Enter: Dean Lowry.
Lowry, a 6'6" sophomore defensive end, is poised to take the place of Quentin Williams. The Rockford, Ill. native came to Northwestern with a three-star ranking from Scout, offers from Indiana, Iowa, Minnesota, and Purdue, and two state championships from his time at Boylan High School.
Though other commits made a bigger splash before the season started, few had a bigger impact than Lowry once the Wildcats took the field, as he contributed in all 13 games last season as Scott's backup at defensive end. In 2012, he notched 13 tackles (three of which went for losses), one sack, and a fumble recovery, and made a good enough impression to make ESPN.com's Big Ten All-freshman team alongside Dan Vitale and Nick VanHoose.
Like many high school players, Lowry dominated by virtue of an incredible size advantage, something quickly negated once one starts playing in college, let alone the Big Ten. However, Lowry was able to make a noticeable impact because he adapted his game to a league in which he no longer towered over everybody on the field.
In essence, he did it the Wildcat way: Northwestern players may not always be the biggest, strongest, or fastest, but the best ones match the skills they have with the smarts and preparation they need to excel.
Last year, Lowry stepped in and made a positive impact. This year, we expect him to break out and continue on the path of progress he started on as a freshman. It's a combination of factors that makes a breakout season from Lowry probable, all reducing down to one basic point: He is the right man at the right time in the right defense.
He's the right man because of what he was able to accomplish as a second-stringer in 2012 in a system where players routinely spend five years. Pre-season logic would have put Ifeadi Odenigbo in Lowry's spot, but after Odenigbo was sidelined for a year by injury, the spot is Lowry's to lose.
It's the right time for one simple reason: There's a hole that needs to be filled. It will be tough to replace what Williams and company brought to the Wildcats, but Lowry has shown the potential to make up for it in part through a relatively small sample size.
And, it's the right defense because of how much Northwestern's success relies on an effective pass rush and run containment. Last season, the Wildcats ranked 21st nationally in rushing defense and 29th in scoring defense while ranking 84th in passing defense. The Northwestern secondary has been a work in progress for several seasons, each unit getting better than the last, but with the departure of Jared Carpenter, the front seven will need to carry the defense once again. This is where Lowry can shine.
Many things can happen in between now and the season opener at California, but all signs point to big things and a breakout season from Dean Lowry in 2013.