by Chris Johnson (@ChrisDJohnsonn)
In an emotional speech after Northwestern’s Gator Bowl win, coach Pat Fitzgerald reflected briefly on his tenure with the program. He talked about his hard-working staff, about the leadership qualities they help him instill in his players, about the administrative support, about the “best athletic director in the country,” Jim Phillips. Most of all he stressed that the bowl win was not a final destination. Fitzgerald has bigger plans. That starts in 2013, when the Wildcats return all but eight starters and could very well find themselves in every preseason top 25 poll of merit.
We witnessed players blossom into stars this season, and we can expect continued improvement in 2013. The tricky part is predicting the players who will make the same leap as those before them. We call these guys “breakout” players. There are a handful of candidates, but because these lists typically come neatly packaged in familiar digits, I’ll stick to a clean list of five.
Drew Smith, linebacker
The strength of Northwestern’s defense lay in its linebacking corps. David Nwabuisi, Damien Proby and Chi Chi Ariguzo played hard and fast all season long. They dropped into coverage and covered tons of space, and just as often helped out at the line of scrimmage in the run game. Proby and Ariguzo will be back next season, but Nwabuisi – the vocal leader of not only the linebackers, but the defense more broadly – will move on to the next phase of his career.
The positional alignments are not set in stone; both Proby and Ariguzo can mix and match at different spots. What’s clear is that Smith will get first-team reps. He made the most out of the little playing time he received this season, and his speed is a huge asset to an already mobile linebacking corps. I expect Smith to secure a starting job (he will need to beat out Colin Ellis) over spring practice and summer workouts, and rest assured, he’s poised to make the most of the opportunity.
Tony Jones, wide receiver
The direction of Northwestern’s offense trended away from the pass game as the season progressed. The Wildcats morphed into an option-based running team, which, when you think about it, is probably the biggest shock, scheme-wise, for a team that entered 2012 with so much hype surrounding a loaded receiving corps. With Venric Mark and Kain Colter returning, I fully expect the Wildcats to retain this season’s run-based focus, but there will be times when the option just isn’t working, and an effective passing game is a great fallback option to have.
Now that Demetrius Fields is gone, Jones will take on a more prominent component of the Wildcats passing efforts. Rashad Lawrence is a capable possession receiver, but he’s not anywhere near as fast or explosive as Jones, who should only continue improve in his second year after major knee surgery. The Wildcats are going to need big plays, and Jones is their best bet to help make them.
Deonte Gibson, defensive end
Injuries limited Gibson early on, but once he grew more comfortable in Mike Hankwitz’s scheme, the redshirt freshman defensive end offered a glimpse of the pass-rushing terror he can be. Gibson’s game is built on speed. He explodes off the line of scrimmage and employs an array of stutter steps and body fakes to scamper by opposing linemen, then pounces on the quarterback with power and stealth. That kind of description sounds like the kind of player you’d want on the field every down, and Gibson very well could have been. The problem: Northwestern had two proven edge rushers, Tyler Scott and Quentin Williams, commanding most of the snaps on first and second downs.
More often than not, Gibson shuffled in on third downs and obvious passing situations. The most memorable moment of Gibson’s season was his cross-field sprint to hunt down Michigan quarterback Devin Gardner in the backfield for a big loss. Gibson moves up the depth chart by virtue of Williams’ graduation, and he’s the best bet to assume the starting end spot opposite Scott.
Traveon Henry, Safety
When Henry ditched the idea of a redshirt season and suited up for the Boston College game, I have to admit, I didn’t see it coming. Jimmy Hall looked like a more polished player at the safety position. Henry excelled from the get go, first on special teams, then in the back end of the defense. He made some mistakes, particularly in identifying receivers and spacing arrangements, but with Henry, a true freshman, it was unrealistic to expect a flawless first season.
The important part about Henry’s abrupt first season is that he showed promise in a difficult situation. Surrounded by an inexperienced secondary, Henry showed remarkable poise and command of defensive principles. And he only improved over the course of the year. The departure of Jared Carpenter opens up a starting safety spot next to Ibraheim Campbell. If Hall doesn’t take it – he could see more time at outside linebacker or nickelback – Henry is an obvious fit. He’s ready.
Dan Vitale, superback
This pick seems a bit unfair, because Vitale is long since passed the point of “breaking out”. He exploded for 110 yards on nine catches and a touchdown against Michigan State and logged 82 on seven grabs in the bowl game. Vitale was one of just four true freshmen to take the field for the Wildcats this season, and it’s hard to argue he wasn’t the most immediately effective. Offensive coordinator Mick McCall used Vitale sparingly in the first half of the season. By the end of November and into the postseason, Vitale was without question one of Northwestern’s biggest threats in the passing game.
With a year of experience under his belt, and a better understanding of his unique position – Vitale was recruited first and foremost for his defensive skills – Vitale is ready to take his game to another level. I’m hesitant to make bold proclamations about players’ potential; so many things can stunt one’s growth and maturation cycle. But if Vitale continues on this path, I’m going to go right ahead and say it: he can and should eclipse Drake Dunsmore’s contributions on the field. He’s that good. Vitale has the physical and mental abilities to develop into a focal point of Northwestern’s offense.