Preview 2008 Defense
2007 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.
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
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
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
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.
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
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
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
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
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.
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
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
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
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
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
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
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.
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.