by Kevin Trahan (@k_trahan)
The college football season just ended, but we’re giving you an early preview of next season with a series of articles over the past week. That series continues with our look at the five most important players on next year’s team. Please note that this is a list of the five most important players, not the five best players. For instance, I would probably call Ibraheim Campbell one of the five best players on the team, but given team need, I don’t think he’s one of the five most important. So without further ado, check out our list of the five most important players and watch for more early preseason coverage to come.
Tackle Jack Konopka
The left tackle is always one of the most important players on the team, and Konopka will likely assume that duty next year, shifting from the right side to replace Patrick Ward. Konopka steadily improved as the year went on and he’ll have to continue that improvement quickly, anchoring the unit with the most question marks on NU’s roster.
Northwestern’s offensive line was a pleasant surprise this year, and it was part of the reason for Venric Mark’s breakout 1,000-yard season. NU’s offense begins with its ability to establish the run and that’s made possible by the offensive line. Konopka’s progression will be crucial for the Wildcats to avoid a letdown on offense in 2013.
Quarterback Kain Colter
Quarterback is the most important position on the field, so it makes sense for Colter to be in this countdown, even with a very capable backup. Colter had a few minor injuries this year, so NU needs to do its best to keep him healthy. While Colter is an underrated passer and is a great running threat himself, his dual-threat abilities benefit the offense as a whole.
With Colter under center, Venric Mark is much more productive because defenses don’t know who to key on. When NU runs the option, Colter can either keep it himself or take another defender out of the play when he pitches it to Mark. NU can be incredibly efficient with Colter under center, and it adds a whole different element for defenses to prepare for.
Running Back Venric Mark
We’ve already talked about Colter, but Mark — the second part of the option — is just as important. Mark broke onto the scene with a 1,000-yard season and showed incredible versatility running between the tackles and running off the option pitch. He was a major reason for NU’s success this season and will need to be just as good next year.
Behind Mark, there are no proven players who can run the option and the zone read effectively. Mike Trumpy is primarily a downhill runner and can’t get around the corner like Mark outside. Malin Jones has potential, but he’s a big guy who likely can’t take on Mark’s exact role. NU must keep Mark healthy to add a quick, outside running game to its arsenal.
Defensive End Tyler Scott
Tyler Scott might be the most underrated defensive end in the Big Ten after a monster junior year. He helped make Northwestern’s pass rush one of the best in the conference, which also aided an inexperienced secondary, and he came up big in the bowl game. Scott will be the leader of NU’s defensive line in 2013 and will be counted on to continue his impressive play.
NU’s secondary is much improved, but it will still need help from Scott. As NU’s defensive line pressure improved, so did its overall defensive statistics. Scott will be tasked with making sure the pass rush is even better, and he’ll also be used to cut down on quarterback scrambles. The latter will be useful against Nebraska’s Taylor Martinez and Michigan’s Devin Gardner, both of whom can make plays on the run and whose teams figure to challenge NU for the Legends Division.
The Interior Defensive Line
So this isn’t one player, but the interior of Northwestern’s defensive line must step up big and limit injuries due to a lack of depth. The graduation of star defensive tackle Brian Arnfelt might be NU’s biggest loss, since NU will be short on experience at his position.
Sean McEvilly, Chance Carter and Will Hampton all have game experience, so all will need to step up in order to keep NU’s run defense at the level it performed at this season. The run defense was much improved this year, and it’s important for that to continue and make opposing defenses one-dimensional. That starts at defensive tackle.