It’s understandably hard to get amped up about a team that’s lost 10 games in the last two seasons and have gone to a grand total of zero bowl games in that time. But amidst the turmoil, the growing bass about dissatisfaction with the coaching staff, and resuscitation of union talk are, actually, some reasons to be excited about next year. With talent coming back at a number of positions for Northwestern the question is: what group is the best?
Picking the best unit on this Northwestern team comes down to the criteria you choose to use. Northwestern’s new look linebacking corps may be green, but Randy Bates has done a wonderful job in his 9 years at Northwestern of developing talent at the linebacker position. It’s been a long time since that position group has been a weak spot of the defense. I wouldn’t be shocked if one of the new starters stepped in to make an immediate impact just like Anthony Walker did this year. People are wondering if Traveon Henry will move up to linebacker in the spring like Jimmy Hall did last year. I’d be surprised if that move was made, but even without Henry, Wildcat fans should trust the coaching staff to get the position figured out. If there’s one constant in the Fitzgerald era, it’s been a good eye for linebacker talent and good development.
The secondary might be the most talented/experienced group on the team, but will they be held back by scheme? Nick VanHoose, Matt Harris, Godwin Igwebuike, Traveon Henry, Keith Watkins, and Parrker Westphal all have great upside and, for those who have gotten on the field, have all made big impacts, even if Keith Watkins was more special teams ace than lockdown corner. Still, maybe it’s just trauma from the Greg Colby era, but since Sherrick McManis left for the NFL, Northwestern have had a host of corners who looked promising who never seemed to reach their full potential. Safeties have been notably better, and even though NU is losing an NFL safety in Ibraheim Campbell, they’re well equipped to replace him. Still, the soft zone coverage on the outside has been frustrating Northwestern fans for a long time. You can’t help wondering if Richard Sherman were on this team that he would be asked to give 7 yards of cushion to wide receivers too.
If you’re going by recruiting stars and returning players, the defensive line should be the strongsuit of the team (maybe you can tell that I’m kind of high on the defense this year). Northwestern loses only one player (Chance Carter) from their rotation last year, plus Sean McEvilly comes back for his sixth year of eligibility. The edge rushers are deep and talented, with Dean Lowry, Xavier Washington, Deonte Gibson, and Ifeadi Odenigbo all coming back. Up the middle, Kuhar and Robbins are both back. However, for as talented as this group is, last year they were firmly middle of the pack in stopping the run and dead last in sacks. People have had high expectations for just about everyone in the D-Line rotation, but until the results show up on the field, it’s hard to put high expectations on this group.
There are a host of position groups that are big question marks. NU enters the spring with, if you believe Pat Fitzgerald’s quotes, a three-way open competition at QB, with senior Zack Oliver, "it" recruit 1.0 Matt Alviti, and "it" recruit 2.0 in Clayton Thorson. Special teams brings back the same specialists as last year, though hopefully a healthy Hunter Niswander instead of the sub-100% version we saw last year. Wide receivers were weak last year and lose two starters in Tony Jones and Kyle Prater. Superbacks are talented but chronically underused.
The Leaders: Running Backs
All that brings us to the best unit on the 2015-16 Wildcat football team: the running backs. Justin Jackson exploded on the scene as a true freshmen, took the starting job a few games in, and never looked back. The true freshman rattled off nearly 1400 total yards, scored 11 touchdowns, and rushed for 100+ yards in five of Northwestern’s eight Big Ten games. Jackson is a throwback to the Walker era at Northwestern where the Wildcats just reloaded at running back, with the likes of Damien Anderson, Jason Wright, Noah Herron, and Tyrell Sutton (who did play most of his career under Fitzgerald). Jackson is quick, shifty, and subtly strong. He should add some bulk to his frame over the offseason, and as long as he doesn’t lose speed as a consequence, should be even better suited for running in between the tackles and more durable. In a normal conference, Jackson would have at least gotten some buzz for an All-Conference spot. But with Ezekiel Elliot, Melvin Gordon, Ameer Abdullah, David Cobb, and Tevin Coleman, Jackson was lost in the wash. Don’t expect that to happen again.
Behind Jackson is where this group makes a step forward from last year. Treyvon Green was a solid running back throughout his time at Northwestern, but lacked big play ability. The crew of backups this year is explosive. Solomon Vault looked like he was going to be a very useful scatback before injuries ruined his freshman campaign. Vault has breakaway speed and a good set of hands, ideal for a backup, change of pace back. Think Darren Sproles. Along with Vault enters redshirt freshman Auston Anderson. Anderson racked up some darn impressive offers, including Texas, Stanford, and Baylor, before picking the Wildcats. Another speedster, Anderson might well earn carries along with Vault. Behind all the speed is short yardage specialist Warren Long, who smashes into holes hard and decisively. If Jackson can get 20-25 carries and the other backs get 5-10, Northwestern will give defenses a lot to think about in the run game. Nothing helps out quarterbacks more than a solid running game, and with an inexperienced starter due to take the reins, the stable of talent in the backfield will be leaned on early and often, and they’re good enough to deliver.