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Northwestern football end-of-season wrap-up

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. Rather than looking back on the Wildcats' disappointing season, we're focusing on the 2014 season, which explains why the sections below are more forward-looking than reflective.

Four losses that will hurt

The loss of the following four seniors will hurt Northwestern in 2014.

Kain Colter, QB

To understand why Northwestern will miss Colter next season, watch the play below. Then do it again. And again. It’s mesmerizing.

koltermagic

A series of injuries – starting with the concussion he sustained on Northwestern’s second offensive play of the season – held Colter out of two games and forced him to miss parts of three others this season, but when he was on the field, the impact he made was obvious. Colter was Northwestern’s most dynamic offensive player. His ability to hurt opponents with his arm and his legs was a challenge for opposing coordinators to gameplan against. When healthy over the last two seasons, Colter was one of the best playmakers in the Big Ten. He was especially good when senior running back Venric Mark was in the game; their ability to run the option effectively and consistently last season gave opponents fits. Not having Colter next season will force Northwestern to make some adjustments, and the Wildcats should find a way to adapt. But it won’t be easy.

Will Hampton, DT

This season was the best of Hampton’s four-year career. He played 10 games, recorded a career-best 22 tackles and provided depth at one of the Wildcats’ weakest positions. He also started the final six games of the season.

The Wildcats’ run defense, which ranked eighth in the Big Ten in average yards allowed per attempt and 51st in the country in Football Outsiders’ latest S&P ratings, was a weak point. Players like Hampton and Chance Carter were frequently blown off the line of scrimmage by opposing offensive linemen. So maybe losing Hampton isn’t such a bad thing after all. But then again, the Wildcats don’t have many viable replacements. For all his faults, Hampton was a serviceable player, someone the Wildcats could plug in and count on to do his job. His presence will be missed.

Damien Proby, LB 

Linebacker will be one of Northwestern’s deeper positions next season. It should have little trouble finding someone to succeed Proby at middle linebacker. But just because the Wildcats will be able to replace Proby doesn’t make his departure a trivial development. Proby led Northwestern in tackles this season with 112, the same number he notched in 2012. He also recorded a sack, five tackles for loss, two forced fumbles and one interception. Proby was one of the leaders on Northwestern’s defense and the linebacking corps, talented as it is, won’t be the same without him.

Proby’s production and consistency during 2013 were two bright spots for a defense that mostly acquitted itself well the second half of the season (the Wildcats’ D finished the season ranked 43rd nationally in FO’s F/+ rankings) – even as Northwestern’s losing skid reached seven games. The Wildcats have enough depth to overcome Proby’s departure, and it’s not crazy to think someone can eclipse the 112 tackles he posted this season (Chi Chi Ariguzo had 106). But can someone step up to take on the critical leadership responsibilities he handled so well last season? I’m not so sure.

Tyler Scott, DE

This is another instance where Northwestern should be able to fill a void without having to worry too much about a drop-off in production. Don’t get me wrong: Scott was one of Northwestern’s best players over the last two seasons. Despite his decline in sacks and tackles for loss – he had nine and 12.5, respectively, in 2012 but only six and 10 this season – Scott was one of the best pass rushers in the Big Ten in 2013. It’s also hard to quantify the value he provided by drawing additional blockers in his path, which opened up lanes for other pass rushers, such as Ifeadi Odenigbo, Dean Lowry and Deonte Gibson, to attack the quarterback.

Scott was also, like Proby, one of Northwestern’s leaders on defense. Northwestern has a cast of talented defensive ends ready for bigger roles next season – including Gibson, Lowry and Odenigbo – but are any of them as good as Scott was over the final two seasons of his career? It’s hard to say. Either way, it’s not inconceivable that Northwestern’s pass rush could take a step back without Scott next season.

Three freshmen who could contribute in 2014

Eric Joraskie, DT (RS)

Defensive tackle was one of Northwestern’s weakest positions in 2013. Against physical teams like Ohio State and Wisconsin (granted, those teams ran all over most of the teams they played this season) the Wildcats almost looked helpless when trying to defend the run. Carlos Hyde sealed the Buckeyes’ 10-point win in Evanston with his powerful second half running. Melvin Gordon turned in his second-highest rushing total of the season, 172, against the Wildcats. Inserting one new player into the defensive tackle rotation won’t suddenly transform Northwestern’s run defense, but Joraskie can at least help. At 6-foot-4, 260 pounds, Joraskie is smaller than most defensive tackles. He could put on a few more pounds before the season; if not, he should nonetheless be ready to contribute in his second year on campus.

Godwin Igwebuike, S (RS)

A “high” three-star recruit from Northwestern’s 2013 class, Igwebuike turned down offers from Boston College, Nebraska, Minnesota and Wisconsin, among other schools, before committing to Northwestern. It’s unlikely he will crack the starting rotation next season – senior Ibraheim Campbell and junior Traveon Henry have locked up the starting spots – but he should see lots of playing time as a backup. We’ve heard good things about how both Igwebuike and fellow redshirt freshman Kyle Queiro performed on scout team this season. Either of them could conceivably play important reserve roles next season. We’re giving the edge to Igwebuike, but don’t be surprised if Queiro also works his way into the rotation. Either way, if Igwebuike plays well enough this season, he has a chance to earn a starting job for 2015, when All-Big Ten honoree Campbell will have graduated. 

Hunter Niswander, K (RS) 

The Budzien4Groza Twitter campaign didn’t quite work out the way its mysterious creator wanted it to. Budzien never won the award, but he was one of the most accurate kickers in the country this season, converting 18-of-20 attempts. Replacing him in 2014 will likely be Niswander, who arrived in Evanston this year with some impressive credentials. Scout.com rated Niswander the No. 12 place-kicking prospect in the country. The Peninsula, Oh., native also owns the record for the longest field goal in Woodridge high school history, 53 yards. Whether or not he can maintain Budzien’s prodigious accuracy, no one knows. I’d imagine Northwestern’s coaching staff won’t feel quite as comfortable “taking the points” in fourth-down situations in the red zone as it did this season (Northwestern ranked first in the Big Ten with 25 field goal attempts). Niswander should still get his fair share of attempts, and his ability to convert those attempts could be the deciding factor for a team that lost a bunch of close games this season. If Niswander isn’t as reliable as Budzien, maybe Fitzgerald and his staff will be more aggressive with their playcalling. Probably not.

Three Key Questions

Three questions NU must answer heading into next season.

How does the offense change?

Who would've guessed at the beginning of the year that the offense would be the problem for Northwestern. After suffering injuries to a number of star players, the Wildcats didn't have the personnel to run what they wanted to on offense, and the coaches couldn't adapt. With Kain Colter gone, the offense will go through a dramatic transformation once again, this time to a more pass-heavy identity. Whether it's Trevor Siemian or Matt Alviti at quarterback, NU is going to have to make adjustments. That didn't work very well this year, but with an entire offseason to prepare, can Pat Fitzgerald and Mick McCall create a potent offense again? Only time will tell, but it provides the perfect opportunity for McCall to prove he's still great at designing offensive schemes.

Best defense under Pat Fitzgerald?

Northwestern's defense struggled in its last two games of 2013, but other than that, the Wildcats were much improved. Next year, with so much talent returning, it's shaping up to be the best defense of the Pat Fitzgerald era. The defensive ends, of course, are stacked. Tyler Scott leaves, but the three-man group of Dean Lowry, Deonte Gibson and Ifeadi Odenigbo should scare any opposing defense. The linebackers lose Damien Proby, but essentially have three starters, as Collin Ellis slides in at MIKE and Drew Smith at SAM. The secondary doesn't lose anyone and should be much better now that the freshmen have a year of experience. Even the defensive tackles, which are still short on depth, should be better. Barring injuries, this should be among the best defenses in the Big Ten.

Position battles at quarterback and running back.

Like it or not, Trevor Siemian is going to have the inside track to the quarterback job next year. We've already made the case of why that isn't a bad thing for NU, but there will at least be some competition from Matt Alviti. It might not be a close race, but it's certain to gain a lot of publicity. Venric Mark will have the starting spot locked up if he gets his NCAA waiver, but it will be interesting to see how the Wildcats split the carries this year. Mark won't be as productive without Kain Colter, so he won't be the exclusive back. Will Treyvon Green play the same role he did this year? Could true freshman Justin Jackson get some carries? It will be interesting to see how that develops.