NU's defensive line ready to prove itself

Northwestern's front four has a different look this season, a much younger group. The hungry unit is hoping to break out this season prove itself as one of the conference's best.

After a long and frustrating season, redshirt freshman defensive end Deonte Gibson is ready to make the most of his opportunity.

He arrived on campus last year as one of the more heralded members of Northwestern's 2012 class, but was forced to redshirt because of an ACL tear suffered during his senior year of high school. Per the usual with serious knee ligament tears, there were questions over whether Gibson could regain his speed, explosiveness and relentless pass rushing motor.

He answered those questions during spring practice with an all-around impressive performance and an added 20 pounds of muscle for good measure. Now Gibson finds himself pushing for a starting spot.

"I haven't played football in two years so I want to see what happens when I'm ready for it," Gibson said. "Scout team was a great thing for me."

While he wasn't able to help his teammates win games last season, Gibson laid the foundation for a successful future with the Wildcats. He worked tirelessly in the weight room while plying his trade in scout team workouts. Challenging first-team offensive linemen on a weekly basis afforded him the opportunity to learn new pass-rushing techniques. Perhaps most important was his mental growth during the redshirt year. Gibson, humbled by a severe injury, was unassuming in his approach towards the offseason.

"You've just got to stay humble," Gibson said, hearkening back to his rehabilitation and redshirt season. "Coach Fitzgerald and coach Long always told me that you have to pay your dues and, in due time, you'll get your shot."

That "shot" has presented itself in preseason camp, and Gibson has seized the opportunity. Once a pure speed rusher, the 6-foot-3, 265 pound end has added a diverse array of pass-rushing techniques, including spin moves, stutter step hesitations and arm rips.

While the starting spots are far from being resolved, Gibson is making a strong push to win one of the two positions. Even if he's not listed as a first-team player—Tyler Scott and Quentin Williams appear appear to have the inside track on winning prime depth chart placement—Gibson will feature prominently in the rotation, particularly on third-downs and obvious passing situations.

Highly-touted freshman Ifeadi Odenigbo could play a similar role, though its unclear whether he'll take the field this season. The crown jewel of NU's 2012 class, Odenigbo is a lightning quick end with underrated power for his size.

If he continues to shine in preseason camp, Odenigbo may force Fitzgerald's hand. Though the more logical approach may involve a developmental year, where Odenigbo can add at least 15-20 more pounds to his slight 6-foot-3, 227 frame while learning the playbook in a stress-free environment, then make a push to start next season.

"They bring speed off the edge," Scott said of Odenigbo and Gibson. "They're really fast. Ifeadi is still young. I still have to teach him the ropes. But his speed is a vital ability. With his quickness and speed, he's got great power. He's got to get some weight under him, but his speed helps him generate leverage."

The youth movement has invaded the middle of the defensive line, too, with sophomore Chance Carter emerging as a strong candidate to slide in alongside senior defensive tackle Brian Arnfelt.

Carter was another spring practice standout, most notably during the intra-squad spring game, in which he returned a Zack Oliver pass 19 yards for a 17-point (according to coach Fitzgerald's modified spring game rules) "pick six". He provides an active interior presence with strong footwork and immense power. Working alongside the veteran Arnfeldt, Carter should be a disruptive force in the trenches.

"He's a big boy," Scott said, referring to Carter, who's listed at 6-foot-3, 295 pounds. "He's finally getting his footwork down. I'm excited to see what he does. He made great strides in the spring."

More broadly, the line is looking to make a collective leap forward after recording just 17 sacks last season, good for last in the Big Ten.

If Gibson, Odenigbo, Scott, Williams or whoever else emerges can provide that pressure, the defense can implement a more aggressive style of play, attacking opposing quarterbacks and forcing mistakes and turnovers.

On the inside, a big season from Carter will improve NU's leaky rush defense (177.3 ypg allowed), which ranked 10th among league opponents. The unit should have a new look, new attitude and new energetic activism come September. If the new blood can fill in tidily around established players like Scott, Williams and Arnfelt, the line could soon become one of the strong points of this defense.

When asked about his favorite memory from training camp in Kenosha last season, Scott hesitated, smiled then began describing a lighthearted moment that veered from the conventional workmanlike approach coaches take on during preseason preparation.

"When we would get our break for Gatorade during practice, they ambushed us with water balloons and water guns," he said.

If the defensive line can unleash a similar strategy on opposing offenses this season, their improvement—irrespective of personnel specifics—should come naturally.

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