Preview 2009 Defense
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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.
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
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
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
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
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
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.
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
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
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.
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
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.
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
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.