Football: First line of defense looks for youth to step up

Kevin Trahan

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With just one year of eligibility remaining, Northwestern defensive tackle Brian Arnfelt is sensing his time in Evanston running out.

“It’s all or nothing now,” he said. “It’s Rose Bowl or nothing.”

That will be a tall task for an NU program that graduates its winningest senior class in program history and has gone from 9-4 to 8-5 to 7-6 to 6-7 over Arnfelt’s career. However, he said he thinks the defensive line, which underachieved at times last year, has the talent to carry the Wildcats all the way to Pasadena in the 2012 season.

“I think we’ll be real good,” he said. “We have the talent to be the best defensive line since I’ve been here, and I’ve been here five years and we’ve had some good D-lines. We’ve got the talent to be better than any of those groups. It’s just, are we going to be willing to work on it here in practice and in spring ball?”

Now a veteran like Arnfelt, rising junior defensive end Tyler Scott said NU needs to bring a strong work ethic to spring ball to make up for a down year last year in which the Cats ranked second-to-last in the Big Ten in total defense.

“I think it’s just having that attitude to get after it and doing the techniques right,” Scott said.

Scott said the defense has heard the criticism from outside the program. Coach Pat Fitzgerald said the unit is “pissed” and “tired of listening to people who don’t matter.” However, Scott said the defensive line has not shied away from the critics.

“We’ve taken it as a challenge and really focused on getting back to technique and coming off with great attitude and being able to dominate offensive lines,” he said. “You’ve just got to flush the bad stuff and keep playing. Adversity is going to happen, and it’s how you respond to it that’s going to make you a good player.”

The Cats will be without two players who brought that attitude the last few years with the graduation of Jack DiNardo and Niko Mafuli after last season. Arnfelt said he is looking to fill that void and is trying to get the young players to approach practice like DiNardo and Mafuli did.

“A lot of those younger guys, they don’t know how to bring that attitude toward practice every day, ” he said.

However, those young players have impressed Arnfelt this spring, and though NU will be missing some experience, it certainly has the talent and depth to improve on last year’s performance.

“With (rising senior defensive end Quentin Williams) out for the spring, it’s obviously given (redshirt freshman) Deonte Gibson a lot more reps,” Arnfelt said. “Guys like (rising redshirt sophomore) Sean McEvilly, (rising junior Will) Hampton and (rising redshirt sophomore) Chance Carter, we need them all to play. As we come closer together as a unit I think you’re really going to see all those guys stand out.”

Gibson, in particular, has drawn praise this spring. Fitzgerald has pointed out his strong play numerous times, and Scott echoed his coach and Arnfelt by saying how impressed he has been with the redshirt freshman’s play this spring.

“He came off a knee injury, and he’s really done some great stuff this spring, and I’m really looking forward to what he can do,” Scott said.

Although the defensive line will be talented, it will also be very young, and confidence is key for helping a young defensive line progress. The unit made significant strides in a scrimmage March 31.

“I was ecstatic for the defense,” Fitzgerald said. “It was nice to see the way we were physical. Obviously, we got some really good pass rush which led to (some) interceptions and a couple balls that were tipped and tips equal picks. (I saw) a lot of encouraging things from the defense.”

Arnfelt said he was impressed with the unit’s development during that scrimmage, but stressed the importance of learning from that experience and continuing to improve throughout spring practice and into NU’s spring game Saturday.

“That was definitely our best day from a defensive line standpoint, I think, and then we came out (the following Tuesday) and we really built upon it,” Arnfelt said. “If we’re able to continue this enthusiasm, continue this juice, I think we can get a lot better.”