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InsideNU Debate: What Is Northwestern's Missing Piece?

It’s perfectly normal to make bold proclamations about your favorite team’s upcoming season. Without a hearty helping of unreasonable expectations, preseason sports debate would be nothing more than boring descriptions of the obvious. Northwestern fans expect a lot from the Wildcats this season, as they should: 10 wins the season prior, a sizeable leap in star-measured recruiting success, and a completely unscientific surge of momentum will do that to a team’s perceived preseason merits.

The Wildcats are not a perfect outfit (if they were, we’d have a whole new set of topics to throw around the table). Winning the Big Ten championship, or meeting this season’s spiked expectations, doesn’t require them to be. But they could use a few tweaks here and there to boost their chances, which naturally got us thinking: What is the missing piece of the formula? Where can the Wildcats improve? What one football trait or prototypical player would elevate NU to the promised land? Kevin and I took turns spitballing the one thing the Wildcats need to enhance their chances of fulfilling all your wildest season goals. As always, feel free to chime in with your own choices, comments, critiques and any other emotional responses our arguments may trigger.


Experience on the offensive line

People writing about Northwestern this offseason have seemed to congregate around one simple idea. They think Northwestern’s offensive line is weak, or under-equipped, or a big “question mark,” or harbor some other form of doubt about its ability to replace three starters. Those opinions are not unfounded. I have some questions about Northwestern’s offensive line myself, and the fact they must replace three starters is definitely something worth talking about. My personal opinion doesn’t veer wildly from the common consensus. We’re all on the same page.

This is not the same thing as saying Northwestern’s offensive line will be bad. I actually happen to think this year’s group will come together quite nicely, and replace last season’s departed leadership with minimal fuss. It’s impossible to predict how young players seeing big upticks in playing time will react under pressure, which at least partially explains the widespread concern about seeing Brian Mulroe, Patrick Ward and Neal Deiters graduate this offseason.

I also can’t help but think there’s some lazy confirmation bias at work here. Just because Northwestern loses three starters on the offensive line and returns most of its starters elsewhere doesn’t mean the OL will assuredly snap under the weight of inexperienced legs and relatively unfamiliar youngsters. It doesn’t mean it won’t,either, obviously, but if you’re going to call out Northwestern’s offensive line, raise legitimate, football-related, beyond-elementary level reasons to support your point. What if the new starters are simply better than the graduating upperclassmen? What if returning starters doesn’t automatically translate to more wins or better pass-protection? What if turnover is a good – and conversely, continuity is a bad – thing?

Sorry for getting sidetracked there, but I couldn’t help but air my frustrations with the window-shopping, drive-by personnel analysis I’ve seen far too often from different outlets this offseason. And now, after all that preemptively-combative rambling, I offer you the hypocritical kicker: I think Northwestern needs more experience on the offensive line. It’s true! They would benefit from having a few more starters back this season. Adam DePietro, Geoff Mogus, Shane Mertz, Ian Park and Hayden Baker, young and talented pieces all, should all develop into solid contributors along the Wildcats’ offensive line in due time. But I can’t be totally sure, whereas last season, it didn't take more than a few games to realize – with Mulroe and Deiters and Ward steadily plugging along – we basically knew what we were going to get no matter what.

The new guys could shine right away, or maybe they’ll need a few games to get adjusted, to adapt to the rigors of a starter’s load of Big Ten snaps -- hippo-sized Wisconsin nose guard Beau Allen attempting to ram you into submission, for example. Somewhere in between seems more likely. Ideally, Northwestern would meld the high upside of this young group with the experience of last season’s vets to patch together the best of both generations, but until we figure out how to revive Einstein’s inventive acumen and channel it towards Northwestern’s football offices, or Google extends its reach into the genetic engineering industry, we’re stuck clinging to the sobering realities of annual roster turnover.

The truth is, NU’s offensive line has the talent, size and overall quality to evolve into an elite unit over time. It just hasn't rounded into peak form quite yet, and it probably won't this season. While it works to reach that point, it could use a little experience along the way. Having good, young players to work with is a desirable baseline to have heading into a season. Having veteran experience lopped on top is even better.

- Chris Johnson

Finding A Second Corner

When listing the biggest weaknesses of Northwestern's past few teams, the same unit comes up over and over again — the secondary. After underachieving in 2011, the unit saw improvement in some areas in 2012, but the corners, in particular, struggled mightily, especially when Nick VanHoose was out with injury. NU may have been "5:03" away from a Legends Division Championship, but mishaps in the secondary stand out in everyone's mind as one of the biggest problems in all three losses.

But if there was ever a time for optimism, it starts now. The Wildcats have recruited the secondary well, and while that won't all show up this year — it will over the next five years — this year is the beginning of what should be a pretty impressive run for NU's secondary. There's a strong mix of talent and experience that was missing in previous years, and that's most evident at safety. Ibraheim Campbell is a proven star there, while Traveon Henry has star potential and showed it on special teams last year. He may still be unproven, but he's a good bet to turn into a star. One corner spot is already solidified, thanks to Nick VanHoose, who broke out as a redshirt freshman last year.

That's three of four spots that will be filled with players that have All-Big Ten potential, some this year and some down the line. However, it's the fourth spot — the corner spot opposite VanHoose — that will make or break NU's secondary, and quite possibly the Wildcats' season.

Corner is an interesting position in that, since the player is only confined to one side of the field and can only be effective if the ball is thrown toward him, players on both side of the field have to be good for the "unit" to be successful. Even if VanHoose can shut down one side of the field, the opponent will pass all over the other side of the field if the corner on that side struggles.

While the rest of the secondary is pretty set, that corner spot is still very up in the air. The three candidates are Daniel Jones, who started there at times but struggled last year, CJ Bryant, who is inexperienced but saw a little bit of time at corner, and Dwight White, who redshirted last year. None of them have made a convincing case as to why they deserve that spot, and the battle will likely rage on into fall camp, or perhaps even into the season.

We're not even going to attempt to project who that corner will be, since the coaches don't even know yet. All of them have their positives and their negatives. But one thing is certain — whoever ends up winning that spot, or whichever committee is used, the success of that position will ultimately have a major impact on NU's Big Ten Championship capabilities. The offense is already "championship caliber," so it's the defense that needs to step up. The linebackers are great and the defensive line, though it has some holes in the middle, is still a solid unit. Even most of the secondary is good enough to help the Wildcats reach Indianapolis.

The second corner spot is the missing piece. If NU can figure out a solution there, it will have as good of a shot as anyone to win the Legends Division. If not, there's the possibility of giving up even more game-winning drives in the final minutes, which could ultimately keep NU from enjoying a dream season.

- Kevin Trahan