Better or worse? Previewing Northwestern's defense in 2022
As the Northwestern offense struggled in 2021, it left the defense vulnerable. Because the NU offense had issues sustaining drives, it kept the 11 guys on defense on the field for too long at times. And as a result, it allowed opposing offenses to gain large amounts of yards, move the ball at will, and most importantly, score points. This despite the multitude of talent that the Wildcats had on this unit last season. It certainly put defensive coordinator Jim O’Neil in rough spot.
Not helping matters were the injuries that popped up. When all was said and done, the “Cardiac Cats” were the Big Ten’s second-worst team in terms of total defense (429.5 ypg), the worst team as far as run defense was concerned (213.0 ypg) and third-worst in points allowed (29.0 ppg). Their best defensive ranking was vs. the pass: 8th (216.5 ypg). They were second-to-last in both sacks (19) and interceptions (6).
This team could only go up from here, right? Well, not necessarily considering the Cats lost leading tackler Chris Bergin (in Chicago Bears camp as an undrafted free agent) and All-America safety Brandon Joseph (transfer to Notre Dame).
Pressuring the QB: Worse
The Wildcats return only 4 players who registered sacks last year: DEs Adetomiwa Adebawore (led team with 4.5 sacks) and Sean McLaughlin (1.5), and LBs Bryce Gallagher (1) and Xander Mueller (0.5). That’s only 7.5 sacks coming back.
And when you consider that the Cats’ will play 6 of the Big Ten’s top 8 offenses (based on total offense) from last year (Ohio State, Nebraska, Maryland, Purdue, Penn State, Wisconsin), a consistent pass rush is crucial. In order to make that a reality, this team will need to see more production from players such as defensive tackles Jason Gold Jr. (13 career tackles, 0 sacks) and Jordan Butler (hasn’t registered a tackle since 2020), as well as defensive end Devin O’Rourke (4 tackles last year). I’m also hoping to see more blitz opportunities for Gallagher and Mueller.
Two players who may also assist in this endeavor are a pair of new recruits: edge rusher Anto Saka and defensive lineman Brendan Flakes. Saka — a 4-star recruit — registered 46 tackles, 15 tackles for loss and 9 sacks during his senior year at Loyola-Blakefield High School in Maryland. Flakes is a 3-star player out of Florida who recorded 68 tackles, 25 TFLs and 13.5 sacks during his final year of high school.
Northwestern also brought in 3 senior transfer DLs, so there are options.
Run defense: Worse
In addition to the players mentioned above, the Wildcats also bring back linebackers Khalid Jones and Greyson Metz, along with defensive backs Coco Azema, AJ Hampton Jr., Cameron Mitchell, Rod Heard, Garnett Hollis Jr., Jaheem Joseph, Tyler Haskins and Ore Adeyi. When you put all of these players together, NU returns 373 of last year’s 821 total tackles, and 26 of last year’s 46 tackles for loss. The experience is there, and the talent is there. But …
The Cats’ will take on 5 of the top 7 rushing offenses in the Big Ten from last year (Illinois, Ohio State, Nebraska, Minnesota and Wisconsin). They’ll need to add more to those numbers (especially in the TFL department), and Pat Fitzgerald’s team will especially need to improve on last year’s average of giving up 5.3 yards per carry (worst in the conference). And they’ll need to do it without 5-year veteran Bergin, whose 141 tackles ranked 2nd in the country last year.
Pass defense: Worse
Those returning members of the Wildcats secondary combined for 23 of NU’s 34 pass deflections in 2021, with Hampton leading the Big Ten with 12. The other 11 came from the aforementioned Adebawore (3), DB Brandon Joseph (4), linebacker Bergin (1) and defensive linemen Jeremy Meiser and Sam Miller (combined for 3). The 4 latter players are no longer with the team. Bergin and Joseph, along with DB Bryce Jackson and linebacker Troy Hudetz (who also are gone from the program) were the ones who snagged those 6 picks in 2021.
The losses of Bergin and Joseph are major ones for this program, and probably can’t be made up even with the long list of returning players. Joseph had 9 of the team’s 20 interceptions over the past 2 seasons — a stretch in which no one else had more than 1.
Special teams: Worse
Gone are Derek Adams and his average of 41.9 yards per punt and 21 games of experience with the Wildcats. He also played in 41 games at Kent State prior transferring, so NU is losing a highly experience punter.
He did everything within his power to put NU’s defense in a position to be successful, and his departure definitely sets this team back.
Junior Hunter Renner, transfer Luke Akers or sophomore Jacob Tabibian will take over. Neither of the returnees has appeared in a meaningful college game, but they’ve been practicing with the team all this time so they’re familiar with the system. And Akers is the son of NFL All-Pro David Akers and is listed as a kicker and punter, so there’s that.
While some new players will be inserted at some positions, the Wildcats bring back vital experience at others. The challenge that this team will undertake for the upcoming season is to mold the inexperienced players into productive ones, while also improving their numbers from last season. Northwestern will be a middle of the pack defense at best this year. It’d be a major surprise if they can make up for the lost star power of Bergin, Joseph and others.
Fitzgerald did bring in 3 front-7 defensive players via the portal — 2 DLs and an LB — all from Power 5 programs. And it is an even-numbered year, which tends to bode well for the Cats for some reason. So maybe there’s a chance this outlook is too dire. We’ll find out in a couple months.