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Here's what needs to happen to improve Northwestern's offense

Why should we be confident it will get better?

Dennis Wierzbicki-USA TODAY Sports

Earlier Wednesday, Kevin Dukovic released an early prediction for Northwestern's starting lineup on offense next year, and the reaction from fans was lukewarm at best.

Here's a look at the projection:

Projected Offensive Starters 2015

There's the splash suggestion that freshman Clayton Thorson could take over at quarterback, and there's the possibility that the running game will improve, but there's nothing here that you can point to that says, "uh huh, that's what's going to improve this team."

There's no "well unlike last year, we have guys that fit our system." There's no "all those injured guys are back." Christian Jones is back in the fold, and the possibilities from Justin Jackson and Auston Anderson are intriguing, but that's really about it.

This is, of course, why so many people wanted staff changes at the end of 2013. There's really nothing to say that this staff has proven that it can make this group of players markedly better this season, unless someone at one of the skill positions comes out of nowhere.

For Northwestern to get better on offense next season, it needs a number of relatively unforeseen things to happen — things with varying degrees of likelihood, and possibilities with varying degrees of upside. Here's the laundry list that you can pin your hopes on for 2015.

1. Clayton Thorson needs to be good, not just serviceable

For whatever reason, none of Northwestern's past three quarterbacks have lived up to expectations. The flashes we saw from Trevor Siemian as a sophomore never showed up consistently in his final two seasons, particularly his senior year, when he was a full-time starter. Zack Oliver seems destined to the role of sometimes serviceable backup. Matt Alviti, supposedly the crown jewel of the past few recruiting classes, hasn't lived up to the hype in practice or games.

Sure, sometimes there are recruiting misses, though a run of three consecutive unprepared quarterbacks raises a lot of development concerns. For Northwestern to be good, or merely mediocre, Clayton Thorson has to break the trend.

For the record, I think he's in the best position to do it. He has a solid backfield, and from what we've seen in practice, he was probably the best quarterback on NU's roster toward the end of this season (though maybe not to Siemian's level yet), despite being a true freshman. Is he going to be good right away? Maybe not. But he's going to have to be, or else NU is going to start the season 2-2 again, with losses against the only two teams of note on the Wildcats' non-conference schedule.

2. Justin Jackson and Auston Anderson have to complement each other

Pat Fitzgerald loves his try-hard guys, and Warren Long has been fine, particularly in short yardage situations. But if Justin Jackson and Auston Anderson aren't getting 90 to 95 percent of the carries this year, then the offense can't be successful.

Jackson has proven himself to be a legitimate Big Ten player, and as he puts on weight, he should be even better. He's going to be the Wildcats' main running back for the next three years, and there's evidence to suggest he might end up as the top rusher in NU history.

But Anderson adds a really interesting skill set, as well. He was recruited to NU (choosing the Wildcats over Texas!) by seeing film of Venric Mark. That's how the coaches told him they were going to use him, and if he can be the speedster to complement Jackson when both are on the field, then the Wildcats will have an advantage from the get-go that they didn't have in 2014.

3. The coaches need to open up the offense

This is the one thing that the coaches can do to improve this team without blind hope, but last year, they wouldn't even admit that they went away from the true spread at times, despite players going on record saying otherwise. So the first step in fixing the problem is recognizing that there is one, and that last year's experiment didn't work.

If the backfield will truly contain Thorson, Jackson and Anderson, then that's a backfield that will be two-thirds new to every team on the schedule, and one with highly-skilled players with truly unique skill sets. Thorson was a four-star prospect because of his large frame, running ability and passing ability both in and out of the pocket. Jackson was a four-star because of his vision and how hard he runs. Anderson was pursued by top programs because of his speed.

If NU fails to blend all those skill sets together, then it will have wasted its best recruiting haul since [enter your own timeframe so you don't get on me about historical perspective].

Last year's offense will not maximize everything this group has to offer. The Kafka offense, alone, will not, either. Nor will the Colter/Mark offense. Given these skill sets, Northwestern needs to take a page from the Gus Malzahn playbook and the Oregon playbook to at least get some starting points for innovation with this personnel. The problem is, there's little evidence to provide confidence that the coaches will make these necessary changes.

As noted above, these three players can do a lot of very different things very well. Just hoping they'll execute last year's offense a little better won't be enough.

4. The wide receivers have to improve on deep balls

Despite bringing in some talented receivers, Northwestern has struggled to produce a productive group of wide receivers over the past three years. This year, Wildcats fans will pin their hopes on Christian Jones, Miles Shuler, Cameron Dickerson and Dan Vitale.

Jones was NU's most consistent receiver before tearing his ACL in camp last year, and Vitale has often been criminally under-utilized in the passing game, so there's already hope that getting those two more involved will make the passing game better. However, for NU to make a major jump in the passing game, Shuler is going to have to step up his game. He battled injuries and drops this year, but he's really the Wildcats' only deep threat, now that Tony Jones is gone.

Big plays, more than efficiency, have hurt NU in its current rut. Shuler is the best option to fix that.

5. The offensive line can improve by ... ¯\_(ツ)_/¯

Given how Northwestern has recruited, there's absolutely no reason that the Wildcats should be as bad in the trenches has they have been over the past two years. NU has built more depth recruiting the offensive line than arguably any position, and these are all solid recruits.

The offensive line's problems are two-fold: There's the schematic issue of trying to turn players recruited for spread zone blocking schemes into power run guys, and there's the much bigger development issue. As noted above, maybe NU will change its scheme based on the new skill position personnel, and that could help put these players in better position to succeed. But development is a concern.

No matter how much shuffling NU did, players — many of whom have been in the program for at least two years — simply were not ready. That can't keep happening, but there's nothing to suggest that all of the sudden, solid recruits like Shane Mertz, Eric Olson and Geoff Mogus will be ready this season.

A change at offensive line coach could have given reason to think that there would be a sudden change in rate and quality of development, but as of now, NU is hoping that by staying the same, something will just click. That's not the strategy you want, but in this case, it's all fans can really cling to.