Commentary: The Defense
by Jonathan Hodges

Without further ado, time to jump right into the unit-by-unit breakdown of the 2010 Northwestern Wildcats.  First up is the defense.

The NU defense enters year three under Defensive Coordinator Mike Hankwitz with six returning starters, but, more importantly, includes a slew of other players who either have started in place of an injured player or have garnered significant playing time in backup duty.  This depth of experience will pay dividends by allowing the defense to continue its solid progress seen under Hankwitz thanks to heightened competition for playing time and the ability to plug in others in case of injury.

It's not like the 'Cats came away from 2009 unscathed, though, as they did lose some key contributors, like NFL draft pick DE Corey Wootton, and a trio of excellent defensive backs in Brendan Smith, Brad Phillips, and Sherrick McManis.  Those players made up the core of a rather solid defense in 2008 and 2009, and the younger players must now step up for a full season to keep up the pace.

The defensive statistics and on-field results over the past two seasons are hard to deny; Hankwitz's defense is competitive within the Big Ten and has helped propel the 'Cats to two consecutive bowl games.  This year's squad looks to replicate that feat for a third time.  And if Hankwitz and Head Coach Pat Fitzgerald can maximize the talent across the two-deep while keeping them healthy, this team can definitely exceed those expectations.

Defensive Line

It all starts up front, and much of the success on D the past two years can be attributed to the work of those on the DL.  Last season, the DL contributed 18 of the team's 30 sacks as well as 21% of the team's total tackles, which are both significant numbers.  Not only was the line good at disrupting the opponent's offense, but it was good at contributing to defensive statistics, and that even with Wootton below 100% health for much of the season.

The 'Cats lost Wootton, unsung hero Adam Hahn, and Marshall Thomas to graduation.  While those are significant losses, NU returns starters DT Corbin Bryant (senior) and DE Vince Browne (junior).  They also welcome new projected starters DE Kevin Watt, who had two sacks in limited playing time last year, and DT Jack DiNardo.  But thankfully NU will have the chance to rotate in a bunch of younger players who have some playing time already under their belts: DE Quentin Williams, DT Brian Arnfelt, and DT Niko Mafuli.  Finally, two touted redshirt freshmen, Davon Custis and Anthony Battle, will jockey for playing time behind Browne at the other end.

The key to the DL this season will be depth.  In addition to the aforementioned nine players that appear on the two-deep, converted TE Cameron Joplin and redshirt freshman Tyler Scott will also be competing for playing time, giving Defensive Line Coach Marty Long a slew of talented options.  No, there isn't a single player that deserves the attention Wootton rightly received last season (Bryant is close, but he is playing at the DT position that tends to not pile up as many flashy statistics), but NU can make up for that with solid play across the line and down the depth chart.

The best thing that this line can do is repeat what they did last year, which is contain the opponents' rushing game, as NU held opponents to a respectable 3.8 yards per rush average and 128.6 rushing yards per game.  While these aren't rush-smothering numbers, they did force opponents to throw the ball, which allowed the 'Cats to get their pass rush on and/or utilized their experienced secondary.  I don't see any single player on the DL putting up huge numbers this year, instead the coaching staff will rely upon all of them to contribute at different times to help accomplish this task.


If you want the best unit on the entire team going into 2010, here it is.  All three starting linebackers return this season, at 100% health, and will be led by two seniors who have made significant contributions during their time at NU.  Those seniors are MLB Nate Williams and OLB Quentin Davie (the top two tacklers on NU last season), who may be the best LB duo in the conference (and that's not just coming from me).  Along side those two will be either OLB Ben Johnson, who started much of last season except when he was sidelined with an injury, or OLB Bryce McNaul, who has been fighting for playing time for two full seasons.

Not to be lost on the depth chart, though, are two backups who made spot starts last season: true sophomore OLB Roderick Goodlow and redshirt sophomore MLB David Nwabuisi.  Both have good speed and talent and will get a chance to contribute this year.  At the very least, the three LBs pushed to the second row of the depth chart will have put in a good fight for playing time and will raise the playing level of the entire unit, and will also have a chance to contribute as backups.

As an entire two-deep unit, this group is very good and should be able to help the D both against the run and the pass.  They have the physicality with Williams and Davie, as well as speed with Johnson and, again, Davie.  They all have practice and playing time under their belts in this system and know it well enough to contribute right off the bat.  And, finally, Fitz has the utmost confidence in them.

Look for Davie to be the standout player of the group, as he has shown an ability to wreak havoc in the backfield (he has 22.5 career tackles for loss and was tied for the team lead in 2009 with five sacks), but the other starters likely won't be far behind.  Again, this unit has the chance to be really special this year, and the linebackers are a group that should be a treat to watch on Saturdays this fall.


Unfortunately, NU lost the aforementioned trio of Smith, Phillips, and McManis to graduation, but NU fans need not worry too much as the cupboard is not bare.  The lone returning starter is junior CB Jordan Mabin who came into his own last year that featured the game-sealing interception against Wisconsin.  He'll be joined at safety by Brian Peters, a guy with multiple starts and a lot of playing time under his belt who should do just fine stepping in (he had an interception in the Outback Bowl, his third of the 2009 season).

They will likely be joined by CB Justan Vaughn and S Jared Carpenter, both of whom should expect competition for those starting spots from Mike Bolden and David Arnold, respectively.  Vaughn was the starter going into 2008 but was unfortunately sidelined in the Duke game with a shoulder injury that kept him out for the remainder of the season and allowed Mabin to take over the starting CB spot.  He also fought injury last season but will hopefully be ready to take over in this, his senior year.

Bolden, a local product from Evanston Township High School, has been fighting for playing time since he arrived and looks as though he may be able to secure some in at least a backup role this season.  Although neither Vaughn nor Bolden will be able to step in and instantly replace McManis, the fact that they will be coupled with a more experienced Mabin on the other side sets up the corners pretty well.  Also, don't forget about CBs Ricky Weina (hero of the Indiana game) and Demetrius Dugar who both saw action last year and will be waiting in the wings as well, giving NU some solid depth at the position.

The other safety spot should feature a pretty good competition between Carpenter, who saw enough playing time last season to accumulate 17 tackles, and Arnold, who spent last season at LB after playing at S the year prior.  Expect both to contribute during the course of the season.  It will be difficult for the two starters to replicate the performance of Smith and Phillips, who turned out to be one of the best NU safety duos in some time, but these guys are talented and experienced and will be able to hold their own.  Don't expect any freshman/rookie mistakes out there, as all of these safeties have gotten their feet wet before.

Overall, while this unit lost some experienced and historically good players, they gained some talented guys who have experience themselves and will be competing for playing time, which should help raise the play of the entire unit.  Much of their success will likely depend on what happens in front of them, but if the trend from the past two seasons continues they should be in good shape.


Expect the defense to continue the trend we've seen under Mike Hankwitz by containing the running game and making big plays when they need to.  They won't be a brick wall, but they also won't revert to the types of defenses seen in Evanston in the early 2000s, either.  The key to taking it to the next level will be avoiding injury, something the 'Cats were unfortunately unable to do over the past few seasons.  If they can do that while capitalizing on the talent and depth of the two-deep, the NU D very well could rise above the middle of the pack in the Big Ten (not a bad place to be) to the upper tier, which could then make this season even more special for the team as a whole.  Just remember this phrase: Defense wins championships.

Go 'Cats!!!

e-mail: j-hodges@alumni.northwestern.edu

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jhodges is the primary content provider of HailToPurple.com.  His commentary and game analyses appear regularly during the season and occasionally in the offseason.