After a disappointing season, there is, rather strangely, not much to look forward to for fans of Northwestern football. The offseason promises to be uneventful, and although next year's recruiting class is strong, it isn't full of immediate contributors.
The sole sources of optimism therefore are the players on the current roster. And while, aside from a certain freshman running back, this team lacks superstars, there is some talent returning. Here are the top five players that will be back for Pat Fitzgerald in 2015:
1. Dean Lowry
Lowry was, rather quietly actually, one of Northwestern's best players this year. He was NU's most consistent defensive lineman, and at 6-foot-6, 280 pounds, he's a menace for any opposing offense. This season, a new-ish look saw Lowry occasionally line up inside rather than on the edge, and he was effective there too. His health is also a plus: Lowry has played in all but one game during his three years in Evanston.
2. Justin Jackson
Jackson exploded onto the scene in 2014 sooner than anybody could have expected him to. If you watched Nortwhestern play this year, you know how special of a talent he is. The key for Jackson moving forward is twofold. Firstly, he must prove his durability. He touched the ball 267 times this year, and should have his number called even more next year. Secondly, if he is to take the next step and become a Tevin Coleman- or Ameer Abdullah-level talent, he needs to add one more element to his game. That could be an uptick in breakaway speed. That could be more strength and power. No matter what it is though, it's clear that Jackson isn't far away from becoming a true superstar.
3. Matt Harris
After being thrown into the fire as a freshman, Harris progressed decently in year two. He made big plays in the Wisconsin and Notre Dame games, and became one of Northwestern's most dependable players. Harris also improved his tackling, and seems primed to make the leap to an All-Big Ten performer in his junior season.
4. Christian Jones
Jones, who suffered a serious knee injury in practice in August and was subsequently ruled out for the season, has redshirted and will be back to lead NU's receiving unit in 2015. Looking back, Jones' absence was far more detrimental to Northwestern than many thought it would be. It was certainly a bigger loss than that of Venric Mark. Northwestern's receivers struggled all year to win at the line of scrimmage, and it wasn't until November that Kyle Prater emerged as a big target for Trevor Siemian. Jones will, at the very least, replace Prater, and should be a reliable target for whoever starts at quarterback
5. Dan Vitale
Vitale's underuse is criminal. He's actually seen as an NFL prospect as an H-back, and his combination of size, speed and versatility should be a major weapon for Northwestern. Vitale actually posted career highs for receptions and yardage in 2014, but he still could mean so much more to this team than he currently does. 2015 will be his last chance to breakout before he potentially makes a push to play on Sundays.
Honorable Mention: Sean McEvilly, Nick VanHoose, Ifeadi Odenigbo, Godwin Igwebuike, Anthony Walker