One of the Wildcats' glaring weaknesses last season was stopping the run, and the loss of stalwart defensive tackle Jack DiNardo could leave them even more vulnerable this season. Carter, a 6-3, 270-pound sophomore who appeared in nine games last season, is expected to take a huge step forward in the fall and assume a starting role.
He was the star of this year's spring game, accounting for 17 points, according to Fitzgerald's modified rules, on an interception he returned for a touchdown. Carter is big, strong and fills running lanes, yet he's also quick enough to be disruptive along the line of scrimmage and make plays in the backfield.
Carter's quick learning curve impressed Fitzgerald and defensive coordinator Mike Hankwitz during spring practice. If he can continue his progression into preseason camp and refine his understanding of Hankwitz's scheme, Carter could emerge as one of the stars on this year's defense.
Brian Arnfelt, DT (Senior)
After injuring his foot last offseason, Arnfelt missed the first four games of 2011, reinjured his foot against Indiana, then returned for the Meineke Car Care Bowl, when he made five tackles, including 0.5 tackles for loss, and played arguably the best game of his career. The 6-5, 300-pound tackle has good size for his position, and a tireless work ethic that's rubbed off on his teammates.
This season, Arnfelt's last, he's expected to take on a huge leadership role and help reverse last season's struggles against the run. He's proven that he can be one of the league's better DTs when healthy, and if he can build off his bowl game performance, Arnfelt could be set for a breakout season.
Tyler Scott, DE (Junior)
Though he only made six starts last season, Scott was one of the most consistent overall players on NU's D-line last season. He ran, spun and twirled past offensive tackles just as often as he bull-rushed, or ran through them. That kind of versatile pass rushing repertoire makes Scott a tough cover for any offensive tackle.
His three fumble recoveries ranked third in the Big Ten last season and while the Wildcats struggled at times to rush the passer last season, Scott always seemed to trouble offensive linemen and force early throws from opposing quarterbacks.
He, along with Arnfelt, will need to step up this season and prove that last year's limited sample size was indicative of future performance. Starting 13 games, rather than six, may take its toll on Scott by season's end, given the relentless, full-effort style that defines him.
Quentin Williams, DE (Senior)
Coach Fitzgerald is counting on Williams to front NU's pass rushing attack this season after he started the final seven games of 2011. Williams' best game last season was at Nebraska, where he finished with seven tackles and made sure that Huskers' QB Taylor Martinez was uncomfortable on seemingly every play. He also put in a nice performance against Texas A&M, which included four tackles and 0.5 sacks.
A converted linebacker who played two seasons on NU's baseball team, Williams is one of the Wildcats' all-around best athletes. He missed all of spring practice with an injury, but is expected to be ready for preseason camp. If he can stay healthy, Williams' above-average speed and tireless work ethic will wear down opponents and lead to results.
Will Hampton, DT (Junior)
A solid rotation player for the Wildcats last season, Hampton, who appeared in all 13 games, will play a key reserve role in 2012. Carter outplayed him throughout spring practice, but his experience, gap discipline and size (6-3, 285) are valuable assets for NU's line.
Should Carter struggle or get injured, Hampton will be the first to hear his name called off the bench. He's the Wildcats' only truly viable, battle-tested reserve at tackle, and thus will be counted upon to maintain stability along the line.
Deonte Gibson, DE (RS Freshman)
Spring practice usually produces at least one or two pleasant surprises, players who unexpectedly emerge from obscurity and earn playing time by exceeding expectations and outperforming competition. Deonte Gibson is one of those players.
As Williams sat out of spring practice with an injury, Gibson got extensive work with the first team defense and he made a strong case for remaining with that group in the fall. After tearing his ACL and sitting out last season, Gibson looked bigger, stronger and faster in spring workouts and his explosive first step and agility had coaches and players buzzing.
The Wildcats will call on Gibson for a speedy, change-of-pace edge rusher on obvious passing downs. Once he has a sound, comprehensive grasp on his role in Hankwitz's defense, his playing time will increase. For now, he's a specialist, a part-time player with huge upside and a bright future ahead of him.
Davon Custis, DE (Junior)
A four-star prospect coming out of St. Francis Desales high school (OH), the talent hasn't translated into any sort of quantifiable production, meaningful snaps or any discernible positive impact in his first two years with the team. Custis appeared in just one game last season, but could make a larger impact this year if he regains the speed, explosiveness and pass-rushing savvy that made him a highly-sought after recruit.
Bo Cisek, DT (Senior)
Linebacker, not defensive tackle, was Cisek's primary position when he walked on in 2009. He switched positions and appeared in every game last season either on special teams or in a reserve role on defense. Cisek is a high-effort player with a strong motor who provides depth behind Arnfelt and Carter.
Anthony Battle, DE (Junior)
Though he's only appeared in three games over the past two seasons, Battle has the speed and quickness to make an impact as an edge rusher on passing downs. He continues to make strides in the weight room and will fight his way up the depth chart in preseason camp.
Max Chapman, DE (RS Freshman)
Don't be surprised if Chapman, who greatly improved his strength and speed during his redshirt year, contributes both on special teams and as a pass rusher this season. While Gibson will likely be the Wildcats' primary edge-rushing specialist off the bench, Chapman has a similar body type and skill set and could play a similar role in the future.
C.J. Robbins, DT (RS Freshman)
At 6-5 and 275 pounds, Robbins, a year removed from learning under DiNardo, Arnfelt and other veteran players at his position, should make an impact on defense in the fall. Fitzgerald spoke highly of him during the spring, and given the lack of depth at tackle, he very well may find himself playing a key reserve role at some point this season.
Sean McEvilly, DT (Sophomore)>
While he's only played in one game, McEvily made considerable improvements in all facets of his game this offseason. It's unlikely that he plays a significant role in 2012, but he's a solid rotation piece with a bright future.
Greg Kuhar, DT—NU plucked Kuhar from St. Edward high school (OH), former home of Deonte Gibson. Like Gibson, Kuhar has starter potential and could reach that point quickly if he has a good first season.
Dean Lowry, DE—The three-star prospect from Rockford (IL) plays fast, hard and explodes off the snap. It's unclear whether Lowry ever develops into a starter, but he'll provide solid, reliable depth in the future.
Connor Mahoney, DT—As a junior at Malvern Preparatory School (PA), Mahoney received first-team all-conference honors on both offense and defense. At NU, he'll only need to master one side of the ball. His first year will be valuable for learning the defense and making strides in the weight room.
Grade: B +
Games are so often won and lost at the line of scrimmage. This lesson was made painfully clear to last year's D-Line, which suffered from late-game fatigue and poor execution, troubling flaws that led to long, successful drives by opposing teams and blown leads. Perhaps NU's greatest weakness last season was preventing 3rd down conversions, where opponents were awarded a new set of downs on 50% of their attempts. So many of those 3rd down attempts were either short running plays or passing plays, two critical areas in which the Wildcats' D-line simply failed to challenge the opposition.
This year's bunch, on paper at least, appears deeper, more physical and more talented. It's also younger, with spring standouts Carter and Gibson both expected to play significant roles. They should benefit from veterans like Williams, Arnfelt and Scott collectively providing a cooling, mature presence. Should the group fail to improve from last season, lack of talent won't be to blame; rather, inexperience and lack of proven depth are plausible pitfalls.
Spring practice provided a glimpse of just how potent this unit can be if it plays to its talent level. At the spring game, the line constantly harassed quarterback Kain Colter, collapsing the pocket around him. Performing at that level against Big Ten teams, in hostile Big Ten environments, however, is another matter entirely. If all goes well, the D-line, on the whole, will be an upgrade from last season's.