Position Preview: Defensive Line

Northwestern's defensive line needs to rebuild after the loss of two big pieces this offseason.

By John Volk

For the first time since 2015, Northwestern’s defensive line will be without Joe Gaziano in 2020. Over the last four seasons, Gaziano terrorized Big Ten backfields, recording a program-record 30 sacks. He also ended his tenure at Northwestern tied for the most career forced fumbles (10) and second in career tackles for loss (48.5). Unsurprisingly, he only missed one game after redshirting his first year.

Now that Gaziano plays for the Los Angeles Chargers, Head Coach Pat Fitzgerald faces the impossible task of replacing a legend. Northwestern also loses the production of defensive lineman Alex Miller, whose 4 sacks were second to Gaziano’s 9 in 2019. 

As a unit, however, Northwestern’s defensive line lagged in 2019. Its 24 total sacks ranked 10th in the Big Ten and its 69 tackles for loss ranked 11th. With Gaziano and Miller gone, here’s what to expect from the defensive line in 2020:

Players to Watch

Sophomore Eku Leota will most likely be the leader of the line next season. He recorded 2.5 sacks and 4.5 tackles for loss last season and should now see the playing time to become Northwestern’s best pass rusher.

He has good burst off the line and has the ability to beat the offensive tackle around the edge. Watch his forced fumble against Purdue last year. Leota keeps his 6-foot-4-inch frame low while using his speed to turn the corner on Purdue’s tackle. In a last second display of explosiveness, he launches himself to strip the ball from the quarterback.

Eku Leota (#53) bursts off the line to force a fumble on Purdue quarterback Aidan O’Connell last season. (Credit: Big Ten Network)

Leota should continue to grow with an expanded role in 2020 and his production should grow with it.

My second player to watch is senior Earnest Brown IV. Brown only played in six games due to injury last year, but still managed 2 sacks and 2.5 tackles for loss. In 2018, he put up 4 sacks, 7.5 tackles for loss and 22 total tackles. Brown won’t be wrecking any opposing game plans, but if he stays healthy he could generate steady production in 2020.

The Veterans

Northwestern will bring back a host of reliable seniors on the defensive line in 2020, namely Samdup Miller, Jake Saunders and Joe Spivak. 

Miller finished 2019 with the third most tackles among Northwesten lineman, behind Gaziano and Alex Miller, despite only playing in eight games. Saunders took on a larger role in 2019 after playing in only three games total in his first two seasons. He recorded 15 tackles last year, including a sack and 2 tackles for loss and figures to play mainly as an interior run stuffer. Spivak has not put up big numbers during his Northwestern career, but he’s consistently made his way onto the field the last two years and should contribute in run defense, measuring 6 feet and 290 pounds. 

Also look for sophomores Jason Gold jr. and Adetomiwa Adebawore to take steps forward in 2020. The pair combined for 14 tackles, 3 tackles for loss and a sack in 2019.

The X-Factors

Maybe the most promising sign for the D-line is the group of four three-star recruits in this year’s recruiting class, according to 247 Sports. Chief among them is defensive tackle Jordan Butler who chose Northwestern over offers from schools like Notre Dame, Oregon and USC. Butler seems to be fully grown already, measuring at 6-foot-2-inches and 310 pounds, and he could make an immediate impact for the Wildcats.

The class of defensive lineman is rounded out by Sean McLaughlin, converted OG Te-Rah Edwards and Jaiden Cameron. McLaughlin and Cameron could contribute off the edge, but both probably need to add some weight before they become major players for Northwestern. Edwards is now the biggest lineman on the team at 315 pounds and could see time in run defense. 

Unfortunately, with the arrival of offensive coordinatore Mike Bakakian bringing the death of the superback, we most likely won’t be seeing another Trent Goens in 2020.

The Bottom Line

The holes left by Joe Gaziano and Alex Miller are big ones to fill. The defensive line most likely will not be the strength of Northwestern’s defense in 2020, but with plenty of veteran leadership and promising young players like Leota and Butler, the success of the D-line this season should be measured by how those players grow. They could be deadly down the road.