As part of our bye week review as Northwestern heads into conference play, we take a look at whether the stock has risen or fallen of each of NU's units.
So yes, the quarterbacks didn't have banner days against Western Michigan and Maine. So what? NU ran an extremely vanilla gameplan against each team, so it's hard to take much from either of those games. However, when the quarterbacks were cut loose against Cal and Syracuse, they were phenomenal. Trevor Siemian seems to be throwing the ball as well as he ever has and Kain Colter was impressive even without Venric Mark. Let's reserve judgement on the quarterbacks until 1) they're allowed to open it up a little more and 2) Mark gets back to complement Colter in the zone read. However, the quarterbacks certainly look like they can play at a high level again this year.
Running Backs: Stock Up
Overall, the running backs haven't been as good as they were last year at this point. However, considering the circumstances — without Venric Mark — they've exceeded expectations. Treyvon Green has been NU's surprise player of the year so far. Seemingly buried on the depth chart this spring, Green slimmed down and has turned into a quick, versatile back that can run for power and also has a burst of speed. Mike Trumpy has been a solid workhorse, as he usually. It will be interesting to see what the running backs can do when Mark gets back, and how he and Green can be used at the same time.
Wide Receivers (and Superback): Stock Up
Last year, Northwestern's receivers were supposed to be among the best in the Big Ten. After struggling in 2012, they seem to have lived up to their potential in 2013, breaking out for an impressive year so far. Christian Jones has become the ultimate possession receiver, while Tony Jones has proven himself as a great deep threat/possession receiver combination. Also look out for Cameron Dickerson, a big player who has proven to be an asset on the sideline, and Kyle Prater, who is suddenly being targeted more and could become a bigger contributor later in the season. The bottom line: This group of receivers is good.
Offensive Line: Stock Up
This all really depends on what you thought of the offensive line heading into the season. Personally, I thought the unit would be just fine, but they were pegged by many media members as one of NU's biggest question marks, so by those expectations, their stock has certainly risen. The line has had some issues at times — that's to be expected from a young group — but overall, it's handled itself very well. The group handled the blitz very well against Syracuse, and while it struggled for a bit against the blitz against Western Michigan, changes were made and the line eventually dominated the line of scrimmage. The real test comes next Saturday against Ohio State.
We're splitting this one up because the defensive ends and defensive tackles have performed differently so far.
Defensive Ends: Stock Up
This may be the best collection of defensive ends in the Big Ten, and it's certainly the best group of ends the Wildcats have had in some time. Tyler Scott, Dean Lowry, Ifeadi Odenigbo and Deonte Gibson are all starting-caliber players, and they've all played major roles on the defense. Scott is an All-Big Ten player, while Lowry has proven himself as a rising star in the game. The ends have also shown their ability to shift inside, and NU's four-DE formation has been very strong in third down and second-and-long situations. In fact, the ends have been so good that other teams are relying mostly on short passes because they're so worried about NU's pass rush.
Defensive Tackles: Stock Down
I've been a little hard on the defensive tackles this year, and NU was without Sean McEvilly last week, which explains some of the struggles. They've also done a good job tipping passes that lead to interceptions However, the loss of Brian Arnfelt has affected the team far more than any other loss last season. NU's defensive tackles have struggled to push the pocket against the pass and teams have had success running the ball up the middle against the Wildcats. The linebackers have been forced to come up and help in run support, leaving opposing receivers open over the middle for play-action passes. The defensive tackles must be better for NU to be able to comfortably beat strong power-running teams in the Big Ten.
Linebackers: Stock Down
This was close to being an "even" considering how opportunistic the linebackers have been, though a lot of those picks are more a credit to the defensive linemen getting their hands up. The linebackers have the potential to be the best unit on NU's defense, and were expected to play that role heading into the season. However, they've been inconsistent so far, particularly on defending play-action. Of course, some of that is schemed — as we mentioned, the linebackers have been forced to come up in run support — but they also haven't always done a great job of holding their responsibilities against the run or pass. The group hasn't been bad in any way — they just haven't lived up to high expectations. Considering the personnel, I'd expect that to change heading into Big Ten season.
We'll split this one up, as well.
Cornerbacks: Stock Down
People are being really hard on Dwight White, and while he's given up a few big plays, he actually hasn't been as bad as everyone is leading on. Aside from those big plays, he's actually done a pretty good job playing his man. However, Matt Harris has also played well, so there's certainly the possibility for Harris to eventually take over the starting spot, or at least see more playing time. Nick VanHoose has been a bit off his game, as well, this year. He was supposed to be a rock for the secondary, but has had a little trouble adjusting to the short comeback routes that teams are throwing against NU this year. If VanHoose returns to his normal self, and when White/Harris inevitably improve with experience, the corners will improve. However, as of now, they've been one of NU's biggest liabilities.
Safeties: Stock Up
Ibraheim Campbell had interceptions in the first three games of the season and has been the star that everyone has expected out of him. He's an All-Big Ten player who has a knack for reading quarterbacks and getting to the ball. Traveon Henry has been opportunistic, as well, and while he's had some breakdowns, he's generally been the solid player he was expected to be as a starter. Jimmy Hall has also had a quietly good year as a safety/nickelback. As expected, this group of safeties has been one of the best in the conference.
Special Teams: Even
It was going to be hard for Jeff Budzien to keep up the pace he set last season, but even with two misses, he's still a good kicker. It's tough to judge the return game, since NU has had so many fair catches on punt returns and Venric Mark hasn't come back yet, but Matt Harris has been solid on kickoff returns and looks like a solid option if NU doesn't want to risk injury there in the future. The coverage units have been strong, and that will continue as NU keeps recruiting better players. Pat Fitzgerald has said that he's been very impressed with the special teams, and considering the circumstances, they've given NU basically what is expected.