What was normally a hallmark of Pat Fitzgerald-led teams took a step back last season. In their first year with Jim O’Neil replacing retired legendary defensive coordinator Mike Hankowitz, the Wildcats young defense hemorrhaged yards and points.
“I wouldn’t say [the new coordinator] was part of the issue. We’re at Northwestern, a lot of smart guys. We just got to get that fight back,” redshirt junior Cam Mitchell said of last year’s struggles.
Coach Fitzgerald attributed some of these shortfalls to lackluster fundamentals and needing to get stronger. The team says they lacked the fire to win. Whatever the true issue was, these guys are going to have to fix it.
The graduations of leading tackler Chris Bergin and Peter McIntyre leaves redshirt junior Bryce Gallagher captaining the middle of the field. He has big shoes to fill, as Bergin was the nation’s third-leading tackler. The good news is that Gallagher was second on the team in tackles last year with 90. The bad news? Of the other returning linebackers, junior Xander Mueller was the next closest at 19.
There are concerns about the depth with this group, despite any raw athletic talent they may have. Coach Fitzgerald is sure to keep his linebacking corps in as good of shape as possible, and he brought in experience with redshirt junior Wendell Davis Jr., a transfer from The University of Pittsburgh. Davis recorded 22 tackles and one sack last season for the eventual ACC champions. Mueller, redshirt senior Khalid Jones, junior Graham Mertz, and redshirt freshman Mac Uhlein will also be crucial in this rotation.
Senior Adetomiwa Adebawore was the Wildcats’ leader in sacks with 4.5. Unfortunately, the All-Big Ten Honorable Mention defensive end’s play is about the only good thing to say about last year’s line as they struggled to pressure, let alone sack, the quarterback.
Grad student Ryan Johnson of Stanford and senior Taishan Holmes of UMass-Amherst were both brought in as transfers to shore up the run defense that allowed 213 yards per game and 31 total touchdowns– no other team allowed more than 162 yards or 24 scores. Johnson finished his Stanford career with 23 tackles in 32 games while Holmes 18 total tackles and half of a sack at nose tackle. Additionally, four star recruit Anto Saka is hoping to bolster the line and be Adebawore’s partner in crime.
The transfer of redshirt junior Brandon Joseph to Notre Dame is a huge blow to a Northwestern defense already in need of playmakers. Junior Jaheem Joseph will be replacing him. He joins Cam Mitchell and senior AJ Hampton Jr. in holding down the backend in the absence of Joseph.
Mitchell in particular is poised for a breakout season. He is a dark horse candidate to be one of the best defensive backs in the Big Ten. His six passes defended were more than Brandon Joseph’s four, and he both forced and recovered a fumble.
The secondary remains solid even with the loss of Joseph. All the Wildcats have to do now is stop the run and channel their 2018 and 2020 selves.
“We just have to get that relentless mindset back. I think we got very comfortable last year, coming off a great year. And you know when your comfortable, you kind of don’t remember those little details,” stated Adebawore of the team’s approach to the season.
They’re not so young and inexperienced anymore, and even-numbered years tend to bode well for Northwestern. We’ll see if this year the defense bounces back to its usual form.