Football Preview: Defense looks to bounce back after forgettable 2021 season


Daily file photo by Carly Schulman

The Northwestern defense huddles during a timeout against Illinois. The defensive squad gave up 47 points that game, its second-most all season.

Lawrence Price, Assistant Gameday Editor

Forget about it and move on. That is the only way Northwestern, or at least the defense, should think about the 2021 season. 

In an electric, yet odd, 2020 season due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the Wildcats thrived on the defensive side. A group that featured one of the best linebacking corps, the “Irish Law Firm,” and talented playmakers like 2021 first-round draft pick Greg Newsome II, multiple standout players and the overall defense received national attention.

Fast forwarding to this past season, the group looked like COVID-19 — troublesome and draining. Alongside the retirement of defensive coordinator Mike Hankwitz, the defense lost starters on every level, from the defensive line to the secondary, leading to a lack of cohesion and consistency.

On top of allowing the most rushing yards and third-most points scored against in the Big Ten, NU gave up 30 or more points in eight of 12 contests.

However, with the door to last year’s season closed and this season’s beginning to open, the Cats have been given a clean slate of opportunity. With both losses and additions to the defense, each position group looks different.


Adebawore leads charge with new (and hopefully improved) defensive line

When it comes to the run game, a defense’s ability to stop such a pivotal key to the offense lives and dies by the defensive line. That said, the group’s lackluster performances last season were exposed not only through the rushing yards allowed, but also through sacks, which were the second least in the conference. Only three players secured more than three: senior Adetomiwa Adebawore (4.5), Jeremy Meiser (4.0) and Jeffery Pooler Jr. (3.5).

Yet with Meiser and Pooler Jr. moving on to the professional level and starters like Samdup Miller, Joe Spivak and Trevor Kent gone as well, after Adebawore the list of solidified head-turners ceases. 

Even with these losses, though, the Cats were able to fill some of these holes through the transfer portal. This includes graduate student Ryan Johnson (Stanford), graduate student Jaylen Pate (Wyoming), redshirt senior Henrik Barndt (Indiana State) and senior Taishan Holmes (UMass) — all players who consistently saw the field last season. 

The Cats will add some returning linemen into the mix, like senior Devin O’Rourke and junior Sean McLaughlin. But with a few new players in the purple and white, a team captain and a 2021 All-Big Ten Honorable Mention in Adebawore at the forefront, defensive coordinator Jim O’Neil does have a lot to scheme with and use.

MVP:  Adebawore

Big Season Approaching?: Johnson


Irish Law Firm is officially closed … or is it?

With the departure of the last member from the Irish Law Firm in Chris Bergin, the group’s run has seemingly ended. However, with junior linebacker and team captain Bryce Gallagher, the younger brother of Blake Gallagher — an original member of the Firm — the business may be able to stay alive. 

Bergin’s attentiveness, leadership, firepower and quickness won’t be easy to recreate. And outside of Gallagher, who fills a similar role to Bergin, the group lacks playing experience. Senior Khalid Jones, who appeared in the first four contests last season, had his junior year cut short due to a season-ending injury, and although junior Xander Mueller appeared in 11 of the team’s 12 matches, he didn’t start any of them.

NU was able to lend Gallagher some help, though, with the addition of redshirt junior and Pittsburgh transfer Wendell Davis Jr., who picked up 27 tackles last season.

The post-Bergin era will be rough for the linebacker group and the defense overall, but with Gallagher consistently showing flashes of upside last year and recently being named a team captain, it’s clear whom O’Neil and Fitzgerald are giving the keys to. If Davis Jr. can bring the necessary experience and a combination of Jones, Mueller and sophomore Mac Uihlein adds some consistency to the mix, the group might not be in for a bruising.

MVP: Bryce Gallagher

Big Season Approaching?: Davis Jr./Mueller


A Brandon Joseph-less secondary readies to bounce back

Jan. 8 was a tough day for NU, especially for the Sky Room. Team captain, interceptions leader and safety Brandon Joseph announced his move from Evanston to South Bend, Indiana, transferring to Notre Dame. Overall, NU lost two of its best defensive playmakers over the offseason in Bergin at linebacker and Joseph in the secondary. 

However, even with these key losses and cons, the show went on with a major pro — outside of Joseph and senior Bryce Jackson, the defensive back group returned every starter who played down the stretch of the season. This includes senior defensive back A.J. Hampton Jr., junior safety Coco Azema and junior defensive backs Cameron Mitchell and Rod Heard II.

With the losses of Newsome II and JR Pace after the 2020 season, those four players saw their playing time skyrocket, with each appearing in every contest last season save Azema, who missed one game. Not to mention, Mitchell started every contest, defending each opponent’s No. 1 wideout.

All that said, the group screams experience. The Cats were also able to add Duke redshirt senior Jeremiah Lewis to the mix, giving the squad another veteran to add some maturity to the group.

The jury is still out on who’s going to become Azema’s new dynamic duo partner at safety, which could be one of the experienced defensive backs or junior safety Jaheem Joseph. Yet, with a core group of players that has much more experience under its belt now, the secondary can fill the void Joseph and the group collectively left last season. 

MVP: Mitchell

Big Season Approaching?: Azema


Related Stories:

Football Notebook: Gallagher embraces crucial role on defense, Fitzgerald declines to reveal a starting quarterback

Football Notebook: Niro honored with No. 1 uniform, Hilinski discusses changes

Football Notebook: Fitzgerald names Northwestern’s five captains ahead of season opener

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