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2023 Northwestern Football Preview: The Defense

Jim O’Neil’s gone. It can’t get any worse, right?

NCAA Football: Northwestern at Minnesota Matt Krohn-USA TODAY Sports

“Turn it in,” I tell my students. “I can give you some credit for things I have; I can’t give you anything if you don’t.”

Welcome to the Sunday Edition of Northwestern Week:

The Defense

Who’s in charge?

Not Jim O’Neil, that’s for damn sure.

The former NFL defensive coordinator and, more importantly, buddy of Pat Fitzgerald couldn’t make it work in Evanston, as the defense backslid to 103rd in Football Outsiders’ FEI in 2021 and 55th in 2022.

Sure, that was upward progress, but when that same defense had been ranked 1st in 2020, 29th in 2019 (in a 3-9 campaign!), 23rd in 2018, 19th in 2017, and 23rd in 2016...well, it’s noticeable.

Central to that collapse was the decay of Northwestern’s once-great linebacking corps and the erosion of the front seven as a result. In 2019 Northwestern ranked 30th in line yards and 14th in standard down adjusted yards; those same numbers were 47th and 33rd in 2020, then collapsed to 118th and 124th in 2021. In 2022, they were 105th and 95th.

Here’s what that most often looked like:

Defensive linemen attempting a move or stunt that got little push, one linebacker running aimlessly right into a lineman and being easily moved out of the way, the other overcommitting and getting fooled by a rudimentary cutback. Didn’t matter if Adetomiwa Adebawore was an NFL Draft-worthy talent; that front seven was awful under O’Neil.

If only we could’ve seen this coming.

One of the things that made Mike Hankwitz’s linebacking groups as good as they were was the ability of field generals like Anthony Walker or Paddy Fisher to sit back, read the play, and then react. O’Neil offered none of that.

So instead?

Wait, shit, wrong graphic.

A Chicagoan who played his football at D-II Winona State in Minnesota, Braun has climbed rapidly through the ranks, coaching at Winona State, Culver-Stockton, UC Davis, Northern Iowa, and eventually North Dakota State, where he helped the Bizon win a pair of national titles. In 2022, though, the Bizon slumped, with their rushing defense falling to the middle of the pack in the FCS, exposed twice by South Dakota State, including in the national title game. The Bizon were 75th in third-down defense.

That’s not to say it’s all bad or even that this is a bad hire! Braun’s reputation includes being someone who can recruit and lead a strong secondary. He’s young, clearly ambitious, and could do good things at NU.

Who’s he got to work with?


Same linebacking crew, which isn’t ideal unless they take a number of leaps forward—Bryce Gallagher and Xander Mueller in particular just looked too slow for Big Ten football. They’re joined by RS sophomore Theran Johnson. Who’s to say how this will go.

The secondary is a position of strength yet again—Duke transfer safety Jeremiah Lewis is back for a graduate season on the back of a strong 2022, joined by free safety Coco Azema, and Rod Heard in particular is a good cornerback.

The question marks, once again, are up front—longtime DL coach Marty Long got the sack at the end of 2022, but the cupboard is still pretty bare. Sean McLaughlin should be pretty good at the RDE position, and he’ll be pushed by 6’5” edge rusher and former Southern Illinois Saluki, Richie Hagarty. Northwestern went out and got more depth in the transfer pool, too, with Fresno State DT Matthew Lawson joining the fray, but there’s little there to inspire confidence.

So...will it work?

There’s no time like the present to get this figured out—in a division with the Air Raid wisconsin, new-look Purdue, Matt Rhule-era Nebraska, and Iowa definitely going to average 25 points a game this spring, Northwestern can certainly reinvent itself and catch a couple of squads napping.

Will it?

Stay tuned for later today.