Going into the season, every fan looks for reasons to be optimistic about their team. For some, it's hard to do that until they've watched the first game. For some, they think the sky is falling before one snap of play.
After having a key departure and a few significant injuries, a lot of people have changed their view on this season and this Northwestern team. But here are some reasons to be optimistic, and how to tell if things are looking up.
1. Offensive Line
I know what you're thinking: "Duh," right? Let me explain further.
Obviously, offensive line was an area of concern last year, and that has lingered into the unit's credibility for this year, and rightfully so. In my opinion, the offensive line was mere fractions of a second from providing extra time for Siemian and Colter, and for the wide receivers to get the separation in their routes they needed. Last year, they were solid at the point of attack and provided above average run blocking. The play calling should lend itself to a lot fewer instances of collapse on line, and won't allow opposing defensive linemen to tee off on passing situations. If the offensive line is able to improve upon last year (which they should from experience alone), then I believe we have a lot of reason to be optimistic about the offense.
Be Optimistic If - When Trevor is sacked or pressured, you think to yourself, "Trevor should have gotten that off quicker or thrown it away" more than you think, "the OL blew that one." If he doesn't get sacked or pressured ... well then, I don't have to tell you how you should feel about the line.
2. Passing Schemes
What are we going to see? Downfield passing, bubble screens or a fair mix? Will we ever see the red zone/goal line fade route to Prater? Miles Shuler thinks of himself as the next Ebert (which I hope he becomes). Both Shuler and Ebert were quarterbacks in high school, so might we see some double passes?
Be optimistic if - We're able to get a running game started and McCall starts calling deep play action passes in the second-and-medium range between the 40 yard lines. This tells us that he feels confident in our third down passing game to take some deep chances. Or if we see any trick/gadget plays in similar situations.
3. Big Play Running Backs
Something we didn't quite have last year was a big play threat at the running back position. Granted, Treyvon Green was able to knock off some big gains here and there, but he was overall the more consistent back — a "Steady Eddie." Will anyone be able to replace Venrics role in the backfield? Just take 10-15 touches a game to slash a defense and keep them honest?
Be Optimistic If - Long, Jackson, or Vault collectively have a 3-5 15+ yard gashes.
4. Punt Return
This was one of the most frustrating areas of last year's team. We were spoiled with having an All-American back returning for the two previous years. We had someone who was able to change the game in five seconds, or at least substantially change field position. One thing we do know is that Tony Jones will not be back there to take the likely "coached up" fair catch or wave his teammates away from the punt. It'll be either Campbell or Shuler back deep. I look forward to seeing what they can offer.
Be Optimistic If - We have more than one 10+ yard return Saturday.
5. Defensive Line Pass Pressure
One area I'm NOT concerned about is third down pass pressure. We'll more than likely have the four defensive end look going again. My area of concern for this line is on 50/50 pass-to-run situations. The biggest question is when we have our new defensive tackles out there, Do we have the ability to put pressure on the QB when our defensive line has to transition from run defense to pass rush?
Be Optimistic If - You see a handful of tipped balls on first and second down, or if we get some sacks or quarterback pressures on any play action pass plays.
6. Collin Ellis
How smooth will his transition go from OLB to MLB? It's a completely different position, and it's easier to move from the inside out, than the outside in. But lets take a few steps back here. Collin Ellis came to NU after playing RB and FS in Baton Rouge. Do you know who else had a very similar path? Sean Lee, who I thought was one of the best overall football players my high school team played against (we were ranked as high as #2 or 3 in the nation that year). Can Ellis follow a similar path? I certainly hope so.
Be Optimistic If - He has more assisted tackles than solo tackles on the stat sheet. If he is making more assisted tackles, it likely means those plays/tackles are happening inside the tackle box or are occurring within the framework of the defense and thus playing well at MLB.
While we know who will kick for us this Saturday, what happens when Niswander gets healthy? What kind of decisions will Fitz make inside the 30 yard line?
Be Optimistic If - We have over 35 yards in net punting and try at least one 40+ yard field goal. Or be really optimistic if we don't have to punt or kick a field goal at all.
8. Screen Recognition
This is something that might bite us in the butt with having four defensive end look on third down passing situations. Having these super athletic and fast defensive ends pin their ears back and pass rush sounds all fine and dandy, but can they adjust and recognize a screen pass? Can the LBs sniff it out as well?
Be Optimistic If - We only see 1 or 2 screen passes after blowing up the first 1-2.
9. Kyle Prater
What will we see this year? Granted, how Prater performs may be more dependent on the play calling than anything else. It seems like he is finally healthy and has grown into his frame. Can he take over Christian Jones spot? We know he can run block, but can he get separation and become the deep and red zone threat we've all been hoping he can be?
Be Optimistic If - He gets targeted three or more times down field, has 3 + receptions or has more than 50 yards of receiving.
10. Trevor Siemian
I have always been a big Trevor fan. The first four weeks of last season he looked like the best pure passing QB in the Big Ten. Then, Big Ten season rolled around, and had a little less time to throw, shared more time with Kain and we later found out he was dealing with an injury. We saw him come back to form in the Illinois game. I think this being his team will do nothing but improve his play. If he can stay clean in the pocket, watch out.
Be Optimistic If - Nothing has changed since the Illinois game.
At the end of the day, it's extremely difficult to gauge how good a team is basing your opinion off their first game. The biggest improvement happens between week one and week two. If we start to see a lot of these reasons for optimism pan out, this team could be the Big Ten dark horse out of the B1G West.
Overall, I feel like a lot of how good this team can be is overly dependent on the offense. How the offensive line improves, how they replace Mark and Jones' roles, and if our play calling changes between what we saw last year and now, with Siemian in the drivers seat, and not co-pilot. We know our defense is pretty stacked. Losing McEvilly hurts, but we have new faces at defensive tackle to be excited about. I wouldn't count this team out of any kind of B1G West contention, or let alone bowl contention until after week 2. I'm with my buddy Andy Day, and his prediction of a 11-1 regular season.