Anytime an opposing ball carrier got dragged down in his own backfield during the 2015 season, there was a 30 percent chance Dean Lowry or Deonte Gibson made the tackle.
That’s how dominant Northwestern’s defensive end pairing was last year. With the duo off to the NFL — Lowry was drafted by the Green Bay Packers and Gibson signed with the Detroit Lions — the Wildcats face an uphill challenge in replacing the production that powered a stout defense. NU’s solution for the 2016 campaign rests on spreading the workload as much as possible.
“I have full confidence in anybody who enters the game,” junior defensive end Xavier Washington said when asked about the position group’s depth. “We have enough people who know what they’re doing and are prepared to go in at any moment and change the game.”
Washington and senior defensive end Ifeadi Odenigbo are the nominal stars of the unit. Odenigbo, a former four-star recruit, has toiled as a reserve and situational substitute the past three seasons, racking up 14.5 tackles for loss over his career. Now thrust into the starting role, Odenigbo — listed at 6-foot-3, 265 pounds, the same as Gibson — must prove he can be more than a pass rusher and also stand up to the Big Ten’s punishing running attacks.
The same goes for Washington, who has spent the last two seasons as a rotational player but now will be called upon more than ever. And listed at a scant 243 pounds, he’s out to prove he can battle, play after play, with offensive linemen who may have as many as 80 pounds on him.
“I would define my game as ‘surprising,'” Washington said, shedding the undersized pass rusher stereotype. “A lot of people do look at my size and think, ‘Oh, he’s just a pass rusher,’ and I believe that’s what helps me in the end because if you’re not ready for me in the run game, if you’re thinking I’m going to be light, then that just gives me an element of surprise.”
Countering the Cats’ slight composure on the edges is some serious bulk and talent in the middle. Junior defensive tackle Tyler Lancaster might be the lynchpin of the entire unit, and is looking to improve upon a breakout 2015 campaign. The 310-pound Lancaster is joined by 305-pound senior C.J. Robbins, a veteran in his sixth year with the program thanks to two medical redshirts, and burly reserve senior Greg Kuhar, listed at 309 pounds.
A key player at both the tackle and end positions figures to be sophomore Jordan Thompson. One of a handful of true freshman to play last year,Thompson notched 15 tackles while appearing in every game as a rotation player along the line. His ability and willingness to play any position will be critical for the defense’s ability to handle varied offensive looks.
“I played outside in high school, and I played inside when I’m here,” Thompson said. “Every D-lineman needs to know inside and out. … Inside’s fun, outside’s fun, just being on the field is fun.”
Versatile players like Thompson are what will facilitate NU’s strategy for replacing the production of Lowry and Gibson — rotating the defensive line as much as possible. Washington said the plan is more about getting fresh legs onto the field rather than leveraging specific skill sets, and with the Cats’ bench as deep as it is that plan seems poised for success.
NU has six capable veterans jockeying for playing time, and joining the mix are redshirt freshmen Trent Goens and Joe Gaziano and sophomore Fred Wyatt.
Everyone among those nine is in line to receive at least a little bit of playing time. Given that formula — even with the impressive individual talents present — the output of the defensive line figures to be greater than the sum of its parts.