Hankwitz instills aggressive identity with NU defense

Posted by ESPN.com's Adam Rittenberg

EVANSTON, Ill. -- It starts with simple footwork, a six-inch step Northwestern defensive end Kevin Mims knows he needs to execute on every snap this fall.

Last season, in an effort to get Northwestern's underachieving defense on track, the coaches kept changing the footwork, the formations and the philosophies. When Mike Hankwitz took over the unit this winter, he brought a clear philosophy, one shaped at six previous stops as a defensive coordinator.

"We were trying to make stuff work [last year], so we kept changing things up," Mims said. "But coach Hank came in and said, 'This is what we're doing,' and we're really excited about that. We get to come off with the same six-inch step every time, coming off and tackling the guy. Be attacking all the time instead of having some other stuff going on. It's really nice to have a focused point of attack."

Head coach Pat Fitzgerald said Hankwitz, "brings a confidence to our defense."

"His resume speaks for itself," Mims said. "He has that national championship ring [with Colorado in 1990], he has all that experience, so there's no way we shouldn't listen to him."

Despite having six defensive linemen with previous starting experience, Northwestern finished 10th in the Big Ten in sacks with only 18 last fall. The defense struggled to execute blitzes and finish off sacks, and it repeatedly got gashed for big plays, particularly in lopsided losses to Ohio State and Illinois.

Hankwitz, who spent the last two seasons as Wisconsin's defensive coordinator, is known for zone blitzing schemes that sprinkle in man blitzes. Though he'll shape his scheme around the new personnel, the goal is greater aggression.

"Whether you're extremely quick or not, you still have to stunt to be disruptive," Hankwitz said. "In the spring I was trying to get a good feel of our personnel, but we still taught our things. This fall, we'll try to utilize the guys that are best blitzers, the best stunters, and put them in that role."

Hankwitz has been impressed with junior end Corey Wootton and senior tackle John Gill, who is suspened for the season opener. He's finally getting a live look at Mims and tackle Adam Hahn, who were injured this spring, and likes the line depth provided by Marshall Thomas, Corbin Bryant, Jack DiNardo and Vince Browne.

"I like our kids," he said. "We're going to make the best of what we have. We'd all like to have an All-American at every position, but we're not going to have that. But I like our attitude."

The players' ability to pick up the scheme could allow Hankwitz to call more defensive audibles this fall, but he doesn't want his defenders "too cerebral" where they outthink themselves on the field.

Safety Brendan Smith looks forward to the prospect of more blitzing this fall, but the players first have to earn Hankwitz's trust.

"Every coach has blitzes and those schemes in their playbook," Smith said, "but if the players aren't playing fast and getting to the quarterback, then you look bad and then [opponents] are throwing it deep because there's not enough guys. So you've got to cut those out. But we have players that want to make plays and want to play fast. It gives coach the opportunity to open up his full playbook."