The New Year is a time for fresh starts. And that's exactly what Northwestern football needs in 2015.
Even though Northwestern's season has been over for 40 days now, the agony of yet another disappointing 5-7 season is still fresh in the minds of NU fans. But don't worry Northwestern faithful. "Chicago's Big Ten Blog" is here to help you all move on.
And with that, I present to you our way-too-early 2015 depth chart projections and analysis, which features key losses and key returners and projected starters for each position group. Today I'll go over the offense and tomorrow I'll project the defense.
Key Loss: Trevor Siemian
Key Returners: Zach Oliver, Matt Alviti and Clayton Thorson
Projected Starter: Even though Siemian didn't have the best senior season, you need look no further than the Illinois game to see the impact of his absence. The good news is that head coach Pat Fitzgerald has three capable replacements to choose from. Oliver and Alviti received valuable in-game experience toward the end of last season and Thorson is a promising prospect. All three of these guys have a real shot of starting next season so this should be a fun QB competition to follow throughout the offseason. I think Oliver will enter spring practice as the "starter," -- if Fitzgerald names one, that is -- but I ultimately expect Thorson, the No. 6 ranked dual-threat QB in his class according to Rivals.com, to win the job and be the starting quarterback when the Wildcats host Stanford Sept. 5.
Key Losses: Brandon Vitabile and Paul Jorgensen
Key Returners: Matt Frazier and Geoff Mogus
Projected Starters: Northwestern has to find replacements at two of the most important positions on any football team, center and left tackle, following the departures of Vitabile and Jorgensen. While I expect the offensive line to take a step back in 2015, I don't think the unit will dramatically regress. Rising seniors Frazier and Mogus started all 12 games last season at right guard and left guard and will anchor a relatively experienced group in 2015. Eric Olson, who played in 11 games last season and started nine times at right tackle, returns along with Adam DePietro, who played in every game last year as a reserve at both guard and tackle. I anticipate that either Mogus or Frazier will shift to center, Olson will start at right tackle again and DePietro will step in at either right guard or left guard (depending on who moves to center). That leaves the all-important left tackle. Even though he has no experience on the line, I predict Shane Mertz will get the nod at left tackle. Mertz was frequently listed behind Jorgensen on the team-released depth charts last season and is a load at 6-foot-8 310 pounds. Inexperience at left tackle and limited depth (Ian Park would be the only reserve with significant game reps) are the biggest concerns for the offensive line this offseason.
Key Losses: Kyle Prater and Tony Jones
Key Returners: Christian Jones and Miles Shuler
Projected Starters: Wide receiver is once again an area of concern for Northwestern in 2015. The only returners who saw the field consistently are Cameron Dickerson and Shuler. And there's no telling how effective Christian Jones will be next season coming off knee surgery. The three starters should be Jones, Dickerson and Shuler, but none of those guys is all that dependable at this point. To make matters worse, the Wildcats are pretty thin at receiver this season and lack last year's depth. Austin Carr, Mike McHugh and Pierre Youngblood-Ary are pretty much the only reliable subs with experience since Stephen Buckley is a bit of a wildcard. If injuries plague the receivers like they did last season, the Wildcats are in trouble. I should mention that superback Dan Vitale will return for his senior season, which is a big plus for NU in the passing game and elsewhere.
Key Loss: Treyvon Green
Key Returners: Justin Jackson and Auston Anderson
Projected starter: The obvious answer here is Jackson, but as I've previously written, I fully expect Auston Anderson to be a large part of Northwestern's offense in 2015. I foresee NU adopting a two running back system in which Jackson and Anderson split carries and Warren Long sees some action in goal-line and short yardage situations.
Here's the final product, your 2015 Northwestern football starters on offense: