Northwestern’s defense ranked in the middle of the pack in the Big Ten last season. There were good weeks and bad weeks, games allowing six points and games allowing 48 points.
But as middling as it might have been in 2014, Pat Fitzgerald wants his team’s identity to be that of the defense in 2015. Particularly, Fitzgerald is banking on the veteran leadership of his defensive line and defensive backfield permeating throughout the rest of the team.
“(The defensive line) and the secondary. From an experience standpoint, I like that group,” Fitzgerald said last week during the team’s media day. “I told the D-line and the DBs when we started in January, ‘Our team has got to have the personality of your two position groups. And you two have to take over.’ And I wanted the DBs to go be more active with our wide receivers, and I wanted our D-line to be more active with our O-line. So no longer was it the O-line against the D-line, we intermixed them and there was competition among those groups. Same thing with the DBs and the wide receivers. And I think those relationships and that competition really helped both groups from a standpoint of the offense.”
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The veteran leadership is certainly there on the defensive side of the ball.
The secondary boasts multi-year starters Traveon Henry (20 starts in two seasons) at safety and Nick VanHoose (32 starts in three seasons) and Matt Harris (12 starts last season as a sophomore) at the two cornerback positions. VanHoose is gaining a bunch of preseason attention after a strong 2014 season in which he was one of the Big Ten’s best corners and blocked three kicks, if you can believe that. And the fourth starter in the secondary will likely be Godwin Igwebuike, who made some noise as a redshirt freshman a season ago. He started five games filling in for a banged-up Ibraheim Campbell, and he intercepted three passes in his first career start against Wisconsin.
The defensive line is veteran-heavy, as well, with three seniors in defensive ends Deonte Gibson (11 starts last two years) and Dean Lowry (21 starts last two years) and defensive tackle C.J. Robbins (eight starts last season). Junior Greg Kuhar (10 starts last year) is the other defensive tackle.
All that experience and leadership in those two units is the reason Fitzgerald is leaning so heavily on these players to guide his team.
“Guys are ready to go, they’re aggressive,” Gibson said. “We were ready to go last year, but at times I think we questioned our abilities. There’s no question (this year).”
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While question marks remain at the outside linebacker positions, it’s middle linebacker Anthony Walker who after stepping up last season has taken on a leadership role with this year’s team.
Walker, like Igwebuike, was pressed into duty as a redshirt freshman last season. Injuries to senior leader Collin Ellis meant Walker made seven starts. He flourished in his first career start, making eight tackles and taking an interception back 49 yards for a touchdown. On the season, he had 51 tackles, led the team with nine tackles for loss and had two big interceptions, the second one returned 65 yards to set up a score in Northwestern’s big win over Notre Dame.
“I saw a young guy — who I’ve known since he got here — a young guy grow up fast,” Gibson said of Walker. “His first game, he got rushed into the start and he excelled. And ever since he hasn’t looked back. He’s looking to pick up the baton and run with it. He’s one of the leaders of the team that most people probably won’t recognize, but … he’s probably one of the stronger leaders of our team.”
As the offense looks to break in a first-time starter at quarterback, the defense could be the strength of Northwestern’s team, much like it was at times last season. The Cats defense was sensational against Penn State, keeping the Nittany Lions out of the end zone. It intercepted four passes and held Wisconsin to just 14 points in a win over the Badgers.
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But, in a microcosm of Northwestern’s season, the defense lacked consistency. Just as common as those terrific performances were ugly ones, like the 38 points allowed against Nebraska, the 48 points allowed against Iowa, the 40 points allowed against Notre Dame and the 47 points allowed against Illinois.
Like it will be with the whole team, consistency will be key on the defensive side of the ball.
But the Cats are confident that’s what they’ll get.
“A lot of confidence. We’re ready to play. Playing with a lot of swagger right now, that’s the biggest thing,” Walker said. “We knew we had to come and bring a lot of swagger to this year’s team. The defense, we’re going to be ready. As a team I think we’re going to be ready.”