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Take Two: Which football position group is strongest?

Every Friday, Inside NU will do a “Take Two,” giving you our opinions on a major topic surrounding Northwestern or college sports in general. Today, we take our best shots at predicting the Wildcats’ most impactful newcomer on the hardwood. Click here, for last week’s edition, where we make a case for the basketball newcomer who will make the biggest splash next season.

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Back when Kevin and I were trying to figure out the best way we could launch this site, we threw around a handful of ideas, but ultimately decided on previewing every unit of Northwestern’s football team for the upcoming season. It wasn’t the most thrilling of endeavors—tedious is a more appropriate description—but is was nonetheless something that needed to be written, for it’s that kind of baseline analysis that serves as a perfect starting point for anyone looking for a refresher on this year’s personnel groupings.

The reason we settled on specific unit breakdowns was simple. A fair assumption for the makeup of our reading populace is that, out of everyone who sets eyes on this space, there’s a decent enough-sized majority of NU football fans that are interested to learn in greater detail about the specific components of their favorite team. Each unit plays a vital role in the ultimate outcome of a football game, with some carrying more weight than others. Still, it never hurts to get a wholesome look at every position group on the field, even the weaker ones.

This week, we decided to take our unit analysis a bit further, with a focus on singling out NU’s single strongest unit heading into this season. You know the candidates—quarterbacks, running backs, wide receivers, super backs, offensive line, defensive line, linebackers, secondary, special teams—and we encourage you to check out our breakdowns of each of those specific groups. There’s an argument to be made for each unit…..with a few exceptions, but there’s hardly a clear-cut No. 1.

Devising a specific set of criteria for a whimsical exercise like this is nigh-impossible, and it’d be extremely difficult for me to spell out precisely what I mean when I say “strongest.” Yet it’s those murky criteria that makes this such an intriguing, open-ended debate. We’re essentially going by what we feel, not necessarily what’s right or logical. There’s no definable or quantifiable justification behind our decisions, but hopefully you can understand our thinking and come away with a better perspective on our units of choice. Take it more as opinion than fact.

Let the battle for position group supremacy begin:

Take one: Chris Johnson (@chrisdjohnsonn): Wide Receiver

Former 5-star recruit Kyle Prater is still awaiting a waiver to play this year after transferring from USC. (Photo courtesy Mark J. Terrill/AP Photo)

In surveying each position group, examining the strengths, weaknesses, potential pitfalls and capabilities, there are two main underlying principles that helped dictate by thought process: depth and top-end talent. Any position group that merits nomination as NU’s best needs king-sized heapings of both characteristics. It’s just as important to have one or two truly transcendent players, I’d wager, as it is plenty of solid to above-average ones. And that’s precisely how, in a roundabout way, I came upon the wide receivers, a group of skilled pass-catchers better than arguably any other in the Big Ten.

There’s good reason for that bold claim, and it starts with the sheer luxury of having at least five receivers with legitimate chances to play significant roles in this year’s passing attack. Whereas last season the passing game relied heavily on Jeremy Ebert and Drake Dunsmore, who combined for 17 touchdowns and over 1,500 yards, there should be a more balanced division with this year’s group.

Senior Demetrius Fields and junior Rashad Lawrence provide experience and the best all-around knowledge of offensive coordinator Mick McCall’s offense.  It stands to reason that these two veterans will cash in this season, since Ebert and Dunsmore, both of whom found new homes in the NFL this offseason, will no longer be the main focal points in the passing game. Though with the wealth of young talent on this year’s roster, it’s hard to predict which player will emerge as a bona fide No. 1 receiver, if that happens at all. Cameron Dickerson, Christian Jones and Tony Jones made major strides in spring practice, and each made a strong claim for a larger workload this season. Dickerson’s talents, in particular, shone through during the spring game, when he showcased his nifty jump-ball skills by outleaping Nick VanHoose for a 40-yd touchdown grab. Tony Jones missed all of last season after injuring his knee in preseason camp, but his health wasn’t a concern in the spring, and he appears to have regained the elite speed that made him such an intriguing talent two years ago. The other Jones, Christian, burst on the scene last season and quickly established himself as one of NU’s most effective deep threats. After a year learning the offense, he could be on the verge of a breakout season.

The receiving corps, as of this writing, is deep, talented and experienced, more than capable of wreaking havoc on opposing secondaries this season. It has all the necessary parts intact to once again propel NU atop the Big Ten passing ranks. But it might receive a huge boost within the next ten days. The wildcard here is Kyle Prater, the USC transfer and former five-star recruit out of Proviso West (IL) high school. If Prater receives a favorable ruling from the NCAA on his transfer hardship waiver, which would make him eligible to play this season, his presence elevates the unit to a whole new level. There’s the obvious benefit of throwing to a 6-5, 215-pound receiver with five-star talent, but perhaps equally important is the attention he would command from opposing defenses, which opens up space for other receivers to exploit.

In a vacuum, this receiving corps is a tantalizing group with the potential to springboard NU, offensively at least, to plenty of upset wins. But so much of what the group accomplishes rests on Kain Colter, whose arm strength and accuracy are two major question marks heading into this season. Lucky for me, this is about choosing the strongest position group, not the one best positioned to accumulate  statistical evidence of success. Even if Colter struggles, though, there’s plenty of 100-yd performances and end zone trips in the offing for this group of receivers.

Take Two: Kevin Trahan (@k_trahan): Defensive Line

Quentin Williams (88) will be the leader of a strong NU defensive front. (Photo courtesy Bob Levey/Getty Images)

Obviously the most popular — and probably correct — choice for Northwestern's strongest position group is the wide receivers. It's by far NU's deepest unit and it's filled with talent, even if Kyle Prater isn't able to play. That's been echoed by a number of writers ranking that unit among the best in the Big Ten, including ESPN.com's Big Ten Blog, Athlon Sports, and yours truly when Chris and I wrote for The Daily Northwestern.

However, for argument's sake, I'm going to go with another group that has been on the rise throughout the offseason and could potentially be NU's best unit by the end of the year — the defensive line.

You can read our full defensive line preview here, but the gist of it is that this unit is stacked and has continued to improve since last season ended. The likely starters at defensive tackle are Brian Arnfelt and Chance Carter, while Quentin Williams and Tyler Scott will likely start on the end.

Arnfelt struggled with injuries last year, but certainly showed his potential in the Meineke Car Care Bowl of Texas, totaling a career-high five tackles and adding a quarterback hurry. He'll be a senior, so he'll be counted on to lead NU in the middle and help the Wildcats stuff the run after the struggled in that area last season. Lining up opposite Arnfelt at tackle is Carter, who burst onto the scene this spring after playing behind Jack DiNardo in 2011. He was a force in stopping the run during the spring game and did a great job of getting to the quarterback – he had a "17-point play" in the spring game due to NU's obscure scoring rules, intercepting a pass and running it back for a touchdown. He's only a sophomore, but he has good speed and tremendous talent and could make his way onto All-Big Ten lists by the end of the season.

The ends are even more stack for the Cats, as they have three players who could potentially start on any Big Ten team. Senior Quentin Williams is an obvious starter, but he missed all of spring practice due to injury. He'll be a leader for the defensive line after finishing 2011 with 3 sacks and 8.5 tackles for loss. Opposite Williams will be Tyler Scott, who finished with 43 tackles and 6 tackles for loss in his first year as a starter last season. Both could end up on All-Big Ten lists if they build on last year's success.

The most impressive defensive lineman of the spring likely won't be a starter, but he will certainly see playing time and could be a spark for NU thanks to his big-time playmaking ability. Deonte Gibson redshirted last season — his freshman year — due to a torn ACL, but was mentioned by his teammates and coaches as one of the best performers throughout the spring. He's big and quick and can significantly help NU's pass-rush, which a number of players in the unit said was the main thing that needed to improve from last year.

With three ends that all have All-Big Ten potential and two solid tackles, NU has one of the most underrated defensive lines in the Big Ten and the unit could end up being one of the conference's best. Barring injuries, it will no doubt be one of the Cats' strengths in 2012.