Wildcats defense looks strong up the middle

Posted by ESPN.com's Adam Rittenberg

EVANSTON, Ill. -- Leave it to Northwestern head coach Pat Fitzgerald, a die-hard Chicago White Sox fan, to use a baseball reference to describe the keys to a good defense.

"It's important to have a great catcher, pitcher and center fielder," Fitzgerald said Wednesday.

Translated to the football field, that means having formidable defensive tackles, a productive middle linebacker and two do-it-all safeties. When Fitzgerald surveys Northwestern's depth chart, he likes what he has at those spots.

Though standout tackle John Gill departs, the Wildcats return three veteran interior linemen in Marshall Thomas, Adam Hahn and Corbin Bryant, who started eight games last fall before a knee injury ended his season at Michigan.

Like All-Big Ten defensive end Corey Wootton, who tore several ligaments in his knee in the Alamo Bowl, Bryant faced a long rehab process but is 100 percent for camp.

"We're like the anchors of the defense," Bryant said of the defensive tackles. "It goes through us. When they pass the ball, we have to get pressure on the quarterback so we can interceptions for [the defensive backs]. And then during the run, we have to be stout, we have to be tough up there.

"We're going to be as solid as we were last year, if not even better."

Nate Williams returns at middle linebacker after starting the final six games last fall. Williams recorded 56 of his 66 tackles in the six games after taking over for the injured Malcolm Arrington.

Next to Ohio State's Kurt Coleman and Anderson Russell, the Wildcats return one of the Big Ten's top pairs of safeties in Brendan Smith and Brad Phillips, both of whom have started two seasons. Phillips led the team with 109 tackles and three interceptions last year, while Smith recorded 82 tackles and returned two interceptions for touchdowns, including the game-winner at Minnesota.

"The playmaking ability of Smitty and Brad is as good a tandem as anybody in this league," Fitzgerald said.