressive season with a sack in Northwestern’s bowl victory over Utah. He looks to carry this momentum into the offseason to continue to bolster Northwestern’s defensive line as an upperclassman.

P.J. Spencer: C

The senior from Prairie Village, Kansas posted the best season of his career. His 22 total tackles and 1.5 tackles for loss more than eclipsed the one tackle he recorded in each of his three previous campaigns.

Spencer does not get a higher grade because while this season marked a drastic step forward for him, his statistics were still relatively tame when compared to some of his teammates.

Richie Hagarty: B-

Hagarty had an impressive senior season with the Wildcats, recording 36 total tackles, 2.5 sacks, a pass deflection and a fumble recovery in the bowl-clinching victory over Purdue.

Hagarty posted one of his sacks in the biggest game of the year: Northwestern’s improbable bowl victory over Utah. However, his 2.5 total sacks were a little bit of a decline from his 6.5 sacks in 2022 at Southern Illinois.

Carmine Bastone: B-

Bastone had an impressive junior year, recording 26 total tackles, two sacks and a forced fumble, the latter of which came in the Wildcats’ victory over Purdue at Ryan Field.

He really turned it up in the SRS Distribution Bowl in Las Vegas, posting three tackles and a sack in the victory over Utah. Bastone will look to continue to develop in 2024 for what will be his senior season.

Aidan Hubbard: A

Hubbard was the most explosive and impactful player for Northwestern’s front seven in his junior year. His statline included 27 tackles, six sacks and a pass deflection. He had perhaps his best game in Northwestern’s victory over Maryland, in which he recorded three sacks and five total tackles to bring home Big Ten Defensive Player of the Week honors.

Hubbard’s impact did not go unnoticed by others around the conference, as he earned All-Big Ten honors as an honorable mention. Given the season he had, all signs point to another big year in 2024 for the Cleveland native.

Brendan Flakes: C-

The sophomore made a small impact for Northwestern’s defense this season, recording 15 total tackles. While he did generate some nice run stops, he was generally a quieter presence on the field, and the effect he had on the success of the front seven was relatively minor.

R.J. Pearson: C

Pearson was solid for the Wildcats in 2023, recording a sack and a forced fumble to go along with his 15 total tackles. His big games came against Maryland and Penn State, where he posted his sack and forced fumble, respectively. Other than those games, however, Pearson had a less marquee campaign.

Najee Story: C-

Story, the junior from Solon, Ohio, posted 20 total tackles this season. He was quite consistent, recording two tackles in each game except for the final two. Other than that, however, Story was not nearly as impactful as some of his teammates.

Sean McLaughlin: C

McLaughlin had a decent senior season, recording 18 total tackles along with a sack and five pass deflections, which tied for the team lead. His lone sack of the year came in the Wildcats’ bowl game win over Utah. Though he was not one of the flashier names on Northwestern’s front seven, he still had a solid campaign.

Michael Kilbane: Incomplete

The first-year from Cleveland only appeared in five games this season, so it is hard to review his season in comparison to his teammates who played in most, if not all of the games. However, he was solid in the games in which he appeared, posting 11 total tackles.

Matt Lawson: Incomplete

Lawson only appeared in the opening loss to Rutgers before tearing his ACL.