Northwestern University and Evanston's Only Daily News Source Since 1881

The Daily Northwestern

Northwestern University and Evanston's Only Daily News Source Since 1881

The Daily Northwestern

Northwestern University and Evanston's Only Daily News Source Since 1881

The Daily Northwestern

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Hankwitz’s new exit on I-94

Entering the 2008 season fully healthy for the first time in his collegiate career, safety Brendan Smith has lofty goals that he is approaching with a light-hearted attitude.

Smith has been walking around practice with a new look: the handlebar mustache.

“I feel I can bring some experience and I try to be more vocal and bring some energy,” Smith said. “It’s a serious game, but you have to be loose. The handlebar is definitely part of it. I don’t think I look good with it but I want to have some fun.”

But the junior has a serious side to his motivation as well.

“I want to lead the country in interceptions,” Smith said. “I’ll put pressure on the defensive backs to make plays because I’m going to try to.”

Smith’s return from a shoulder injury last year means this year’s defense, though inexperienced in the linebacker corps, is looking to rebound from a year in which it gave up 31 points per game, including four games of more than 40 points.

Leading that unit is first-year defensive coordinator Mike Hankwitz,

was fired by Wisconsin who coach Bret Bielema after two seasons.

Hankwitz led a Badgers defense ranked No. 2 in the nation. In 2006, his unit allowed just 12.1 points per game and was fifth in the nation in total yards.

Though he has only been through a few weeks of practice, Hankwitz said he is optimistic about the team’s future.

“I like what I’ve seen so far,” Hankwitz said. “I believe in what I’ve seen and we can be better than we were last year. We need to build a mentality that we need to improve everyday until the start of next season.”

He stressed improving the team’s fundamentals, and his connection to the Big Ten will likely help with his adjustment to NU. Under Hankwitz’s coaching, the Badgers posted a 12-4 record in the Big Ten and made trips to the Capital One Bowl in 2007 and Outback Bowl in 2008.

“You don’t feel like you are coming in cold,” Hankwitz said. “But the Big Ten is always changing.”

With NU missing bowl games the past two seasons, Hankwitz’s goal is to bring the Cats to those heights, especially with an experienced front line. Hankwitz and coach Pat Fitzgerald said senior John Gill and junior Corey Wootton entered spring practice playing the best football of their careers.

While the team finished 10th in the Big Ten with 18 total sacks, Fitzgerald is optimistic the increased pass rush he’s seeing this spring will lead to more sacks this season.

“Would I like more sacks?” Fitzgerald said. “Yeah, obviously, but I like pressure too. And pressure and hits are just as good as sacks.”

Gill led the Cats with 8.5 tackles for loss and was second with 4.0 sacks, while Wootton was right behind Gill with 7.5 tackles for a loss.

Wootton only recorded one sack last season, but is confident in Hankwitz’s changes in the defensive philosophy.

“We’ve been putting together some more pass rushing stuff and blitzes,” Wootton said. “We are attacking and getting into the backfield more, and I think we will benefit because of it.”

The Cats gave up 167 rushing yards per game, finishing 10th in the Big Ten, ahead of a Minnesota team that went winless in conference play. With 2007 starters Adam Hahn and Kevin Mims out due to injury, Wootton and Gill must step up their leadership roles in creating a more potent run defense.

“We just try to assist the coaches in any way to show them what it’s like in a real game,” he said. “Having some experience, we can show them what to expect and get them ready in any way possible.”

The biggest challenge NU will face when it hosts Syracuse on August 30 is finding a new face in the middle of its defense.

Linebacker Adam Kadela left the Cats at the top of his game, finishing third in the Big Ten with 125 tackles. The only returning starter from the linebackers’ corps is senior Prince Kwateng, who recorded 45 tackles in 11 games.

Kwateng will be likely be joined by fellow seniors Mike Dinard and Malcolm Arrington. Arrington made four starts at outside linebacker last season, and Fitzgerald said he is playing the best football of his career.

“He’s always been a physical football player,” Fitzgerald said. “But a change in terminology and coordinators has forced him to study and he’s really done a good job.”

As the defense starts to click, the biggest goal is to limit “explosion plays” of 20 or more yards, which Smith said hurt the team the most last year. Stopping those plays will be crucial in the Cats’ defense rebounding from last season.

“Once we let those deep balls happen, then all of a sudden they are in scoring position,” Smith said. “But if we do our job first, we can limit the explosion plays, and we are going to be a great defense.”

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Hankwitz’s new exit on I-94