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Big Shoes to Fill: A 2021 Northwestern Defense Preview

New DC Jim O’Neil raises more questions than he answers...but that’s what consistency across Pat Fitzgerald’s tenure is for. Who’s the next man up?

Cleveland Browns v Pittsburgh Steelers
jesus god we’re trusting a browns coach, huh

Say hello to the best defense in college football in 2020.

Now wave goodbye.

We’re talking abrupt departures today, because the 2020 Northwestern Wildcats—who, somewhat jingoistically, I’ll continue to note were statistically the best defense in football—have scattered as retirements, transfers, and NFL draft picks have left just four starters and a new coordinator on that side of the ball.

Let’s take a quick look, back-to-front.

The Man in Charge: DC Jim O’Neil

Here’s where a majority of ‘Cats fans are mostly thinking, “Well, Fitz?”

Too-Lazy Talking Point: What’s this meathead doing at Northwestern?

That’s because defensive coordinator and college football legend—maybe not to you, but he damn well should be—Mike Hankwitz retired at the end of 2020, with the Citrus Bowl win over Auburn serving as his 400th career win. It was great, we cried a little, and Hank got the sendoff he deserved.

Vrbo Citrus Bowl - Auburn v Northwestern Photo by Douglas P. DeFelice/Getty Images

Not three weeks later, we were scratching our collective heads.

For his new defensive coordinator, Pat Fitzgerald chose NFL retread Jim O’Neil from what Fitz says was an interview pool of about 30 candidates. So. Uh. You can read plenty from the folks at InsideNU about how O’Neil’s record with the Browns, 49ers, and Raiders was...spotty at best. He managed to start some possibly-really-stupid shit with Broncos TE Noah Fant. His 2016 49ers remain one of the worst defenses in franchise history,

Making this hire explainable, though, is that he was a grad assistant and DBs coach at Northwestern in 2003-04, where he worked on the staff with Fitz, and worked with a host of current NU assistants, including under then-Eastern Michigan head coach and now Northwestern special teams coordinator Jeff Genyk from 2006-08.

We don’t really have an idea of what, if anything, will change on the defense. (InsideNU has, again, given you a really great look into the innovations he hopes to bring through his press conference balanced with his own need to adjust to the formations and motions that are legal at the college level.) O’Neil has mentioned he plans to stray from the traditional 4-3 base defense Hankwitz employed if the situation merited it.

This is the spot where you hope Pat Fitzgerald’s experience—and the experience at the position coaching levels—keeps the defensive ship on the consistent path that made it so good, particularly toward the end of the Hankwitz tenure:

I’m personally not thrilled about the O’Neil hire. He talks about making Northwestern’s defense a more violent unit—bullshit about wanting “guys that are going to make the middle of the field a scary place”—and seems to be more focused at NFL development of players. Perhaps that’s by design for Fitzgerald and Northwestern, who have now seen defensive players drafted in 2015, 2016, 2017, and 2021. But schematically and in terms of the actual fit of the guy himself, it doesn’t appear to make much sense beyond “this is who makes Fitz comfortable.”

Defensive Backs: An All-American and Some Questions

Coach: Matt MacPherson (16th? season)

Departures: CB Greg Newsome II (Cleveland Browns), S JR Pace (Atlanta Falcons), CB Cam Ruiz (Temple Owls)

Starters? S Brandon Joseph (RS-So), S Coco Azema (RS-So), CB A.J. Hampton, Jr. (RS-Jr), CB Rod Heard II (RS-So) or Cam Mitchell (RS-So)

Too-Lazy Talking Point: Brandon Joseph’s good, and we’ll be cautiously optimistic on the rest.

Fine, we can watch the Brandon Joseph interception again, if you insist:

Joseph led the country with 6 INTs, was a first-team All-American, and is a 2021 preseason All-American. There’s probably a step back in numbers coming on the INT front, but he’s a damn good defensive back.

Now, while there’s production departing across the rest of the secondary, there’s less cause for concern than in years past. Hampton is a returning starter at CB, while Mitchell logged a 4 pass breakups and an INT in 2020 and Heard saw the field in all nine games. Northwestern’s corners have fared OK working on islands in the last couple years, a sentence that 10 years ago I never thought I would say.

It’s the disciplined play out of ball-hawking safeties, though—from Ibraheim Campbell (2011-14) through Godwin Igwebuike (2014-17) and Kyle Queiro (2014-17) to Pace (2017-20) and now Joseph—that’s provided cover for those corners and set up NFL careers. Northwestern has historically showed a lot of two-high safeties out of a Cover 2 base, relying on mixing coverages and assignment football to match up against often more-athletic passing attacks. It worked throughout the Big Ten Championship Game until Ryan Day and the Buckeyes’ offense threw the kitchen sink at Northwestern—the question for me isn’t the players, it’s whether O’Neil will continue to put them in the position where they can make the most of what they’ve been learning under RB-turned-DB coach Matt MacPherson.

Linebackers: Plug and play?

Coach: Tim McGarigle (4th season)

Departures: WILL Blake Gallagher (Baltimore Ravens? maybe released?), MIKE Paddy Fisher (Carolina Panthers)

Starters? WILL Peter McIntyre (RS-Sr), MIKE Bryce Gallagher (RS-So) or Khalid Jones (RS-Jr), SAM Chris Bergin (GR)

Yes, Paddy Fisher has finally graduated.

Too-Lazy Talking Point: There’s a learning curve, but if there’s one thing Northwestern’s known for under Fitz, it’s disciplined linebackers.

The Irish Law Firm of Fisher, Gallagher, and Bergin went 1-2-3 in tackles in 2020, and there’s a lot to replace here, particularly in the disciplined bend-don’t-break defense that the ‘Cats are known for. Northwestern will space its DTs, leaving room for the MLB (for the last 8 years, approximately, Fisher—don’t bother fact-checking that) to step up and make plays.

But Northwestern will also often line its SAM backer—in this case the 5’11”, 215-pound Bergin—up against slot receivers, a position in which Bergin actually has somehow thrived, with 4 PDs and a pick in 2020.

Whether outgoing WILL Blake Gallagher’s younger brother Bryce can fill Fisher’s shoes remains to be seen, while Blake’s replacements, likely redshirt senior Peter McIntyre and true frosh Mac Uihlein, reportedly bring some speed to the position not normally found in ‘Cats linebackers.

But overall there’s continuity with coach Tim McGarigle and, I don’t know, the best college linebacker ever to come out of Northwestern calling the shots here. I’ll trust this process.

Defensive Line: Holes to Fill

Coach: Marty Long (13th season)

Departures: DE Earnest Brown IV (Los Angeles Rams), DE Eku Leota (Auburn Tigers)

Starters? DE Samdup Miller (GR), DT Joe Spivak (GR), DT Trevor Kent (RS-Sr), DE Adetomiwa Adebawore (Jr)

Just keep us on schedule, boys.

Too-Lazy Talking Point: Not a lot of sacks and stats—if you’re looking for a positional liability, this is where you’ll start. Can they set the tone against the best of the West?

Northwestern is not a defensive line that, historically, just takes over games. There have been individual high-motor defensive ends—from Corey Wootton to Dean Lowry to Joe Gaziano—who each got or are getting their time in the sunshine of the NFL, but broadly speaking the goal here is “not a liability” and “stop the run”.

Big Ten West as hell, right?

Diving into the line stats at Football Outsiders, you’re not going to see a ton that blows you away. Northwestern did not rack up some huge number of sacks in 2020; their run-stuff numbers were pedestrian.

That’s because the job of the ‘Cats DL is to stay gap-disciplined, using the DEs to set the edge and force the run to the interior, where the discipline of the WILL and MIKE, plus the occasional help from a crashing safety, will hopefully kick in. With space-eaters like Tyler Lancaster in years of old, that job was a lot easier—DT Joe Spivak and DT Trevor Long, plus maybe Old Dominion grad transfer Jeremy Meiser, look to be more rotational pieces who are big bodies but not, as of yet, game-changers. (Spivak is still the best quote in the NU locker room, though.)

Instead, we look to those edge-setters. Samdup Miller returns after opting out of 2020, and really he’s not even the headline here! That’s Adetomiwa Adebawore, a name I vow to learn how to spell without looking—the junior won’t have the support from departed-to-Auburn transfer Eku Leota, but he racked up 6 TFLs and a pair of sacks and drew the love of InsideNU writer Dan Olinger. They get reinforcements from West Virginia transfer Jeffrey Pooler Jr., too, who we’re bullish on for his technical ability, apparently, but...yeah.

On the whole, it’s the same as the rest: Hope that Fitz and Long are able to generate the kind of consistency you need out of a defensive line that, historically, has been average.


Coach: Jeff Genyk (4th season)

Out: No one

Starter: Derek Adams (GR)

Adams has a good leg, generates a lot of fair catches, and is a mid-tier Big Ten punter who just doesn’t quite grab hold of a ball the way a Tory Taylor, Blake Hayes, or Adam Korsak does. That feels unnecessarily harsh, but Adams is...just kind of there, which is fine for a punter, particularly at Northwestern! Flip the field, don’t piss me off.

That’s it. That is 1500 words on Northwestern’s defense. Are you happy?