In our coverage of Northwestern's rough two-season stretch, I've been accused by many of our readers who were fans pre-1995 of not knowing what Northwestern's place in Big Ten football should be. "We had a bad 30-year run before you were around," the say. "This isn't nearly that bad, and like it or not, this is what Northwestern is."
For one, the idea that Northwestern faces the exact same challenges it faced in the so-called "dark ages" is obviously not true. The budget has improved (you can thank ESPN and BTN for that) and the gap in facilities isn't nearly what it used to be. Hell, Northwestern's challenges aren't even what they were a decade ago. But this narrative is still around, and it suggests that above all, the Wildcats have a talent problem. That may have been an issue back in the 1990s and even in the mid-2000s, but right now, Northwestern isn't in a bad place, talent-wise.
NU will never be Ohio State or Michigan. But if the last few recruiting rankings are any evidence (and if you deny recruiting rankings, you are denying statistics), the Wildcats have more than enough talent to place them in the middle of the pack in the Big Ten, based on average star rating.
|Big Ten Rank (out of 14)||6||5||7||9||7||5|
Given the collection of players at Northwestern right now, the Wildcats should not be 3-6, and given who them have coming in, they should not struggle like this in the future. While recruiting rankings aren't right for every person — this is why Pat Fitzgerald gets so happy when two-stars end up starting — this is a large enough sample where we can safely say that Northwestern should have enough talent to be successful. And at this point, it's pretty clear that the issue is in player development, not talent.
The biggest player development issues seem to have come at offensive line and wide receiver. While the regression of Trevor Siemian and the lack of development of Matt Alviti, who had Nebraska, Michigan State and Notre Dame offers, is concerning, Mick McCall has shown an ability to develop quarterbacks throughout his career. The same goes for the defensive line, which has struggled to get stardom out of Ifeadi Odenigbo and others, but it has been solid overall. On the whole, the other two positions are most worrisome.
Offensive line is the most glaring issue. Two years ago, we wrote about how the Wildcats' prowess at recruiting on the offensive line was paying off. The line had looked solid in zone blocking in 2012, and it had a lot of young talent coming up, along with lots of depth to make up for the few inevitable recruiting misses. But two years later, the line hasn't improved, and it's tough to come up with any reason except for a lack of development, when you consider that this should be a pretty solid group. Just take a look at the two-deep.
|Paul Jorgensen||T||Senior||3||Michigan State, Illinois, Stanford|
|Jack Konopka||T||Senior||3||Arizona, Duke, Illinois, Oregon|
|Brandon Vitabile||C||Senior||3||Syracuse, Vanderbilt|
|Matt Frazier||G||Junior||3||MAC offers|
|Geoff Mogus||G||Junior||3||Vanderbilt, West Virginia|
|Eric Olson||T||Sophomore||3||Duke, Michigan, Virginia|
|Shane Mertz||T||Junior||3||Louisville, Maryland, Duke, West Virginia|
|Adam DePietro||G/T||Sophomore||3/4||Michigan State, Pittsburgh, Rutgers|
|Ian Park||G||Sophomore||3||Pittsburgh, Maryland, Vanderbilt|
That's a really solid group of recruits that has turned into a really bad line, particularly in the passing game, but also in the run game, where it has even failed to zone block well a lot of the time — and that's the main thing these players were brought here to do. This could arguably be the deepest Northwestern's line will be post-1995, and those in charge of developing them have simply not done their jobs.
Our Nate Williams had an interesting theory on the linemen's development:
I know when Larry Lilja and Hooten were working together during my time there, Lilja handled most of the OL/DL from a strength perspective. I'm not sure how it is currently structured, but with not a lot of development in the trenches, it might be something that is looked at.
While that is certainly something to consider, the wide receivers have struggled to develop, as well. The idea that players like Miles Shuler and Tony Jones "can't get open" is baffling, considering their natural speed and agility. If they are hesitating on routs or running the incorrect routes, that's a development issue. There is no shortage of talent here.
|Miles Shuler||Junior||4||Florida, Michigan, Nebraska, Notre Dame|
|Tony Jones||Senior||3||Michigan State, Stanford, Wisconsin|
|Pierre Youngblood-Ary||Junior||3||Navy, Colorado State, Memphis|
|Cameron Dickerson||Junior||3||Duke, Indiana, Vanderbilt|
Again, not a bad group that even struggled last year with star receiver Christian Jones in the mix. It's very unlikely that all of these players were recruiting misses and are not living up to their potential. Rather, the way Northwestern uses them and develops them is far more likely to be the problem.
While offensive line and wide receiver show the most glaring issues, Northwestern isn't even great at developing talent on its entire team. The Wildcats did a good job of getting low-tier talent to perform like mid-tier talent, but they're barely able to get their mid-tier talent to hold its own. Moreover, they have struggled to get players to the NFL, despite the uptick in recruiting.
What's the reason for the regression in development? The most obvious reason is coaching, and it can't have helped that people like Kevin Johns have left the program. We'll see if anything changes this offseason, but regardless, the idea that Northwestern shouldn't be competitive anyway is very clearly nonsense.
This is not a talent issue, it's a development issue.