Football: Defensive line adjusts to life without Dean Lowry, Deonte Gibson


Daily file photo by Jacob Swan

Ifeadi Odenigbo lines up across from the offense. The senior defensive end will be called upon to fill the shoes left by Dean Lowry and Deonte Gibson after tallying four tackles for loss in 2015.

Will Ragatz, Reporter


In 2015, Northwestern’s stout defensive line was a huge part of a defense that ranked in the top 10 nationally in points allowed per game. If the Wildcats’ front line wants to continue that success in 2016, it’ll have to do it without the services of both starting defensive ends from last year’s team.

Graduating seniors Dean Lowry and Deonte Gibson had been bookends on the line for the past two seasons. Lowry, who was second on the team with 13.5 tackles for loss as a senior, will likely be wearing an NFL jersey this fall. Gibson led the Cats in sacks with 9 a season ago, the fourth highest single-season total in NU history.

Attempting to fill their shoes will be senior defensive end Ifeadi Odenigbo and junior Xavier Washington. Behind the two upperclassmen, redshirt freshmen Joe Gaziano and Trent Goens will get the first playing time of their careers. Yet despite losing two veteran pass-rushers, coach Pat Fitzgerald said he isn’t worried about the unit because players leave the program all the time.

“We could never ask anybody to be Deonte Gibson or Dean Lowry, that would be unfair,” Fitzgerald said. “But I expect Xavier and Ifeadi and Joe and Trent to step up as we move forward, to get themselves ready to have the same rotation we had a year ago.”

Much of the spotlight will be on Odenigbo, who will be thrust into a starting role and a position of leadership on the defensive line. Due to NU’s system of rotating defensive line players in waves, Odenigbo has racked up 12.5 sacks in the past three seasons despite not making a single start.

“I’m excited,” Odenigbo said. “I’m pretty old now, it feels like yesterday I came in, and now I’m a fifth-year senior. I never thought I’d be here, but I’m here now, so I’m doing everything I can to step up, be the best player I can be, and impact this defense.”

Opposite of Odenigbo will be Washington, who appeared in every game last season as a backup and also cracked the defensive end rotation as a freshman. However, he has just 5 career tackles for loss and will be asked to take on a lot more responsibility as a junior.

Odenigbo said the experience both he and Washington have gained in their careers will ease their transition to starters. That’s not the case for Gaziano and Goens, who are the current frontrunners to be the first off the bench for the Cats.

“Fortunately for myself and Xavier, we got quite a bit of playing time last season,” Odenigbo said. “Now it’s just about getting the underclassmen exposure to the game, people like Joe and Trent. So even though we’re losing Dean and Deonte, they’re going to come in and step up. They’ve had phenomenal springs, so we’re pretty comfortable in that sense.”

Defensive line coach Marty Long said having to replace stars with players who haven’t reached their full potential yet is just part of the process in college football. His job, he said, is helping their replacements become just as good as the players who came before them.

Lowry recorded just 3 tackles for loss as a freshman, but increased that total every year. Gibson went from having two sacks as a freshman to making the All-Big Ten Third Team as a senior.

We are a developmental program,” Long said. “Deonte and Dean had to be developed, they were good players their junior and senior years and I expect the same thing out of Xavier and Ifeadi. Then we have the two younger guys. We’ve got enough pieces of the puzzle, it’s just about putting in the work to develop them.”

On the interior of the line, NU returns a bevy of experienced and talented defensive tackles. Junior Tyler Lancaster and senior C.J. Robbins were starters last season, but sophomore Jordan Thompson and senior Greg Kuhar will rotate in and potentially compete for starting spots.

Lancaster said the leadership of Lowry and Gibson carried over to the entire defensive line.

“They definitely were leaders last season, but they laid the foundation for us,” Lancaster said. “Sometimes they didn’t even have to say anything because we were all on the same page, and that came over into this spring. Everyone in the D-line group, we have to have the same mentality: going all out.”

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