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2007 Northwestern Preview - Defense
Posted Apr 1, 2007

Preview 2007 Northwestern Wildcat Defense

Northwestern Wildcats

Preview 2007 Defense

- 2007 NU Preview | 2007 NU Offense Preview  
2007 NU Depth Chart | 2006 CFN Northwestern Preview 

What you need to know: Even though there wasn't much in the way of a pass rush, there weren't any plays in the backfield, and the run defense struggled, the defense made major strides after a disastrous 2005. Now this should be one of the better Wildcat defenses in years with a big, talented front four that should start generating some sort of consistent pressure. Adam Kadela leads a decent linebacking corps, while the safety tandem of Brendan Smith and Reggie McPherson should be rock-solid. This isn't a fast defense and it's thin in key areas like free safety and tackle, but there's enough all-around talent to keep the mediocre offenses under wraps.

Returning Leaders
Tackles: Adam Kadela, 80
Sacks: Corey Wootton, 4.5
Interceptions: Brendan Smith, 3

Star of the defense: Sophomore DE Corey Wootton
Player that has to step up and become a star: Senior CB Deante Battle
Unsung star on the rise: Sophomore DT Adam Hahn
Best pro prospect: Wootton
Top three all-star candidates: 1) Wootton, 2) LB Adam Kadela, 3) SS Brendan Smith
Strength of the defense: Defensive line, safety
Weakness of the defense: Backup safety, proven pass rush

Defensive Line
Projected Starters: It's not a stretch to suggest the key to the team's defensive performance rests on the 6-7, 275-pound frame of emerging star Corey Wootton. The big sophomore came on last season to become an Honorable Mention All-Big Ten performer making 51 tackles, 4.5 sacks and nine tackles for loss showing no ill effects from a neck injury that kept him out all of 2005. His big reach allowed him to alter throwing lanes while picking off two passes.

With all the attention to be paid to Wootton on one side, the starter on the other side should see plenty of single blocking. There will likely be a rotation between senior Mark Koehn and versatile junior Kevin Mims in the 4-3 front with each getting a few starts. The 6-3, 270-pound Mims saw plenty of action at tackle last season making 38 stops to go along with two tackles for loss. He's a fiery leader who has the potential to use his size, motor, and strength to be a major factor inside or out. Koehn is more of a true end, though he has to become more of a pass rusher. He came up with two sacks and 14 tackles, and now he should double that with more playing time.

Inside, 290-pound true junior John Gill is still developing as a run stopper, but he has a world of potential and could end up playing at the next level. He made 40 tackles last season and started to improve at getting into the backfield.

Alongside him is 6-4, 295-pound sophomore Adam Hahn, who'll emerge as potential All-Big Ten player after a 28 tackle season, He was dinged up early on, but now he has a year of experience, has gotten stronger, and should be special.

Projected Top Reserves: A knee injury limited 260-pound senior David Ngene from the start of last season, and then he had a problem with an ankle injury. While he hasn't been able to stay healthy, he has the quickness and the size to be a pass rushing force behind Wootton, or on the other side as part of the rotation.

Along with Mark Koehn and Kevin Mims, redshirt freshman Corbin Bryant will see plenty of time at end. Still very raw, the 6-4, 275-pound Bryant is still developing, and is still trying to find a spot after breaking his leg early last year and earning a medical hardship. He has All-Big Ten potential, but it's probably not going to shine through for a few years.

Inside, 265-pound sophomore Marshall Thomas and 285-pound Keegan Kennedy are capable reserves. Kennedy has done a good job of putting putting on weight and getting stronger, and now he should be better against the run playing behind Adam Hahn. Thomas is a true sophomore and just scratching the surface of how good he can become.
Watch Out For ... More production in the backfield. Much more. The Wildcats struggled to get to the quarterback throughout last season, but if Corey Wootton continues to progress, and Mark Koehn, Kevin Mims and David Ngene can take advantage of the opportunity on the other side, look out.
Strength: Size across the front. While there's not a whole slew of speed, and there aren't any space-eaters, it's a good sized front four averaging around 280 pounds per man. That has to mean more production against the run.
Weakness: Proven interior rush. While the tackles have a world of potential, they didn't do a good enough job of collapsing the pocket. The tackles have to turn the promise into production.
Outlook: On potential, this could be the best Northwestern line in a long, long time, if not ever. It would be nice of Wootton became the type of pass rusher who commands double and triple teaming every play, and it would be even better if the rest of the line could come up with one thing it does really, really well. Watch for this group, either in a 3-4 or a 4-3, to get better and better as the season goes on. 
Rating: 6.5


Projected Starters
After having to try to fill the big shoes left by tackling machine Tim McGarigle, senior Adam Kadela is starting to make a name for himself with 151 tackles in the last two seasons after coming off knee and hamstring injuries. While he has the quickness to handle himself well on the outside, the 240-pounder is far better suited for the middle. If he can finally stay healthy, he should hit triple-digits in tackles.

On the weakside will be junior Mike Denard, a good-sized defender who might be a better fit for the middle. He has a little bit of experience making 21 tackles in two years, and now he has to prove he can stay healthy and handle himself in pass coverage.

Senior Eddie Simpson will get the first look on the strongside after making 37 tackles and two sacks in a reserve role for most of the season behind Nick Roach before starting the final four games. While he's not blazing fast, he should be a regular in the backfield now that he'll have a full-time starting job.

Projected Top Reserves: Is junior Malcolm Arrington ready to shine? Mostly a special teamer throughout his career, the 235-pounder has the talent and hitting ability to be a major factor. He'll start out in the middle behind Adam Kadela after making ten tackles as a reserve, but he could see time as a starter if the Wildcats switch to a 3-4.

Senior Chris Malleo, a former backup quarterback and receiver, has found a home on the defensive side making six tackles as a reserve. Now he'll backup Mike Dinard on the weakside and could see time on the strongside in a rotation. Also in the mix on the weakside is 230-pound sophomore Chris Jeske, who missed all of the last two seasons with a back problem. He was a star recruit, and now he finally appears ready to shine.

On the other side will be junior Prince Kwateng, who was starting to come on as a special teamer and a reserve before injuring his knee against Iowa. He's 235 pounds, strong, and physical, but his skills have to translate into production. Before getting hurt, he had the talent to be a star on the inside, and now he could be the X factor in the corps.
Watch Out For ...: Kadela to explode. Unable to be 100% for a full season, if he stays healthy, he could be an All-Big Ten performer and a leader the front seven sorely needs.
Strength: Size. This group won't get shoved around too often and should build on the experience gained at the end of last season to be better against the run. While there's not a lot of developed depth, the projected backups might turn out to be just as talented as the starters.
Weakness: Speed. NU won't get into the backfield too often with these outside linebackers and will have to be extremely crafty if they try to blitz. Getting pushed won't be an issue, but getting to the ball on a consistent basis might be.
Outlook: Playing linebacker for Pat Fitzgerald is a little like being Dave Grohl's drummer; these guys have to live up to some lofty standards. While this isn't the most talented group around, and it's not going to be a brick wall against the run, it should improve on the strides made from 2005 to 2006 and be effective enough to not be a glaring weakness. 
Rating: 5.5

Defensive Backs

Projected Starters: The strength in the secondary should be at safety where free safety Reggie McPherson and strong safety Brendan Smith could be the Big Ten's most productive duo that you won't hear one word about. Smith turned in an Honorable Mention All-Big Ten season finishing second on the team with 68 tackles to go along with a team-leading three interceptions. He has good size at 6-1 and 210 pounds and excellent range. Now that the junior knows what he's doing, he should make more plays when the ball is in the air.

McPherson has blossomed into a solid free safety making better decisions as last year went on while growing into a good hitter. The former wide receiver came off a back problem to finish fifth on the team in tackles and lead the team with seven broken up passes and four quarterback hurries. Cornerback is a little more of a wild-card.

Senior Deante Battle is a better tackler than his 5-10, 180-pound frame might suggest making ten stops against Purdue and ten more against Iowa making most of them in the open field. With running back quickness, he's able to cut on a dime with great change of direction. Now he has to be a true number one, shut-down corner with more interceptions. Finishing third on the team in tackles with 67 is nice; picking off more than one pass would be better.

On the other side is sophomore Sherrick McManis, who's a bit bigger than Battle and has better straight-line wheels. Fast enough to be the team's top kickoff return option, he has good make-up speed and should grow into a top defender after spending the second half of last year as a spot starter.

Projected Top Reserves: 6-4 true sophomore Brad Phillips is a taller strong safety option than Smith, and now he just needs a little bit of experience. He saw a little bit of time as a reserve and on special teams making seven tackles, but with his size and quickness, he'll emerge as a major factor in the rotation.

Behind McPherson at free safety is senior Ben Rothrauff, who doesn't have size, speed or talent, but plays with a walk-on's heart on special teams. He'll be pushed by junior Chaz Richart for playing time. One of the team's most versatile defensive backs is 6-2, 195-pound junior David Oredugba, who can play corner or free safety. He's mostly been a special teamer so far, and now he'll get time behind McManis on one side.

Redshirt freshman Justan Vaughn will be a major contributor behind Battle after missing most of last season with an injured arm. He's one of the team's most talented defensive backs with good tackling ability and fluid cover skills; he'll be starting sooner than later.
Watch Out For ...: More interceptions. The Wildcat secondary only came up with eight interceptions, and that could quickly change if the front seven can start generating a little more pressure. As Deante Battle and Sherrick McManis get more comfortable, they'll start making more big plays.
Strength: Safety. Reggie McPherson and Brendan Smith won't be in the NFL, but they'll form one of the Big Ten's best tandems. As long as they avoid getting beat by the deep balls down the middle, the secondary should be fine.
Weakness: Safety depth. McPherson and Smith can't get hurt or there'll be trouble. Brad Phillips is an interesting option at strong safety, but there will be big, big problems if Ben Rothrauff and Chaz Richart are seeing any appreciable time at free safety.
Outlook: Only Ohio State's Troy Smith threw for more than two touchdown passes on the NU defensive backs, and there won't likely be too many torchings with most of the key players returning. While this won't be the most exciting secondary around, it won't be bad. There are enough good corner options to be solid in nickel and dime situations, while the safeties will be good enough to keep the big plays to a minimum.
Rating: 6

Special Teams
Projected Starters: Redshirt freshman Stefan Demos and junior Arnado Villarreal will compete to replace the reliable Josh Howells, who didn't have the biggest leg, but hit eight of 12 field goal attempts. Demos, who has 50-yard range, will also battle with junior Kyle Daley for the punting duties. Villarreal doesn't have nearly the same leg Demos has, but he'll get his shots to win the job if he can prove to be consistent from inside the 35. Daley is a career backup punter and could see time as a placekicker if Demos and Villarreal fall flat.

Junior safety Brendan Smith, who averaged 11.8 yards on four punt returns, will get the first shot at replacing Marquice Cole, who averaged just 3.5 yards. Sherrick McManis and Omar Conteh will try to revive a dead kickoff return game that averaged just 18 yards per try.
Watch Out For .. More pop on the punt returns. Smith has the quickness to make the first man miss and should break one or two big.
Strength: Kicking options. With three players in the mix, the coaching staff should be able to find someone who can consistently connect, but ...
Weakness: ... there's no proven production. It might take half the season before anyone feels comfortable with the kicking game.
Outlook: The coaching staff would ideally like to have specialists for each kicking job, but if one player, most likely Demos, is the best at kickoffs, field goals and punting, he'll get the nod. The coverage units were fine last year giving up 8.3 yards per punt return and 20.1 yards per kickoff return, but they could be better. 


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