Six days before Northwestern traveled to Notre Dame, Marty Long’s best defensive lineman walked into his office and took a deep breath.
It was a Sunday morning in November, 2014, hours after a gut-wrenching, one-point loss to Michigan. The kind of loss that stings overnight, into the next week. As he sat at his coach’s desk, Dean Lowry felt guilty.
“Coach,” Long remembers his best player saying, “I want to apologize.”
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Great, Long thought. This felt like the type of conversation coaches dread. His mind raced. He braced for bad news. Lowry continued.
“He comes in and he tells me, ‘I haven’t played the way we play at Northwestern,’” said Long, Northwestern’s defensive line coach. “I said, ‘Dean?’ He said, ‘The Wildcat way, as hard as you can and for as long as you can. I’ve been kind of saving myself a little bit, to be able to play more plays and not trusting the guy behind me. He said, ‘I will play as hard as I can for as long as I can, and then I’ll trust the next guy to do it.’
“It was all about him saying, ‘I haven’t given it everything that I should have.’ Just because he wanted to make sure he was out there, because he knew he was our best player up front.”
Lowry wasn’t taking plays off to be lazy. Northwestern, thin on depth, needed their best defensive player to stay on the field. It had been that way since Lowry arrived on campus as a 6-foot-6, 235-pound freshman defensive end. His athleticism and football smarts demanded a significant role at the beginning of his college career.
Never again, Lowry vowed, would he ration his energy through four quarters. When Lowry needed a breather, he’d tap himself out. Until then, he would give maximum effort every snap.
Northwestern took Notre Dame to overtime before pulling out a 43-40 win six days later. It was an exhausting game, but Long said his best player didn’t take a single snap off. Lowry finished with six tackles against the Fighting Irish, more than any other defensive lineman.
His impact was even bigger than the box score.
“He had an unbelievable game that night,” Long said. “That same type of dominant performance he brought every week.”
Long remembered that night as he spoke with USA TODAY NETWORK-Wisconsin Saturday afternoon, hours after the Green Bay Packers drafted Lowry with the 137th overall pick in the fourth round. It was one of two compensatory selections within a six-pick span. The Packers drafted Stanford inside linebacker Blake Martinez with the 131st pick.
Lowry was the second defensive lineman the Packers drafted, joining first-round nose tackle Kenny Clark. They are two important pieces of their defensive line remodel. The Packers entered this year’s draft after defensive tackle B.J. Raji retired, and with defensive end Mike Pennel serving a four-game suspension to start this season.
There could competition for starting jobs at both positions unoccupied by three-tech defensive tackle Mike Daniels. The Packers needed to add defensive linemen in this draft, and they took two in the first four rounds.
“Obviously with B.J. (Raji) retiring,” director of pro personnel Eliot Wolf said, “we lost some guys up front, and Mike Neal's moved on. So it just looks like something that we addressed as need, and we've been able to fill it.”
General manager Ted Thompson later said he “wouldn’t characterize” Neal’s status with the team the same as Wolf. Neal, a free agent, has not re-signed with the Packers. Thompson appeared to draft Neal’s replacement late Friday night when he took Utah State outside linebacker Kyler Fackrell in the third round.
Clark will be expected to fill the Packers’ nose tackle position. At 6-foot-5 3/4 and 296 pounds, Lowry has an ideal frame to play five-tech defensive end.
“The length of a true 5-technique,” Packers coach Mike McCarthy said, “and some of those things that we may not have had as many of those body types in the past.”
Lowry’s 31-inch arms and 76 1/8-inch wingspan could make it difficult to shed blocks against offensive tackles, making him a better fit to rotate at three-technique defensive tackle. Wolf believes the Packers new defensive end makes up for his “short arms” with technique, leverage and “violent” hands.
Lowry thrived as a five-technique defensive end playing against lengthy Big Ten offensive tackles the past three seasons. He had 11.5 sacks and 28 tackles for loss combine the past three years, including three sacks and 13 tackles for loss last season.
“They’re all big guys,” Lowry said of Big Ten offensive tackles, “and they’re not a problem in terms of blocking out and shedding. So I think I have very violent hands and strong hands, so I can get away with it. I think that just the other qualities are really able to get me around that.”
Short arms couldn’t stop Lowry from taking over some games.
He had two sacks and six tackles for loss in a 2-point win at Nebraska last season. As a junior, Long said, Lowry had one sack and knocked down two passes in a win against Penn State quarterback Christian Hackenberg.
That’s where Lowry’s height is a major benefit, Long said. It was hard for him to keep track of all Lowry’s batted balls over his final two seasons. The stat sheet shows Lowry had 14 defended passes in 24 games as a junior and senior.
“He frustrated Hackenberg,” Long said. “I really like Hackenberg as a quarterback, but he frustrated him. We didn’t get to him as much as we wanted to, but just like the NFL does now — if you’re not there, you’ve got to affect the quarterback. If you tip balls, they lead to picks.
“He has a great sense of that timing. When that front hand comes off the ball, when to get his hands up. Just that talent to have that clock go off and say, ‘I’m here in the passing lane.’ Hands up, the ball’s back in the quarterback’s lap.”
Long hardly recognizes the player Lowry was when he arrived on campus. He gained 55 pounds during his career — 15 to 20 pounds each offseason, Lowry said — by eating and staying in the weight room. He was 287 pounds last season, Long said. By the combine in February, Lowry gained almost 10 more pounds.
Now, he’s an ideal size to fill a need on the Packers offensive line. Long said he sees a promising career ahead. He previously coached two former Northwestern defensive linemen into the NFL: Buffalo’s Corbin Bryant and former Chicago Bears lineman Corey Wootton. Lowry, Long said, enters the league ahead of both.
“Dean would do anything you ask him to do to be a better football player,” Long said, “and that’s what he did. We’re just so proud of him from where he came from to where he’s at right now. He was off the beaten path, but we’re just really excited about him.”