Football: Double repping and rotational system: How Northwestern’s surprise success started in the trenches

Graduate student defensive lineman Jaylen Pate tries to get past a Wisconsin defender. Pate was named to Pro Football Focus’ College Football Team of the Week after the loss to Iowa.
Graduate student defensive lineman Jaylen Pate tries to get past a Wisconsin defender. Pate was named to Pro Football Focus’ College Football Team of the Week after the loss to Iowa.
Angeli Mittal/Daily Senior Staffer

Northwestern’s defensive line was paper thin during spring ball.

With only four defensive tackles and four defensive ends available, getting a breather between reps seemed like slim pickings. Although it meant more opportunities for the Wildcats that were suited up, the pool of candidates collectively didn’t have much collegiate appearance — the defensive tackle group included two walk-ons, a sophomore and a junior.

And, on a unit with more questions than answers after the 2022 season, that’s not something anyone wants to hear.

Besides surrendering the most rushing yards per game in the conference, the program fired former defensive coordinator Jim O’Neil and longtime defensive line coach Marty Long three days after the season’s end. Outside the plethora of defensive line exits after graduation, veteran defensive linemen in senior Sean McLaughlin and graduate student Jaylen Pate were still working their way back from injuries.

On paper, NU was looking at arguably its most concerning bunch entering the 2023 campaign.

“We were a very small group out there,” Pate said. “But … they really used it to grow and then now you’re seeing that in the season, it’s all really being woven together.”

Pate’s right — the battle-like scars obtained from spring and fall camp are gradually paying off. The ‘Cats have surrendered less than 120 yards on the ground per game in the last three contests.

Now, NU’s defensive line is playing its best brand of football yet, leading to two members of the room receiving scholarships and others gaining conference and national recognition.

“There were mistakes made, but through those mistakes, there’s growth,” coach David Braun said. “You’re starting to see some of those opportunities in fall camp and continued growth throughout the course of the season … really starting to pay off in the depth that’s shown up in that defensive line room.”


Outside of the ‘Cats’ chaotic summer off the field, NU faced another obstacle entering fall camp with only 103 players on roster — most Big Ten programs started with 120. Although the defensive line added a few transfers to the group, the deficit still bled into the room.

However, Braun and defensive line coach Christian Smith flipped the situation on its head to write a new script.

They decided to double rep during fall camp and implement a defensive line rotation. This included splitting the team and coaching staff up onto two fields — the practice and soccer fields when outside, and cutting Ryan Fieldhouse in half when indoors. While the offensive starters competed against the scout defense, the scout offense would take on the defensive starters.

This was different from the program’s procedures in years past, where the first stringers received most of the reps and other players watched from the sidelines. Although it was a risk in cutting their numbers even thinner, it paid off.

“Those game repetitions, that’s really what helps you get better,” Pate said. “You can watch so much film, look at schemes and stuff like that, but not actually getting the chance to do it over and over again and practice, it’s just harder to get better.”

Pate doesn’t mind the rest that the previous system afforded him as an older player. But for first-years like defensive lineman Michael Kilbane, who’s snap count has increased weekly, the rotational system allowed him to get as many snaps as possible.

Junior defensive lineman Carmine Bastone, one of the four active tackles in the spring, said the cycle consisted of three to five quality reps during camp and the same number break wise.

For players like Bastone, who played in both the spring and fall, a surplus of reps accelerated his development in preparation for the upcoming season. And, with the addition of three transfers in Richie Hagarty, R.J. Pearson and Matt Lawson, the returns of McLaughlin and Pate and the rise of the youth, Braun’s system was beginning to pan out.

“Having a balanced rotation so that everybody is more fresh and just more ready to get off the ball and attack every play,” Bastone said. “(The system) helped us progress a lot quicker because we got more reps in practice, and sometimes more in practice than we would in games, which helped us go as fast as we can in games.”


On Sept. 3, NU was destroyed in the trenches against Rutgers.

Although the ‘Cats defense only surrendered 122 yards the entire contest, the Scarlet Knights put together a masterclass toting the rock. They possessed the pigskin for nearly 38 of the game’s 60 minutes.

The one-sided affair reflected NU’s offensive woes, a group that produced just 12 yards on the ground. More importantly, though, it represented the struggles that the defensive line faced at the line of scrimmage. Additionally, the group lost Lawson for the rest of the year due to a lower-body injury.

Of course, the trip to Piscataway was the ‘Cats first opponent of the season — no team is at its full potential then. But, the long, strain-filled days of competition in Evanston weren’t translating to the game yet.

“For you to rotate like that, it takes a bunch of guys that are there to serve the best interests of the team (rather) than their own personal stat line,” Braun said. “There’s definitely a plan that all those guys are going to play and there’s going to be rotation. They’re not on a snap count by any means.”

These struggles continued to doom the ‘Cats defense early in the season, as teams like Duke plundered the unit. In each of NU’s first three losses they gave up over 120 rushing yards.

However, with the implementation of a new system and players still continuing the gel, Braun knew it wasn’t going to be the smoothest road to success.

“Were we as comfortable with the plan in Week 1 or Week 2 (of) fall camp? Absolutely not,” Braun said. “But, (improving) was an intentional effort by our staff, which wasn’t easy.”

As of late, that improvement has been realized — winning two of their last three contests. Following the ‘Cats win over Maryland, NU limited Iowa to nearly 100 rushing yards on 41 carries. Most recently, Smith and his unit stifled Wisconsin’s rushing attack to 86 yards.

And it all started in the trenches.

“We got guys who grew up in a sense. They needed to and they did, and now you’re starting to see that,” Pate said.

While junior defensive lineman Aidan Hubbard secured Big Ten Defensive Player of the Week following the win against Maryland, former walk-ons senior defensive lineman P.J. Spencer and Bastone were placed on scholarship earlier in the season. Pate falls into this category as well, being named to Pro Football Focus’ College Football Team of the Week after the loss to Iowa.

Pate attributed the line’s comfortability to Smith and Braun, who both played defensive end in college, for their focus on basic fundamentals: coming off the ball, running through contact and striking with their hands.

Braun added “if you get me down in defensive line drills, I might stick around for a while,” emphasizing his passion for the position and room he’s oh-so accustomed to.

For Braun, the defensive line’s improvement has been built off of hard work and humility.
“It’s a credit to the depth that exists in that room right now that we have the luxury of doing that,” Braun said. “It’s a reflection, again, of our guys making a conscious, intentional effort, and a coaching staff really pushing our guys to just get a little bit better each day.”

The ‘Cats only had three missed tackles last Saturday versus Wisconsin, reflecting how much the defense, specifically at the line of scrimmage, has grown since the start of season.

And after starting the 2023 campaign with many questions surrounding its stability, depth and potential, the group has become one of the most impressive units Braun has helped herd together.

“I’ll take that group up against any offensive line in the country, I really would,” Braun said. “It may not be the measurables, but the way that they’re gonna fight, scratch, claw and do whatever it takes to help our team win is something that I’m really appreciative of.”

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