A football team that loses its quarterback, top two receivers and three-fifths of its offensive line is usually in for a rebuilding year. But for Northwestern, that might not be the case.
That's one of the themes of Bill Connelly's recent article about Northwestern football. Connelly, a college football analytics guru for SB Nation, does not predict that NU's offense will necessarily benefit from less experienced replacements. He does, however, concede that as a possibility since the graduating starters "were part of a terribly disappointing unit." Still, he doesn't do so without acknowledging that "a bad offense that becomes less experienced doesn't leave you overflowing with optimism."
So, which is it? Will losing veterans on offense hurt or help the Wildcats next season? Let's break it down by position.
Assuming that Clayton Thorson gets the nod at quarterback, which he should, Northwestern should be better off next season under center. Thorson is an upgrade over Trevor Siemian because he can make all of the throws Trevor Siemian could and make plays with his legs. Thorson will have some growing pains, but having a true dual threat at quarterback really opens up the playbook for Mick McCall and makes Northwestern's offense dangerous again.
The loss of Kyle Prater and Tony Jones should be offset by the return of Christian Jones, the increased role of Miles Shuler and the addition of Auston Anderson. While Christian Jones is coming off an injury, he's capable of being the No. 1 receiver this offense needs. Shuler showed flashes last season before going down with a hand injury and should make more of an impact his season out of the slot in his second year. And I expect McCall to use Anderson as a pass-catching weapon out of the backfield, a role the short burner should thrive in. Mike McHugh also showed some promise in limited action last season and could have a bigger impact this season.
Tony Jones, who had a really disappointing 2014 season, and Prater, who had his moments but couldn't stay healthy, combined for just under 900 yards receiving last year. A healthy Christian Jones, along with Shuler and Anderson, should combine for at least 1,200 yards. With speedsters like Shuler, Anderson and Solomon Vault more involved, the passing game should also be more explosive than it was last season.
Last but certainly not least is the turn-over on the offensive line. These upgrades at quarterback and receiver would mean nothing if the offensive line is worse or as bad as it was last season. As Connelly details, Northwestern's offensive line was below average in almost every category in 2014. So while losing three lineman with 101 starts between them seems like an issue on the surface, maybe it's not such a bad thing. Plus the replacements, on paper, are more talented than their predecessors and have enough experience to ensure a smooth transition.
Experience matters in all sports, but in most cases talent matters more. And Northwestern's potential replacements on offense, while less experienced, are probably slightly more talented. The question remains: Will that talent translate to more success on field?