Though the refurbished O-line has attracted attention this offseason--and rightfully so--Northwestern's D-line lost two starters as well with the graduation of Brian Arnfelt and Quentin Williams. Thanks to great recruiting efforts and a trove of returning talent, however, we're not talking about the pass rush the way we're talking about defending it. I don't expect the Cats to seamlessly replace Arnfelt, but the mature Tyler Scott looks to make up for his absence.
Arnfelt didn't make plays the way today's hybrid defensive tackles do. (Twenty-five tackles and three sacks landed him in the NFL.) Rather, it was his rippling strength that made everyone else on the line considerably better. The same guy that notched a record 38 bench press reps at Northwestern's Pro Day bowled through A and B gaps last season, opening up lanes for rushers while moving the line of scrimmage back for run defenders. Arnfelt's successor, Chance Carter, is a good 30 pounds lighter, though he fared well as a spell tackle last fall.
Carter's leaner frame with previous experience at D-end makes him a less reliable plug against the run, but Northwestern's strong linebacking corps more than compensates for that. Alongside Carter is Sean McEvilly, the traditional anchor who already has a season of starting experience under his belt. Neither one wows you the way that Arnfelt did, but Tyler Scott should do more than enough wowing by himself.
Scott's my pick for defensive MVP this season--not a stretch by any means, especially considering he won the award last season. Scott's great motor and physicality propelled him to nine sacks, the most of any returning player in the Big Ten. He's as much brains as he is brawn, though: Scott's vision at the line lead to five pass breakups last year, music to the ears of Northwestern's secondary. At 6-4 and 265, Scott's almost the same size as Chance Carter, creating nightmarish matchups for opposing right tackles.
Both Dean Lowry and Deonte Gibson will play at right end, giving the Cats encouraging upside with two young options. Lowry is particularly exciting, breaking through as one of four true freshman to play last season with six QB hurries and a sack against Michigan State. I predict him to fully secure the starting job by season's end, although both he and Gibson are fiercely fast off the edge. Add Ifeadi Odenigbo to the mix and Northwestern has almost unlimited third-down options.
There are four downs in football, of course, and we'll have to see how these sleek young ends play against the run. Rounding out the second team, C.J. Robbins is remarkably similar to Carter, with senior Will Hampton bringing some needed experience. Three speedy ends and two converted tackles on the two-deep line is promising, but Northwestern will need muscle from more than just Scott to survive.
Those hesitant about NU's deep pass defense can take solace in a D-line that's ridiculously fast in getting through the pocket. Those wary about the line's ability to play evenly for three downs can look to a rock-solid group of linebackers. I'm excited to see the two right ends make an impact, and as long as Tyler Scott continues being Tyler Scott, this front should cause problems.
DE— Tyler Scott, Ifeadi Odenigbo
DT— Chance Carter, Will Hampton
DT— Sean McEvilly, C.J. Robbins
DE— Dean Lowry OR Deonte Gibson