Northwestern’s defense has to adapt to last-minute losses

Northwestern's defense must manage the opt-outs of Samdup Miller and Travis Whillock when it takes on Maryland Saturday.

By Brea Lassek

Coming into the 2020 season, defense seemed to be the least of Pat Fitzgerald’s problems, returning several starters from a unit ranked 25th nationally in total defense last season. Now, recently announced opt-outs of safety Travis Whillock and defensive end Samdup Miller add another challenge for a Northwestern team coming off a lackluster 3-9 campaign.

Miller recorded 29 tackles in 2019 and was expected to help replace current Los Angeles Charger and NU all-time sack leader Joe Gaziano on the defensive line. The Wildcats’ pass rush struggled last season, and it remains an area of concern. Gaziano accounted for 9 of the team’s 24 sacks, and now graduated Alex Miller contributed another four. Without Samdup Miller, senior Ernest Brown IV will have to assume even more responsibility in restoring the defensive line. Brown’s first start will be defined by his ability to exploit Maryland’s inconsistency in the trenches.

Whillock recorded 78 total tackles, 3 tackles for loss and 1 sack in 2019. Redshirt first-year Brandon Joseph will make his first start at safety, joining senior JR Pace, who described Joseph as an “exciting playmaker.”

Defensive coordinator Mike Hankwitz may need to make another last-minute change in the backfield. Junior Greg Newsome II is rumored to have an injury that will keep him out of tonight’s contest, as reported Tuesday by NNN’s SportsNight, although he still appears on the official depth chart. Newsome had 36 tackles and 11 pass breakups in 2019, the second most in the Big Ten. His absence could be problematic in defending Maryland’s deep group of wide receivers, including five-star 2020 signee Rakim Jarrett.

To compensate for unexpected readjustments, the Wildcat defense will look to seniors Paddy Fisher, Blake Gallagher and Chris Bergin for leadership. The trio of veteran linebackers is one of the most experienced position groups in the Big Ten.

Fisher, Gallagher and Bergin finished last season as the team’s three leading tacklers respectively. Fisher was one of two linebackers selected onto the preseason All-Big Ten team.

The unit will be key in the defense’s adjustment to whoever is under Maryland’s center. Redshirt first-year Lance LeGendre and Alabama transfer Taulia Tagovailoa engaged in a tight battle throughout the offseason, and although head coach Mike Locksley has chosen his quarterback, his decision will be kept secret until the first snap. With little film on either athlete, Hankwitz focused the defense’s preparation internally.

“The key is we have to be fundamentally sound and be able to execute our defense and not shoot ourselves in the foot and make mistakes,” Hankwitz said.

Although faced with setbacks, the Wildcat defense is ranked sixth nationally in S&P+, a predictive rating of adjusted scoring average. Hankwitz pointed to three sophomores who made significant strides during camp — defensive linemen Adetomiwa Adebawore, Eku Leota and Jason Gold Jr. If they can limit missed tackles and break down Maryland’s offensive line, the defense will play a key role in giving Fitzgerald his 100th win.