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Northwestern DT Brian Arnfelt feels urgency to make up for last season

NU defensive tackle Brian Arnfelt (left) has helped defensive line get off grestart.  |  Getty Images

NU defensive tackle Brian Arnfelt (left) has helped the defensive line get off to a great start. | Getty Images

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Updated: October 22, 2012 6:32AM

Athletes hear it at different times for different reasons. Northwestern senior defensive tackle Brian Arnfelt first heard it while watching his teammates play their season opener against Boston College on TV last season.

That’s when he realized his time was running out.

“It’s definitely not easy to sit out with an injury, but it gives you an outsider’s perspective that I would say now is one of the biggest pluses in my life,” Arnfelt said. “You’re able to see that the clock is ticking. I’m not guaranteed any more snaps. I could do something in practice today or tomorrow. You have to appreciate everything you get.”

That ticking clock is motivating several Northwestern players heading into the game Saturday against South Dakota at Ryan Field, but none more so than the 6-5, 300-pounder from Lake Elmo, Minn. Some have come to the realization that their eligibility won’t last forever. Others realize that every minute counts if they hope to improve after last season’s disappointing 6-7 finish. Still others know their days of playing football are limited if the NFL doesn’t come calling.

For Arnfelt, it’s all that combined with his determination to turn a defensive line that was a major weakness last season into a strength. Not only has a unit that totaled only 17 sacks in 2011 consistently pressured quarterbacks through three games, but a defense that finished 105th out of 120 FBS programs in rushing defense last season is ranked 16th.

“[Arnfelt’s] doing a great job leading that unit up front,” Northwestern coach Pat Fitzgerald said before praising his entire 10-player defensive-line rotation. “We’re fundamentally improved through three games. We’re solid in the trenches on both sides of the ball. Obviously, as we move forward, that challenge is going to increase greatly, but I’m pleased with where we’re at on both lines, especially with the defensive line against the run.”

Players working out together during the summer has been offered as an explanation for the turnaround. Hang around these Wildcats long enough, and you’ll hear too many glowing testimonials about increased chemistry and accountability to discount those factors. Defensive line coach Marty Long has worked hard to improve hand technique, a key to any defensive lineman’s success. Defensive coordinator Mike Hankwitz has had an offseason to study to improve schemes.

Another factor is the presence of Arnfelt, who was ready to step into a starting role last season before breaking his foot. He returned only to reinjure it again.

“It’s good to see him finally healthy and doing what he does best,” said defensive end Tyler Scott, who also has been a major factor. “He’s a big man. He’s got some athletic ability. When he puts those two things together, it’s a scary sight.”

Arnfelt split a double team against Boston College and punched the ball out of the arms of running back Rolandan Finch on first-and-goal on Northwestern’s 5-yard line. Not only did it prevent a Boston College score, but it set up a 94-yard, 19-play drive that resulted in an NU field goal. It was Arnfelt’s second forced fumble in as many weeks.

His success hasn’t stopped the ticking in his head.

“When the clock hits zero on that bowl game, last year’s team dies,” he said. “Let’s move on to this year. The clock is ticking on this team, too. If you look at each week and each practice here, there’s an urgency.”

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