Northwestern linebacker Chris Bergin jumps for joy after a key stop against Wisconsin. While Bergin may be the only remaining starting linebacker from the 2020 squad, 'Cats fans have plenty to be excited for defensively. Photo courtesy of Northwestern Athletics

There’s an old saying in sports: “offense sells tickets, defense wins championships.” The quote, in essence, means that while fans will always appreciate flashy displays of skill and power with the ball, games will always be won on the backs of true gritty play: the defense stopping their opponents in their tracks.

Northwestern football is the perfect embodiment of this phrase, as their defense has buoyed them to strong performances in multiple seasons. In 2020 alone, the ’Cats finished sixth in the nation in red zone defense, eighth in 3rd down conversion defense, fifth in scoring defense, and 22nd overall in total defense. The defensive clinic is on full display in Evanston, and it’s no doubt that it helps them win close games down the stretch.

For the ’Cats, however, that may soon come to an end. The team lost longtime defensive coordinator Mike Hankwitz following his retirement last season, in addition to several stalwarts on the team, including cornerback Greg Newsome II and senior linebackers Paddy Fisher and Blake Gallagher. The team has lost their captain and their crew, and the treasure is far beyond the horizon.

Now with a new defensive coordinator and a few returning pieces from last year’s run, all eyes are on the defense to see if they can return to form. Will Northwestern be able to overcome the odds and boost themselves back into the Big Ten Championship? Only one way to find out.

The General

When Hankwitz retired on New Year’s Day in 2021, he left a huge hole almost impossible to fill. With 400 wins on his record, fantastic highlights over the years, and constant love and support from his players, Hankwitz was one of the most important figures to ever walk the sidelines in Evanston, and he will surely be missed.

Of course, there are still games to be played and a defense to be led. As a result, Jim O’Neil was announced as the new defensive coordinator in January and quickly began working around the players left following the exodus.

O’Neil came to the Wildcats with plenty of experience in the highest area of skill: the National Football League. His skill was renowned during his time with the Cleveland Browns and Oakland Raiders, where he was known well for his pass defense ability. In 2014 with Cleveland, he coordinated the ninth-best defense in the league and mentored safeties Donte Whilmer and Tashaun Gipson, as well as cornerback Joe Haden, to the Pro Bowl.

As a result, ’Cats fans may expect less of the grit-and-grind they’re expected from the front seven, instead watching for a preventive spread and ability to knock down some of the top offenses in the Big Ten. But who’ll lead that charge?

Safety Patrol

Have we used this photo before? Yes. Is there a better representation for All-American safety Brandon Joseph's skill? No. Photo courtesy of Northwestern Athletics

The star of the show this year will be sophomore safety Brandon Joseph, who was named Big Ten Newcomer of the Year in 2020, as well as All-Big Ten First Team and All-America First Team. Simply put, the guy is good. Joseph has an insane ability to make plays on the ball and come down with the takeaway for the ’Cats, and will likely be assigned to create a splash on some of the top players in the conference.

Defending the receivers themselves will be sophomore standouts Cam Mitchell, Rod Heard II and junior AJ Hampton Jr. Mitchell saw significant playing time in 2020, making nine tackles and snatching an interception in the Big Ten Championship, and Hampton was one of the best pass defenders on the team in 2020, making 16 tackles and recording an interception while playing all nine games.

AJ Hampton prepares for the tackle. Hampton, a hard-hitting corner, will have to step up following the departure of Greg Newsome. Photo courtesy of Northwestern Athletics

While the ’Cats continue to bolster their ranks, they will still look to fill the hole left by perennial standout – and 2021 NFL First Draft Pick – Greg Newsome II. Not much is known on Heard II, but according to Fitzgerald, either Heard or Hampton could start for the ’Cats on Friday, implying that Heard had a very good training camp and made an impact on the team overall. In short, the team has experience and flash at pass defense – their new coordinator’s specialty. But what about the men up front?

On the Line

Northwestern lines up for a defensive stop against Iowa. The 'Cats, known well for their hard-hitting front seven, may seem depleted at first, but have plenty of veteran leadership up front. Photo by Brandi Simpson / North by Northwestern

Many games can be defined by a number of inches, and no team knows this better than the Wildcats. Fans shouldn’t worry about a lack of experience there, however, as the defensive line is one of the most experienced corps on the team, let alone in the Big Ten.

Leading the charge are two graduate stars: defensive end Samdup Miller, and defensive tackle Joe Spivak. Miller is making his long-awaited return to the Wildcats after opting out in 2020, greatly boosting the team’s morale and skill at the position. He started all 14 games during the Wildcats’ Big Ten Championship run in 2018, and recorded 53 tackles that year. Miller will try to provide a terrifying presence on the end, something unseen since the loss of Joe Gaziano in 2019.

While Spivak does not necessarily have the stats to put himself into a starting slot – he only recorded 14 tackles in 2020 – what he brings to the ’Cats isn’t seen on the stat sheet. Spivak was voted both team captain and given the “number one” jersey as the person who embodies the team best. Leading the team up front will be critical after so many departures, and having Spivak to lead the charge into battle will boost both confidence and skill on the line.

Behind them all will be Chris Bergin, linebacker extraordinaire. Following a 2020 campaign that saw him record 78 tackles over just nine games, Bergin will attempt to help recreate a core that saw two of its best players leave in graduation: Blake Gallagher and Paddy Fisher. Bergin was the unsung hero of that group, doing the dirty work and setting up the plays for others, so now he’ll likely try to set up new players in the new roles.

Filling those holes will be a rotation of experienced players, including graduate Peter McIntyre, who’s played sparingly over his three seasons with the team; junior Khalid Jones, who was a four-star recruit in high school and was noted as a top linebacker recruit; and Bryce Gallagher, the younger brother of Blake.

So what’s the final verdict?

The Final Verdict:

All eyes are on Northwestern right now. Photo courtesy of Northwestern Athletics

Northwestern's defense may have experienced a few losses during the offseason, but it’s certainly not going to drop its abilities out of nowhere. The pass-defending crew will be able to make plays on the ball and shut down deep scoring threats, while the few up front will have some new adjustments to make. The work of veteran leadership – with players like Bergin and Spivak having incredibly large impacts – and returning players like Miller will boost the ’Cats into competitive play in several games.

After all, the ’Cats still have a championship to win.