A number of players impressed in the spring and put themselves in position for some playing time on the line. Who plays and how the reps will be distributed will be a mystery but here's how it should break down.
After a standout season which earned multiple postseason honors, senior defensive end Vince Browne is poised for an even bigger season. Browne was tabbed a GoDaddy.com Preseason All-American and is likely to add more honors before the season starts.
The four-year starter ranks fifth on Northwestern's all-time sacks rankings and ninth in tackles for a loss. As a junior, Browne finished with 58 tackles and seven sacks. This season, he's looking to top that.
Browne will be the key cog to the defensive line this season. His success will play a major role in the entire defense's success. The Wildcats need Vince Browne to be that All-American.
Junior defensive end Quentin Williams was a major spring standout, and will likely rotate in for Browne on occasion. His time as starter will come later on.
Opposite of Browne, the Wildcats have a major position battle. Returning starter Kevin Watt missed the entire spring due to an injury, and returns to action facing some competition for his spot. Sophomore Tyler Scott had a strong freshman season and an equally impressive spring. Now, he's locked in with Watt in a battle for reps.
Last season, Watt started 12 games and tallied 29 tackles, but no sacks. Scott served as a backup to Watt last season and had seven tackles in 13 games.
If either Watt or Scott can emerge as the better player before the first game, they'll be the starter. When the depth chart comes out before the Boston College game, someone will be listed at the top, but that really won't mean much. With a couple options, you'll likely see the two rotate for reps.
A couple other options on the defensive line include sophomores Anthony Battle and Chance Carter. But during the spring, Carter served mainly as a defensive tackle. He may see playing time at both defensive end and defensive tackle this season. As for the incoming freshman, it would be a surprise if any saw playing time this season. Look for Deonte Gibson and Max Chapman to redshirt this season.
When you move over to the middle, there are more questions to be answered. The only thing that is sealed is that Jack DiNardo is the starter at defensive tackle. The Hinsdale native had an impressive junior season where he finished with 33 tackles and seven tackles for a loss during his 12 starts.
At 6-4, 290, DiNardo has the size to clog up the middle of the line and create havoc. Northwestern needs him to do exactly that to stop the run this season. DiNardo will be a major part of the defensive line.
Arnfelt started in just one game last season, but had his best run at the end of the year with 10 tackles in three games. Once a defensive end, Arnfelt now stands at 290-pounds and is better suited as a defensive tackle. Arnfelt hopes his strong finish to 2010 carries into this season.
The other option at defensive tackle is Niko Mafuli, who had an impressive spring for the Wildcats. Mafuli played in 11 games as a junior, but could see a much greater role this season.
Either one of these two could be a viable option at defensive tackle, but look for both to see their share of reps.
As mentioned earlier, Chance Carter could be in-line for some playing time at defensive tackle. Another option is sophomore Will Hampton.
Grading the defensive line: B-
Much of this grade comes from Vince Browne, who will likely not disappoint his high expectations. The rest of this group remains a mystery. The Wildcats absolutely need to get a consistent pass rush opposite of Vince Browne, and need either Niko Mafuli or Brian Arnfelt to serve as a good replacement for Corbin Bryant.
There is a lot riding on this unit for the 2011 season. If the defense wants a turnaround this year, it all starts up front.