2009 Northwestern Preview - Defense
NU Safeties Brendan Smith & Brad Phillips
NU Safeties Brendan Smith & Brad Phillips
Posted Jun 2, 2009

CollegeFootballNews.com 2009 Preview - Northwestern Wildcat Defense

Northwestern Wildcats

Preview 2009 Defense

- 2009 CFN Northwestern Preview | 2009 Northwestern Offense
- 2009 Northwestern Defense | 2009 Northwestern Depth Chart
- 2008 NU Preview | 2007 NU Preview | 2006 NU Preview 

What you need to know: If everyone can get and stay healthy on the line, this will be the defense the program has been working toward ever since Pat Fitzgerald became the head coach. Second year defensive coordinator Mike Hankwitz wanted to attack from the word go, and he wasn't kidding as Northwestern was second in the Big Ten in sacks and third in tackles for loss. It helped to have a future NFL defensive end in Corey Wootton to utilize, and while he has All-America potential, he has to get back healthy from a knee injury suffered in the bowl game. If he's not 100%, the rest of the line could be a problem, at least compared to the rest of the defense. The secondary should be fantastic with all four starters returning to a good group that prevented the big play and was great against the run. Safeties Brad Phillips and Brendan Smith will be All-Big Ten performers, while corner Sherrick McManis is a shut-down veteran to count on. The linebacking corps could use some seasoning, but it's quick, tough, and should get better and better as the season goes on.

Returning Leaders
Tackles: Brad Phillips, 109
Sacks: Corey Wootton, 10
Interceptions: Jordan Maybin, Brad Phillips, 3

Star of the defense: Junior DE Corey Wootton
Player who has to step up and become a star: Sophomore DE Vince Browne
Unsung star on the rise: Sophomore LB Ben Johnson
Best pro prospect: Wootton
Top three all-star candidates: 1) Wootton, 2) SS Brad Phillips, 3) FS Brendan Smith
Strength of the defense: Secondary, Overall experience
Weakness of the defense: Wootton's knee, Backups for the front seven

Defensive Line

Projected Starters
The play of the line will depend on the knee of Corey Wootton, the 6-7, 265-pound junior who has top 50 NFL draft pick written all over him, but suffered an injury in the Alamo Bowl loss to Missouri. He was dominant last season with ten sacks and 16 tackles for loss to go along with 42 tackles as he finally broke through in a year when it all came together. The size, the quickness, and the finishing ability all combined with his experience to earn first-team All-Big Ten honors, and he'll be desperately needed on the end again to be the main force for the rest of the line to work around. However, with millions of dollars waiting in the wings, no one's looking to rush him back before he's ready.

The biggest loss on the line is John Gill, a do-it-all tackle who was the anchor of the front four. It'll be up to senior Adam Hahn to take over, and he should be ready. The 6-4, 295-pounder started five games last season, including the final two, and finished with 11 tackles. While he's not nearly the pass rusher that Gill was, he's experienced, making 33 stops in 2007, and talented. This big problem is his health, suffering a shoulder injury two years ago and a foot injury this offseason.

Back in a spot on the inside will be 6-4, 275-pound junior Corbin Bryant, a nice tweener player who could play end if needed having stepped in to a spot on the outside two years ago before breaking his leg. He'll move around where needed, but for the most part, he'll play tackle as long as he can hold up after making 28 tackles, a sack, and 5.5 tackles for loss. Now he has to get healthy coming off a knee injury.

On the other side of Wootton will be 6-5, 270-pound sophomore Vince Browne. A former linebacker, Browne is one of the team's strongest players having beefed up big-time over the last few years. He has a nice combination of speed and athleticism to go along with his size, and he showed he could produce when given a chance making 26 tackles with four sacks and 7.5 tackles for loss.

Projected Top Reserves: If Wootton's knee isn't ready, then redshirt freshman Quentin Williams will be thrust into the spotlight. More of an outside linebacker at 6-4 and 230 pounds, he's also a top baseball player and a former tight end. He's a terrific all-around athlete and is expected to be a good speed rusher once he gets his shot on the outside.

At 6-3 and 290 pounds, senior Marshall Thomas is a good-sized veteran to back up Hahn at one tackle spot. He saw time in every game making 12 tackles with a tackle for loss, and while he's not going to do much in the backfield, he's a reliable block in the interior against the run.

Slightly undersized but part of the mix for the last few years is Jack DiNardo, a 6-4, 280-pound sophomore with nice talent and excellent quickness at tackle. The nephew of former Indiana and LSU head coach Gerry DiNardo made just three tackles last season, but his role will be expanded this year working behind Bryant. 
Watch Out For ... panic. Wotton's knee is hardly a sure-thing considering the injury happened in December, while Bryant's knee and Hahn's foot could be concerns. If everyone is healthy, this will be a whale of a line, but there will be lots of pain to be played through.
Strength: Size. Thanks to the 265-pound Wootton and the 270-pound Browne on the ends, this is a large front four that did a great job of holding up against the run last year and shouldn't have a problem against the stronger offensive lines this year.
Weakness: Proven backups. Health is the biggest issue, but there will also be a concern going into the year at backup tackle, with DiNardo needing to rise up and be ready to shine, and Williams and Kevin Watt needing to prove they can play on the outside.
Outlook: The line was fantastic last season thanks to the experience of four starters returning. Losing John Gill hurts, and if Wootton isn't ready, it could be a death blow to the defense that has high hopes for a big year. Pressure will have to come from all four spots, but just being strong against the run again would be enough of a positive considering the health issues across the front.
Rating: 7


Projected Starters
Malcolm Arrington is gone from the middle, but junior Nate Williams knows what he's doing after stepping in for an injured Arrington halfway through last year and finishing fifth on the team with 55 tackles with a sack and 3.5 tackles for loss. At 6-2 and 225 pounds he's not all that big, but he's very quick and very promising. A top recruit for the program a few years ago, he has the talent to be a star now that he has the full-time job, and it'll be a stunner if he's not one of the team's top three tacklers.

Back on the strongside will be 6-4, 225-pound junior Quentin Davie after starting 11 games last year and making 57 tackles with 3.5 sacks and 9.5 tackles for loss. A fantastic pass rusher, he was second on the team, behind Corey Wootton, with five quarterback hurries. He's not all that big, but he can move. After proving he could handle the full-time job, he'll be used even more as a pass rusher now that he has a year of starting experience.

Taking over for Prince Kwateng on the weakside will be Ben Johnson after spending last year as a reserve defensive back making six tackles. The 6-4, 215-pound sophomore was a fantastic special teamer, highlighted by a blocked punt against Michigan, and now he'll bring his speed and athleticism to an outside linebacker spot where he should be all over the field. He's like a big corner playing linebacker.

Projected Top Reserves: Hurt throughout most of last year, 6-4, 225-pound sophomore Bryce McNaul is expected to play a big role on the strongside behind Davie. He made just two tackles on the year, but he has tremendous upside playing either inside or out. While he's a bit undersized for the middle, he's extremely tough and has great range.

There will be a battle for the backup jobs in the middle and the weakside. 6-1, 225-pound senior Chris Jeske and 6-0, 240-pound redshirt freshman David Nwabuisi will combine to play behind Williams in the middle. Jeske hasn't been able to do much over the course of his career thanks to back and knee injuries, but he has battled to stay involved and try to be ready for this year. Nwabuisi is a great prospect with good size and enough range to eventually be a top tackler. He'll be the starter in the middle in the near future.

Sophomore Aaron Nagel transferred over from Notre Dame and should eventually be a big part of the weakside rotation. A star prospect out of his school, he has the toughness to play anywhere in the linebacking corps and the quickness to eventually be strong on the outside. However, he's only 6-1 and 225 pounds. 6-0, 220-pound redshirt freshman Stone Pinckney is a big hitting pass rusher who'll combine with Nagel behind Johnson.
Watch Out For ... major backup battles. Williams is the starter in the middle and it would take something crazy for Johnson to be moved out of the weakside job. The backup situation will be interesting with Nagel and Pinckney each trying to find roles for somewhere in the linebaking corps considering Johnson is just a sophomore. Nwabuisi will be a star someday, while Jeske could use a little good luck to go along with all the hard work he put in to get healthy.
Strength: Pat Fitzgerald. If you can play linebacker for Northwestern, you can play linebacker. The Wildcat head coach and Hall of Fame linebacker has put together a great combination of tough tacklers and good athletes. This group won't make many mistakes.
Weakness: Proven overall production. Williams and Davie are set, and while Johnson has a world of upside, he only has six tackles on his résumé. There's no experience whatsoever among the reserves.
Outlook: The linebackers were terrific last year, and while there will be some turnover, for the most part this group should do more of the same. While slightly undersized, this is an athletic bunch that'll be all over the field and in the backfield. This unit will be a strength as the season goes on.
Rating: 7

Defensive Backs

Projected Starters: All four starters are back in the secondary highlighted by the return of Brad Phillips at strong safety. The 6-4, 210-pound senior earned honorable mention All-Big Ten honors last year after leading the team with 109 tackles with 1.5 sacks, six tackles for loss, and three interceptions. Very durable, he has started 21 straight games and he should be past a shoulder injury that limited him this spring. He'll be the leader of the veteran unit.

6-1, 215-pound senior free safety Brendan Smith missed almost all of 2007 with a shoulder problem, got a year of eligibility back, and finished third on the team with 82 tackles with six broken up passes and two interceptions. The honorable mention All-Big Ten performer and the co-captain came up with the team's play of the year with a pick six against Minnesota that sent the Gophers reeling and was the catalyst for Northwestern's finishing kick to get to a bowl. He has excellent range and good hitting ability.

Senior Sherrick McManis is coming back or his third season as a starting corner after earning honorable mention All-Big Ten honors last year. He followed up a 75-tackle season with 67 stops and two interceptions to go along with a team-leading 12 broken up passes. The team's top cover corner, he has good size at 6-1 and 190 pounds and good speed. While he wasn't used as a pass rusher last year, he can get into the backfield if needed.

Returning to his starting corner spot on the other side of McManis is Jordan Mabin, a 5-11, 180-pound sophomore who came up with a nice first season making 52 tackles with three interceptions and five broken up passes. One of the team's top recruits in 2007, he was a superstar high school offensive playmaker who has made the quick transition to the other side of the ball. He could play safety if needed, but he has been fine at corner.

Projected Top Reserves: Returning as a key corner reserve is Justan Vaughn, a 6-0, 190-pound junior who was the starter over the first two games last year, making nine tackles, before getting knocked out for the year with a shoulder injury. He's one of the team's most talented defensive backs with good tackling ability and fluid cover skills, but now he has to stay healthy and be a part of nickel and dime packages.

Sophomore Brian Peters came up with a terrific first year being used as a nickel back and making 35 tackles with a pick. At 6-4 and 210 pounds he's a tall, rangy playmaker who hits like a ton of bricks and has good range. He came up with a key pick in the Alamo Bowl, and he should start to do even more as the understudy behind Phillips before taking over next year.

Sophomore David Arnold had problems with a knee injury that limited him at times. He only finished with nine tackles, mostly as a special teamer, but at 6-1 and 220 pounds with tremendous athleticism, he'll see more action working behind Smith at free safety and in pure passing situations. 

6-1, 185-pound sophomore  Mike Bolden, an Evanston native, made ten tackles as a backup at both corner spots, but he didn't get to do much against the pass. One of the team's top recruits from a few years ago has been a star for the scout team, and while he'll spend this year behind McManis, he'll be a near-lock to start next season.

Watch Out For ... the backups. The starting four is set, but the backups are good enough for the coaching staff to use more liberally in a rotation. There shouldn't be too many problems if there's a rash of injuries.
Strength: Experience. All four starters return with Vaughn a starter last year before he got hurt. There's talent waiting in the wings, a few sure-thing All-Big Ten selections in Phillips, Smith, and McManis.
Weakness: The potential for less of a pass rush. If Corey Wootton isn't healthy and there isn't as much of a push from the front seven, the secondary will have to do even more. The pieces are in place to get the job done, but things would be much easier with the 34 sacks the D produced last season.
Outlook: There's a chance that this could be the best secondary in the Big Ten if there's a good pass rush to help the cause. The safeties will be special, McManis is a shut-down corner who should be able to hold his own against any Big Ten receiver, and there's excellent young talent backing everything up. Expect more nickel and dime packages this year to get all the talent on the field.
Rating: 8

Special Teams

Projected Starters: In the battle to replace Armondo Villarreal, who hit 20-of-25 field goals last year, junior punter Stefan Demos will get the first crack. Demos has been a decent punter over the last few years, averaging 39 yards per kick while putting a whopping 49 kicks inside the 20 over the last two years. He'll get competition for the placekicking duties from freshman Jeff Budzien, a 145-pounder from Wisconsin with a huge leg. Considered one of the nation's top kicker recruits, at the very least he'll put every kickoff into the end zone.

Safety Brendan Smith will return as the top punt returner, but he has to do more after averaging just 7.9 yards per try. Corner Sherrick McManis will try to add some pop to one of the nation's most mediocre kick return games with Stephen Simmons, the main man last year who averaged 22.1 yards per try, also getting some work.
Watch Out For ... Budzien. If he's the real deal, Demos can stay with his punting duties and won't be stretched.
Strength: Kickoff coverage. It should only improve with Demos and Budzien each good at sticking it into the end zone. The Wildcats allowed a mere 18.4 yards per return last year, improving a major weakness from the 2007 special teams.
Weakness: Sure-thing placekicking. Considering the Wildcats should play several tight games, not having Villareal around could be a problem if Demos and Budzien don't come through with consistent years.
Outlook: The Wildcat special teams haven't come up with the same year twice in a long time, tending to fix the problems one year, only to see other issues rise up. There needs to be more production in the return game and a placekicker has to be found, but this won't likely be a weakness unless Demos and Budzien are disastrous.
Rating: 6