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Jim O'Neil and Brandon Joseph Headline New Defensive Era

A new coordinator and a rising face of the defense look toward 2021 season

Defense is an aspect of Northwestern football that has consistently been touted as elite. This is supported by defensive back Greg Newsome II going in the first round in the 2021 NFL Draft, sophomore safety Brandon Joseph being a unanimous selection for the AFCA All-America First Team and even head coach Pat Fitzgerald being a defensive legend for the Wildcats during his time on the gridiron.

All of this means that expectations are high for the 2021 season, yet a lot of new faces will be tasked with upholding the prestigious reputation. Only five starters are returning from the 2020 defense and long time defensive coordinator Mike Hankwitz retired, leading to the hiring of Jim O'Neil as the teams next coordinator.

O'Neil played at Towson University and coached in the NFL for many years, including stints as defensive coordinator for the Cleveland Browns and San Francisco Giants. He has been a coach for Northwestern in the past, serving as a graduate assistant in 2003 and 2004. 

While O'Neil certainly has pedigree in his favor, replacing Hankwitz with a coach who has been out of the college scene for many years and is only 42 years old is definitely setting up a culture shock for a defense that is expected to be young this season. 

Joseph had nothing but positivity for O'Neil when asked about his new coach in a press conference on August 8th.

"Coach O'Neil's been nothing but great for us," Joseph said. "He's teaching us countless numbers of techniques and schemes that we've never seen before, we've never heard before, and he's bringing an NFL perspective that we haven't seen before so it's been nothing but great."

Despite the unit lacking some experience, Joseph is confident that the defense can pick up right where they left off in 2020, and is excited to see what the new players can do.

"We got guys that were here last year that saw the type of production we had on defense and want to do the same thing," Joseph said. "We have young talent on the d-line, two linebackers all the way up to the DB's, so I'm excited to see the young guys."

O'Neil said in the same press conference that he is very happy with how the defense is progressing and gave credit to the rest of the staff for getting the team ready to go.

"I'm happy with the progress of where we're at and I think the strength and conditioning coaches did an unbelievable job getting these guys ready to roll for camp," O'Neil said. "I'm pleased with where we're at mentally, I'm pleased with where we're at on a conditioning level, and I'm really happy with the buy in."

O'Neil has changed the defensive schemes from what the team is used to, but believes that the transition should not be too much of a change from what the players have seen during their careers

"It's probably 75 percent new and 25 percent things that are similar," O'Neil said. "I mean a lot of stuff in football is similar, but sometimes your eyes might be a little bit different or you might call it something different. So yeah, probably 75/25 right now."

Joseph, despite only entering his sophomore season, is asserting himself as a leader on the defense, and hopes that his hard work and passion will translate to his teammates.

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"I see myself as a huge leader on this team now," Joseph said. "Being an All American and having the accomplishments I had last year, I want every single person on my team to do so. I want to bring everyone to that level, I want to bring everyone to that standard, that's the standard that we set, not only in the DB room and not only on the defense, but across this whole team, so being able to step up and and give tips and pointers to make plays and tips and pointers to just be a successful team, at the end of the day that's what I'm here to do."

O'Neil said that Joseph will be key to the defense's success and praised his leadership ability and football IQ.

"Joseph is really football smart and has really good instincts, and is one of our better communicators back there as far as pre snap alerts, as far as formations, you know, alerting guys as to what might happen, so that's like playing with a coach on the field," O'Neil said.

While the exact starting core isn't exactly clear yet, O'Neil said they are approaching that point rapidly.

"I would hope in the next week or so, we'll have a pretty clear picture of that group of guys how much we're going to help us or do they need another year to develop," O'Neil said.

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