Commentary: Northwestern's 2011 Defense
by Jonathan Hodges

Since DC Mike Hankwitz took over the defensive reigns at Northwestern in 2008, things have been very good for the Wildcats, with the D being a significant factor behind NU's combined 17 wins in the '08 and '09 seasons. And through the first 10 games of the 2010 season, things also looked good: over those games, NU yielded a respectable 21.4 points per game and ranked in the top half nationally in rushing defense, yielding under 140 yards per game on the ground. But as all 'Cats fans know, the NU defense experienced the most significant breakdown of the Hankwitz era over the final 3 games as NU gave up 54.3 points per game and a whopping 343.7 yards per game rushing (and that number includes the run-averse Texas Tech offense). Needless to say, there was a lot to work on during the offseason.

A convenient explanation was to blame the loss of QB Dan Persa, which forced the defense onto the field much more often and put significantly more pressure on the NU D. While there is some truth to that, there is no way that some increase in playing time turned the defense into a giant sieve. Instead, it was a combination of injury, inconsistent play, and "overplaying." While there was no significant injury that forced a player to lose significant time, there were bumps and bruises that reduced the effectiveness of those on the field, especially in the front seven. The key to defense is to play as a unit, and all it takes is one missed assignment and a hole opens up; this happened quite often. Finally, one can indeed "overplay" on defense, by overpursuing and getting out of position; look back at the tape on numerous plays during that stretch and you'll see linebackers and defensive backs in heavy pursuit, only to leave running lanes open that they were supposed to have been covering.

Thankfully, NU has had plenty of time to analyze, correct, and practice through the spring, summer, and now preseason camp. Hankwitz oversaw one of the largest turnarounds in recent NU history and he is indeed quite capable of leading this unit back towards the promised land (of defensive dominance). Now time to analyze the tools with which he will have to work this season.

Defensive Line

It all starts up front, and for NU, it all starts with senior DE Vince Browne who will once again be relied upon for generating the Wildcats' pass rush. Browne ended last season tied for second in the conference in sacks (with 7.0 on the year) and has been Northwestern's de facto pass rusher since Corey Wootton entered the NFL. While he's done a good job generating a pass rush (16.0 career sacks along 15 other TFLs and 9 QB hurries), the majority of that has come against generally inferior non-Big Ten competition (just 6.0 sacks have come in Big Ten play). He will certainly need to step up his game throughout the year in order to have an effect and live up to preseason hype that has him as one of the best defensive ends in the conference (if not the country).

At the other end position, fellow senior Kevin Watt will be used heavily, and he too is capable of making plays, although he hasn't been able to do so on a consistent basis. Junior Quentin Williams, who gave up baseball this season and has spent that time bulking up, has definite potential, but he hasn't played often enough to get a true taste of how he'll turn out. One younger guy on the outside that has a lot of upside, though, is redshirt sophomore Tyler Scott, who had a few nice plays in spot play last year, and he may end up winning a starting spot outright and will, at the very least, see a good amount of playing time. All together, these DEs must pressure opposing QBs and ensure they don't have all day to throw, otherwise the secondary will be in trouble (even if they prove to be really good). And, in a league now seemingly filled with fleet footed QBs, they must also make sure to seal the edge and force any outside runs towards fellow defenders; thankfully, these DEs seem to have the athleticism to do that.

The real key, though, will be in the middle where the 'Cats lost captain Corbin Bryant to graduation and have a lot of progress to make. NU got gashed for 5.1 yards per carry by opponents' rushing games last year, with a lot of that damage coming in those aforementioned final three games of the season. It will be up to the DTs this year to occupy multiple blockers and plug up holes in the middle in order to increase the effectiveness of the tacklers playing behind them. And, of course, it would help if they get into the backfield and make some hay; last year, NU's DTs accounted for just 1.5 of NU's 17 sacks (although they did have 10 of NU's 40 QB hurries). Seniors Jack DiNardo and Niko Mafuli will be looked upon to take on most of the load, with the latter reportedly finally being in good enough shape to be an every-down player, which will hopefully give NU a sizable athlete in the middle. Junior Brian Arnfelt will also garner a good amount of playing time, and with one more key spot in the rotation open, look for underclassmen like Will Hampton, Chance Carter, or maybe even all-name team Sean McEvilly to battle for some playing time.

Keep a keen eye on this unit early as the quality of their play will give a good early indication of the likelihood of a successful defensive campaign in 2011.


Last year, the wide receivers took up the "no name" mantra, and this year the linebackers will be doing the same after the departure of long time starters Quentin Davie and Nate Williams. They will also be looking for similar results, since WR Jeremy Ebert went on to garner First Team All-Big Ten honors after leading the conference in receiving yards last year. This group looks to be competitive, with starting and backup spots virtually all in flux, but hopefully upgraded athleticism on the two deep will lead to better play; something that was sorely lacking late last year when Illinois and Wisconsin gauged the defense and NU LBs looking like bystanders much of the time.

The one penciled-in starter seems to be senior Bryce McNaul, at weak side OLB; after being stuck behind others for years he had his first shot as a consistent starter last year and came through with the team's fifth most tackles and showed that he can make some plays. He did get dinged up later in the year, which showed in those games in which the D infamously collapsed. He'll have to be the hard-nosed leader of this group and be a consistent tackler in order to keep the defense together this season.

The situation at virtually all of the other positions is very fluid and will likely be undecided until everyone gets some live tackling under their belts. The middle LB spot, previously manned by Nate of the Williams Brothers, is up for grabs, and junior David Nwabuisi currently holds the top spot but is being pursued by sophomore Damien Proby. Both feature good speed and the question will be if the added offseason has given them enough experience to do the job.

At the weak side, the incumbent seemed to be senior Ben Johnson, but all signs currently point to him being beaten out by a redshirt freshman: either Collin Ellis or (two-time Darren Rovell collegiate name-team member) Chi Chi Ariguzo. This will be an intriguing race as Johnson has a bevy of experience but dings throughout his career haven't allowed him to lock up the position, and the young players bring in potential but absolutely no collegiate playing time. Expect to see a rotation until someone clearly stands out.

And besides those position battles, there is also sophomore Tim Riley (currently backing up McNaul), and junior Roderick Goodlow, who missed all of last year due to an ACL tear after making it on the field as a true freshman the previous year. All in all, there is a lot of competition for the three starting spots, and one hopes that this, along with the reported upgrade in athleticism, will lead to a better unit than we saw at the end of last season. There are two solid multi-year starters to replace, so it will be interesting to see how that process goes, especially early in the season against tough teams like Boston College and Army that will require solid LB play.

Defensive Backs

First, let's say that this unit has the makings of what could be amongst the best secondaries in recent NU history (the standard being the 2009 squad of Brendan Smith, Brad Phillips, Sherrick McManis, and Jordan Mabin). Senior Brian Peters leads the way at safety; he was NU's leading tackler last year taking care of clean-up duty early and often. Fellow senior Jordan Mabin will be at one corner, and he (surprisingly to some) led the Big Ten in passes defended last season (and had an interception return for TD late in the bowl game against Texas Tech). Those two will provide an experienced foundation for the unit in 2011.

The other CB spot will be taken over by senior Jeravin Matthews, a guy who came into Northwestern as a WR, switched to RB, and has flourished on special teams (particularly on coverage units). That instinctual ability as a gunner will hopefully translate well to corner, and early reports from camp have confirmed this. He has the speed, tackling skills, and football IQ to pull it off, although one will ultimately only be able to tell once he gets some game time. And he'll likely be challenged with opponents more willing to go to his side rather than the proven multi-year starting Mabin on the other side.

Finally, the other safety spot, which was presumed to belong to junior David Arnold, but has reportedly been taken over by redshirt freshman speedster Ibraheim Campbell. There has been a lot of praise for Campbell through the spring and summer, and he will almost definitely get playing time, if not a starting spot. If he does take that spot, expect to see plenty of Arnold, particularly in nickel sets, due to his experience (remember, he also played linebacker in 2009, so he is used to playing various roles).

If Mabin and Peters use their experience to boost their play in this, their final seasons for the 'Cats, Matthews lives up to his potential at corner, and Campbell shows off his speed at the other safety spot, NU will be in pretty good shape in the defensive backfield. Although they will have an impossible job if there is no pass rush, they should be able to do a solid job in coverage to improve upon NU's 95th ranked pass defense from last season. The key will be generating turnovers by capitalizing on any opportunities that emerge (i.e. fumbled balls and bad passes).


The defense is certainly in a position to improve on last season's fading effort. Hankwitz and Coach Fitz himself will certainly have nothing less, hence battles for multiple positions and the emergence of a handful of redshirt freshmen on the two-deep. They'll be tested early, especially with that tricky trip to Army in game three, and it'll be up to the coaching staff to identify the standouts and keep them on the field. Northwestern needs a very solid and consistent effort up front with pressure in the backfield from the DL on every play. The linebackers need to be tackling machines in order to prevent runners from getting free beyond the second level. And the secondary needs to be a blanket in pass coverage while also taking advantage of turnover opportunities.

The needs are pretty simple, but Hankwitz can certainly coach and Northwestern has the personnel on defense in order to be successful this season and make those final three games of 2010 look like an aberration. Let's hope Fitz has instilled his intensity in their collective play and the Wildcat D comes out with ferocity early and often.

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.