First line of defense is a strong one

Nick Halpern

Last season running backs weren’t rushing for 250 yards in thefirst half (Penn State’s Larry Johnson), and they weren’t playingrock, paper, scissors on the sideline to see who would tear throughthe defense next (Purdue’s Brandon Jones and Joey Harris).Opponents weren’t scoring 41 points per game against theNorthwestern defense, as they did in 2002.

The 2003 NU defense allowed 16 fewer points per game than theyear before. But the Wildcats defense was only stingier than twoteams in the Big Ten.

“Going into (2002) we were young — all first and second yearstarters — and everyone thought we’d be terrible,” senior LuisCastillo said. “We went through some growing pains.”

For the second year in a row, the defense looks to be on theupswing. The inexperience that plagued NU for two seasons is athing of the past, with five seniors and four juniors among theeleven projected defensive starters.

NU graduated only two senior starters, linebacker Pat Durr andsafety Torri Stuckey.

The defensive subplot of spring practice was the battle toreplace Durr at middle linebacker. Sophomores Erryn Cobb, AdamKadela, and Demetrius Eaton vyed for the starting nod betweensenior John Pickens and junior Tim McGarigle, NU’s leading tacklerlast season.

“It’s a great competition,” John Pickens said. “All three arecapable of doing well at that position.”

As the only senior starter in the front seven, Durr served asthe leader of the defense. The linebackers coach, Pat Fitzgerald,isn’t concerned about inserting an inexperienced player in Durr’splace.

“I know somebody will step up,” Fitzgerald said. “We have somegreat leaders on our defense. We’re going to surround (the middlelinebacker) with players who are experienced, so it’s not likewe’re going to be playing three first-time starters.”

Castillo is one of four returning starters to a defensive linewith a long memory. All four cut their teeth as part of the porous2002 unit that yielded 314 rushing yards per game.

The grizzled front four now look to anchor the defense. Big Tenschools traditionally feature a run-heavy attack, which makes goodplay from the front seven especially critical to a defense.

The front will see a small change next season. Colby Clark,previously a tackle, will move to end and Barry Cofield will movedown the line to tackle.

“Our big focus the last couple of years has been to stop therun,” Castillo said. “We haven’t been able to do that the lastcouple years. If (the defensive line) can do its job and thelinebackers can fill it up we can stop any team in thecountry.”

Loren Howard burst onto the scene last year and became the Catsleading playmaker up front, leading the team with 16 tackles for aloss. He injured his ankle in the Motor City Bowl and didn’tpractice with the team this spring, but he should be healthy intime for the season.

While unit’s the starters remain the same as last year, thedefensive line welcomes a new coach, Eric Washington.

“He’s a very different coach than our old coach was,” Castillosaid. “But he knows his stuff perfectly, so he’ll do a goodjob.”

The biggest question mark for the defense heading into 2004 isthe secondary. Last season, the Cats’ defensive backfield was apicture of unreliability as it was occasionally respectable but toooften shredded by opposing quarterbacks.

Safeties Torri Stuckey and Louis Ayeni graduated, but the Catsstill have plenty of experience in the secondary.

The three top cornerbacks, Jeff Backes, Marvin Ward and MarquiceCole return in addition to safeties Bryan Heinz and seniorDominique Price, the unit’s leader.

“Having some of those seniors on the field you aren’t going tohave to worry about (inconsistency) because you know it’s your lastgo-around,” Price said. “We feel like we have the experience andthe talent on defense that no one can beat us but ourselves.”

After making strides last season, NU’s defense looks poised toshed its reputation as one of the weakest units in the Big Ten.

“We have nice experience and depth all over the place,” headcoach Randy Walker said. “We need to take the next step as adefense.”