The Wildcats won't play in a bowl game this year, but to hold you over until spring practice, we're rolling out an end-of-season package. In this piece, we look at the biggest question mark for each position group.
Quarterback: Trevor Siemian or Matt Alviti?
This probably won't be the closest position battle this year, but it's certain to get the most public attention. Siemian struggled for much of the season (though we later found out that was probably due to a heel injury) and many Northwestern fans were calling for Alviti to start next year. Of course, Siemian is a proven passer when healthy — his performance against Illinois was the 10th best in school history — while Alviti was a highly ranked recruit. Siemian is certainly going to have the leg up heading into 2014, as he should, but it will be interesting to see if Alviti makes it a close race.
Running Back: Running back by committee?
This may seem like blasphemy to a lot of fans in Venric Mark does indeed get his NCAA waiver, as expected. However, it could be the most productive option for the Wildcats. Mark has proven himself as an adequate runner between the tackles, and he should still be the starter, but without Kain Colter, his game does lose some of its effectiveness. Could Treyvon Green or even star incoming freshman Justin Jackson get some carries? With Mark spreading the field by getting around the edge, combined with Green/Jackson providing a more powerful second/third option, NU could have a very impressive rushing attack. (Side Note: I'd love to see Siemian/Alviti and Mark in a Baylor type of offense. It would fit their strengths very well.)
Wide Receivers: Consistency, consistency, consistency
It seems like every year since 2012, we've written about how much potential the wide receivers have. In 2012, they were supposed to be the best unit in the Big Ten, but fell short of expectations. This year, they were better in the early going, but struggled with drops down the stretch. Could this be "the year" again? A group consisting of Christian Jones, Tony Jones, Cameron Dickerson and Miles Shuler (also Pierre Youngblood-Ary and Kyle Prater) should be solid. Christian Jones is a good possession receiver, Tony Jones is a deep threat, Dickerson is a big body who can go up and get the ball and Shuler is the much needed Jeremy Ebert type of receiver who can get yards after the catch. Now comes the consistency question. We've yet to see it from this group, but they have to be better in a more pass-focused offense.
Superbacks: Anyone after Dan Vitale?
There aren't a lot of questions here. Dan Vitale is firmly entrenched as the starter and he's done a solid job in his two years as the starter. The most interesting development is behind him. Particularly, if Garrett Dickerson ends up playing superback, would he see any time? Though he would have to lose some weight (he's 6-foot-4, 240 pounds) his body is already college ready. My early guess is we don't see him in 2014, but it will be interesting to see how that develops.
Offensive Line: Can it be effective in pass protection?
Northwestern's offensive line wasn't effective doing much of anything last year, and that was part of the reason for the offensive struggles. This year, transitioning to a more pass-heavy offense might be tougher of the line than you think. In 2012, even when the line was very good, it wasn't that great in pass protection. In fact, both Pat Fitzgerald and Mick McCall have said that's part of the reason they went to such a run-heavy offense that year. Every line is built differently, and this offseason will be crucial for the line to develop. But if it can't pass protect, the Wildcats' offense could struggle again.
Defensive Line: Who will take over the leadership role from Tyler Scott on the defensive line?
Tyler Scott was the unquestioned leader of the defensive line—really one of the best leaders on the team—but he is now headed to the NFL draft. So who will step up in his place? Sean McEvilly is probably a good guess; he’s already a member of NU’s 12-man leadership council. But what about defensive end Dean Lowry. Sure, he’s only a sophomore, but he played as a true freshman and already has two years’ experience. Most importantly, he played last season as the backup to Scott, giving him the opportunity to observe not only his skills at defensive end but his leadership strategies as well. Lowry made a huge leap this season in his on-field game—he finished third on the team with 4.5 sacks—and it wouldn’t be unreasonable to assume that he will make a jump to vocal defensive leader in the offseason.
Linebacker: Who was the breakout star at linebacker this season?
Collin Ellis started 10 games in 2012 and played well enough in fall camp to beat out Drew Smith for the 2013 starting job. But once the competition ended, much of the attention shifted to proven stars Damien Proby and Chi Chi Ariguzo. Ellis made sure, though, that once the real games started, people remembered his name. In the first game of the season, against Cal, the Louisiana-native not only caught two interceptions but returned both for touchdowns. He finished the season with at least five tackles in every game except two, both near the end of the year when he was slowed by an injury. He came in third on the team with 78 tackles and added another interception against Nebraska. He didn’t garner a lot of the preseason attention, but he should command some offseason praise for co-anchoring a linebacking corps that led NU’s defense to a strong end to the year.
Secondary: Will Godwin Igwebuike nab a role at safety next season?
Traveon Henry and Ibraheim Campbell took the vast majority of snaps at the two safeties positions this season and both will return next year. The secondary had its fair share of mishaps, particularly at the beginning of the year in the category of “big plays,” so there is work to be done. Fitzgerald has said time and time again that every week is a competition, and the players have to fight to keep their starting spots. Godwin Igwebuike took a redshirt year in 2013 and will begin his quest for a starting job this spring. It’s difficult to gauge his standing from the few reps he got in fall camp and practices this year, but he comes in with a lot of hype and an incredible amount of athletic talent—his position was actually listed as “athlete” on a number of scouting sites. He’s probably a longshot for a starting role, but he can certainly earn some playing time next fall.
Special Teams: Who is the future of the kicking game?
In the past three years, only once has someone without the name “Budzien” on the back of his jersey kicked a field goal for the Wildcats. But NU’s new all-time leading scorer is graduating and taking with him the near-automatic kicking game that the Cats have become accustomed to for the past few years. None of the current kickers on the roster — true freshman Hunter Niswander, redshirt freshmen Matt Micucci and Jack Mitchell or sophomore Arthur Omilian — have any sort of college kicking experience. So who takes over? Your guess is as good as mine. The kicking competition might be one of the better ones to watch during spring and fall camps.