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2008 Northwestern Preview - Defense
Northwestern DT John Gill
Northwestern DT John Gill
CollegeFootballNews.com
Posted May 9, 2008


CollegeFootballNews.com 2008 Preview - Northwestern Wildcat Defense

Northwestern Wildcats

Preview 2008 Defense


- 2008 CFN Northwestern Preview | 2008 Northwestern Offense
- 2008 Northwestern Defense | 2008 Northwestern Depth Chart
- 2007 CFN Northwestern Preview | 2006 CFN Northwestern Preview 

What you need to know: New defensive coordinator Mike Hankwitz wants to attack, attack, attack. He might not have the athletes to go nuts with the blitzing, but the experience is there to be far more consistent. The key will be the line that gets all four starters back after a disappointing season against the run and with little pass rush from the ends. The back seven is more athletic in the past with promising linebackers that should be good after they get their feet wet. Brendan Smith is back at safety after missing most of last year hurt. His return should help a good secondary that should be far more productive if there's a steady pass rush. Veteran depth is a problem across the board, but the talent level has been upgraded over the past few years.

Returning Leaders
Tackles: Sherrick McManis, 75
Sacks: John Gill, 4
Interceptions: Several with 1

Star of the defense: Senior DT John Gill
Player who has to step up and become a star: Sophomore LB Quentin Davie
Unsung star on the rise: Senior LB Malcolm Arrington
Best pro prospect: Gill
Top three all-star candidates: 1) Gill, 2) SS Brendan Smith, 3) FS Brad Phillips
Strength of the defense: Defensive line, safety
Weakness of the defense: Veteran depth, proven pass rush

Defensive Line

Projected Starters
:
John Gill was the team's best lineman last season making 50 tackles, four sacks and 8.5 tackles for loss in a breakout campaign. The 6-3, 290-pound senior is an active inside presence who holds up well against the run and has a great burst into the backfield. It's not a stretch to call this a salary drive year as he has the potential to be a decent NFL draft pick if he can do just a big more against the power running teams.

6-7, 270-pound senior Corey Wootton has the big body, the quickness, and the experience to be a star and a difference maker on the end, but while he has earned honorable mention All-Big Ten honors, he hasn't become the pass rusher he probably should making just one sack and 5.5 tackles for loss to go along with 38 tackles. With his long arms and big frame, he's great at breaking up passes with five batted down last year.

Back on the other side is 6-3, 260-pound senior Kevin Mims, a good veteran who made 38 tackles with two sacks and 5.5 tackles for loss. He's a fiery leader who has the size, motor and strength to be a factor inside or out. He's a good veteran to work around with 117 career stops, but while he's not bad at getting into the backfield, he's not a consistent pass rusher. He has to get healthy after having shoulder issues this spring.

6-4, 295-pound junior Adam Hahn started every game last season at defensive tackle making 33 tackles and three tackles for loss. While he's not a bad inside presence, he's not a big run stuffer and he's not great at getting into the backfield. However, he has the talent to grow into a star with a little more time and a healthy shoulder; he got banged up a bit this off-season. He was on just about everyone's all-freshman team two years ago.

Projected Top Reserves: 6-3, 285-pound junior Marshall Thomas is one of the only backups with any experience. The tackle made ten stops and two tackles for loss, but he has the talent and upside to do far more behind Hahn.

Two redshirt freshmen have to play big roles right away. 6-5, 250-pound former linebacker Vince Browne is one of the team's strongest players and has the speed and pass rushing ability to become a major force behind Mims. 6-54, 265-pound Jack DiNardo is an undersized tackle with good talent who should grow into a whale of an interior pass rusher. The nephew of former college football coach Gerry DiNardo will work behind Gill.

Sophomore Corbin Bryant saw a little bit of time making five tackles in his first year back after suffering a broken led. He was a raw talent when he first came to Evanston, but at 6-4 and 275 pounds he has the size to play inside and the quickness to start out behind Wootton on the end.
 
Watch Out For ... the redshirt freshmen. The line is full of veterans, but some new blood needs to be entered into the mix with Mims and Gill gone next year. Browne is a good-looking pass rushing prospect and DiNardo should see time inside and out.
Strength: Size and experience. All four starters are back from last year's mediocre line, but it should be better with all the returning experience. With tackle-sized ends in Wootton and Mims, the Wildcats average around 280 pounds per man.
Weakness: Pass rush. Gill is great at getting into the backfield from the inside, but Wotton and Mims struggle to get to the quarterback on a regular basis. In the new defense, they'll be asked to do far more to generate pressure.
Outlook: With the entire front four returning, and with all the size and all the experience, there's no reason the defense should struggle so much again at generating sacks and plays in the backfield. There's too much beef to be so mediocre against the run. The depth is promising, and there's the potential for a good rotation in a few spots, but any improvement will have to come from Wootton and Hahn growing into bigger factors.
Rating: 7

Linebackers

Projected Starters
:
The middle linebacker is the glamour spot for the NU defense. Tim McGarigle was a machine a few years ago, Adam Kadela was the leading tackler last year with 125 stops, and now senior Malcolm Arrington should be a big-time playmaker after moving over from the outside. The 6-3, 235-pounder made 47 tackles with five tackles for loss with an interception, and now he should double those numbers. He's a huge hitter who should be the tone-setter for the back seven.

Starting on the strongside will be Quentin Davie, a 6-4, 220-pound sophomore who made 25 tackles and a tackle for loss in a reserve role. A good special teamer, he's not all that big, but he can move. Now he has to prove he can hold up on a regular basis against the run. but he'll be sent into the backfield early and often.

6-2, 235-pound senior Prince Kwateng was the starter for most of last year on the weakside making 45 tackles with two sacks and 5.5 tackles for loss, but he missed a little bit of time hurt in the middle of the year. Staying healthy will be the key after suffering a knee injury two years ago, but if he can stay in one piece, he could be a statistical star with the strength and quickness to be a pass rusher.

Projected Top Reserves: Senior Mike Dinard started the first half of last year on the outside and made 35 tackles before giving being relegated to a backup role. He has 6-2, 230-pound size on the weakside and a good motor, but he's not particularly fast and is average against the run. However, he'll make plays on want-to.

Working behind Arrington in the middle will be 6-2, 225-pound sophomore Nate Williams, a decent prospect who fits the NU mold of middle linebacker and was a good recruit for the program a few years ago. He came up with six tackles on the year used mostly as a special teamer, but he'll take over the job in the middle next season and should be one of 2009's top tacklers.

6-4, 210-pound redshirt freshman Ben Johnson is an undersized strongside linebacker who could find himself in a specialist role. The best athlete in the linebacking corps, he has the speed and the talent to be used as a regular pass rusher behind Davie. He's like a big corner playing linebacker.
 
Watch Out For ... the outside defenders to be asked to wreak havoc. In the Hankwitz 4-3 scheme, the idea is for the linebackers to attack from all spots. Kwateng, Davie, Johnson and Dinard are just good enough to force mistakes on a regular basis.
Strength: Upgraded athleticism. While Kadela could move, Arrington is the most athletic middle linebacker the defense has had in a few years. Kwateng and Davie aren't speedsters, but they can get around.
Weakness: Raw speed. Johnson can fly, but he'll be a backup. The rest of the corps is quick, but there isn't the sideline-to-sideline speed to make a ton of plays without being in the right position all the time.
Outlook: Pat Fitzgerald's linebackers always have to live up to a higher standard, and while it might take a little while, this should be a better group than the Cats have had in a while. The recruiting has been a bit stronger with an upgrade in overall talent, and now it has to pay off with more takeaways and better production against the run.
Rating: 6

Defensive Backs

Projected Starters: The secondary gets a huge boost with the return of Brendan Smith, a 6-1, 210-pound junior who missed most of last year with a shoulder problem and got a year of eligibility back. An honorable mention All-Big Ten performer two years ago after making 68 tackles and three picks, he'll be a steadying force with his good size and excellent range at strong safety.

6-4, 210-pound junior Brad Phillips will take over at free safety for second-leading tackler Reggie McPherson. A terrific athlete who stepped in at strong safety last year when Smith went down, he made 55 tackles with an interception and four broken up passes. He has the upside to grow into an All-Big Ten performer with Smith around now to help out.

Back at corner is 6-0, 190-pound junior Sherrick McManis, a decent pass defender and great tackler who's coming off a pectoral injury. With great speed to go along with his size, he's a great kickoff returner who finished third on the team with 75 tackles to go along with an interception, a sack and six broken up passes. Great when sent into the backfield, he made 6.5 tackles for loss. Now he has to be more of a No. 1 shut-down type of corner.

Filling in for Deante Battle at the other corner spot will be Justan Vaughn, a 6-0, 180-pound sophomore who missed most of 2006 with an arm injury and then came back to make nine tackles in a reserve role last season. He's one of the team's most talented defensive backs with good tackling ability and fluid cover skills, and now he has to prove he can be a steady producer.

Projected Top Reserves: A pair of redshirt freshmen, Brian Peters and David Arnold, will be the main safety reserve. The 6-1, 210-pound Arnold was hurt throughout last year, but he was excellent this off-season and appears to be a big-time playmaker in waiting. He'll start out behind Phillips at free safety, but he could become a nickel back to get his athleticism and hitting ability on the field.

Peters, a 6-4, 205-pounder, like Arnold was also strong this off-season. A big hitter, he'll work behind Smith at strong safety and should provide a big push for playing time. He's the type of player who'll fit in well in the new scheme with his ability to attack and with good range.

One of last year's biggest recruits was 5-11, 175-pound corner Jordan Mabin, a star offensive playmaker in high school with the speed to play corner and the toughness to possibly be a decent safety. He'll start out behind Vaughn at one spot, but he could be too good to keep off the field.

Mike Bolden will be one of the team's key players as a top backup at both backup corner spots. The 6-1, 170-pounder was one of the team's top recruits last year and was a star for the scout team. The Evanston native is a top all-around athlete who'll be a starter sooner than later.

Combining with Bolden behind McManis at one corner spot will be 6-2, 195-pound senior David Oredugba, a veteran backup who made 15 tackles with a broken up pass. He has the size and versatility to play free safety if needed, but he'll spend most of his time at corner and special teams.
 
Watch Out For ... the return of Smith. It's not like the production took a nosedive once Smith got hurt and when Phillips took over, but the secondary should be better now that it has its veteran back. He should be the leader and the one the secondary works around.
Strength: Safety. Losing Reggie McPherson isn't a plus, but Phillips is ready to take on more responsibility after getting his feet wet last year, and the return of Smith is huge. The backups might be inexperienced, but Arnold and Peters are good ones to get excited about.
Weakness: Veteran depth. There's great potential among the reserves, but the defense will still be relying on a slew of redshirt freshmen to play key roles. It could take a while to find the right rotation.
Outlook: A slight disappointment last year, hurt mostly by a lack of a steady pass rush, the secondary should be better with Smith back along with two returning starters. As the pass rush improves in the new attacking scheme, so will the corners, but making more big plays will be vital after coming up with just nine interceptions last year.
Rating: 6

Special Teams
Projected Starters: Sophomore Amado Villarreal had a nice first year nailing 12 of 18 field goals, but he has to be better from midrange. He nailed three of four shots from 40-to-49 yards, but he was just one of five from 30-to-39 yards. In other words, consistence will be the key. He has a good leg, but a banged up hip he needs to get healthy.

Also with a dinged hip is sophomore punter Stefan Demos, a decent placekicking option who had a nice first year averaging 40.1 yards per pick while putting a whopping 23 kicks inside the 20. He doesn't have a monster leg, but he's surprisingly consistent.

Corner Sherrick McManis is one of the Big Ten's best kickoff returners averaging 23.2 yards per return, while Stephen Simmons was even better averaging 26.8 yards per try with a 99-yard return for a score. Senior Eric Peterman is back after averaging a pedestrian 6.1 yards per punt return.
 
Watch Out For ... Villarreal to get more chances from deep. He has the range to at least attempt a few 50 yarder, but first he has to prove he can handle the easier ones.
Strength: Kickoff returns. McManis is a weapon, while Simmons proved he could be just as good. After struggling so badly two years ago, the return game is far, far better.
Weakness: Kickoff coverage. The Wildcat kickoff return team was among the best in the Big Ten, but the coverage unit allowed a whopping 24.7 yards per return.
Outlook: What was considered a potential problem going into last year turned into a major positive. The punt return game needs to be better and Villarreal needs to do more, but Demos is a good one and the kickoff returners are fantastic. The special teams are good enough to be better than most in the Big Ten.
Rating:
7