- Adam Rittenberg, ESPN Staff Writer
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Every defense talks about the A-word -- aggressiveness -- and Northwestern's is no exception.
For the better part of the past two seasons, the Wildcats' defense too often has found itself in a, well, defensive posture. Opposing offenses have moved the ball too easily against the Wildcats, particularly on third down, which used to be a strength for the unit.
It's why Wildcats coaches place such a premium on the A-word entering the 2012 season. To get there, they bring up another A-word.
"It's an attitude," defensive coordinator Mike Hankwitz said. "It isn't just schematics. We're going to do things to try to be more aggressive schematically, but we're not going to blitz every damn play. We're going to pick our spots, and we're going to do things. But we said we want to have a more aggressive mentality getting to the ball and being more physical.
"They've embraced what our goals and objectives have been, and we're making progress."
Northwestern likely will decrease its use of an ineffective three-man rush that consistently led to third-and-long meltdowns last season and dropped the team to 114th nationally in third-down defense (50 percent conversion). Defensive end Quentin Williams is the lone returning player who recorded multiple sacks in 2011, so Hankwitz knows he can't rely too much on the line getting home on its own. The Wildcats ranked last in the Big Ten and 106th nationally in sacks last season (1.31 per game).
But at times, Hankwitz will lean on the front four and expect them to cause more problems than they did in 2011.
"We've got to be more aggressive with our calls, but we've got to also be more effective when we do rush the passer," he said. "You're not going to bring the perfect thing every time where somebody comes free, so you've got to beat guys one-on-one."
After communication breakdowns plagued the defense during a five-game losing streak, Hankwitz saw improvement in the final five contests. Players embraced the offseason objectives outlined in their first meeting in January, and the strong retention between spring practice to fall camp allowed coaches to build rather than work on reinstalling plays.
Although the defense is green at spots, namely the secondary, where redshirt freshman cornerback Nick VanHoose and two other new starters enter the mix, the unit features a number of familiar faces who had their pride challenged last season and in recent months.
"Our defense was very motivated through the positive talk they heard through the blog sites and wonderful articles they had to read all offseason," head coach Pat Fitzgerald said with just a hint of sarcasm. "And they lived it. They know they were not pleased with the way they performed, and preseason, for the first time I used some outside stuff for motivation. You get what you deserve, and we deserve everything that was said about the guys.
"And they took it personally. Guys like Bus [linebacker David Nwabuisi] that have been out there and Tyler [Scott] and Brian Arnfelt and Quentin Williams, Damien Proby, Ibraheim Campbell -- they were not pleased with the way they played, and we weren't pleased with the way we coached them and we performed. The great news is I’ll be done talking about that crap [soon]."
Campbell, a safety who led the team with 100 tackles as a redshirt freshman, describes the aggressive mindset as never being satisfied.
"If you had a PBU [pass broken up], you should have had a pick," he said. "If you made a tackle, it should have been a TFL."
A defense with plenty to prove returns to the field Saturday at Syracuse, which ranked 90th nationally in offense last fall but boasts a veteran quarterback in Ryan Nassib and some good receivers. The Wildcats hope embracing the A-word can translate into more Ws this fall.