Phil Steele just released his Preseason All-Big Ten selections and four Northwestern players were selected. Only Purdue had fewer players chosen on the list, which isn't too surprising as expectations for this Northwestern team aren't sky high. However, this list is the personal opinion of one person and not the collective result of a poll of experts, so perhaps not too much weight should be put into his predictions. Anyways, let's take a look at the players who were selected and those who weren't but maybe should have been.
Justin Jackson, sophomore running back
Steele's Projection: Second Team All-Big Ten
Jackson, who will be a true sophomore in the fall, had a stellar freshman year by anyone's standards, rushing for 1,187 yards and ten touchdowns. However, his success was overshadowed by four tremendous Big Ten running backs in Melvin Gordon, Tevin Coleman, Ameer Abdullah and David Cobb, and thus received only an Honorable Mention All-Big Ten selection.
Jackson has the raw tools to continue his ascension and establish himself as one of the premier backs in the conference, but there are a few variables to consider. First and foremost, as is always the case with running backs, health. Jackson will need to stay healthy if he's to mirror last year's production. He missed spring practice with a lower body injury, but there's no reason to be worried about his status for the upcoming season...yet.
Northwestern has a plethora of talent in the backfield. Jackson averaged 20.4 carries per game last year, but that number might decrease with the emergence of redshirt freshman Auston Anderson as well as Solomon Vault and short-yardage favorite Warren Long.
Lastly, no one knows what Northwestern's offense will look like next season. Last year's unit featured an odd and uncomfortable mix of spread concepts and power formations. Whoever emerges as the starting quarterback -- either Clayton Thorson, Matt Alviti or Zack Oliver -- will go a long way in shaping the offense, which in turn will determine how much emphasis is placed on the running game.
Geoff Mogus, senior offensive lineman
Steele's Projection: Fourth Team All-Big Ten
Mogus will be a senior next year and should be one of the lone members of next season's offensive line with significant experience. He started all 12 games at left guard in 2014, but we're still not exactly sure what position he'll play next year. There is some belief that he'll move to left tackle to replace Paul Jorgensen, who will be lost due to graduation.
If next year's offense prioritizes running the football as they did last year, a good portion of the running plays will likely be to Mogus' left side. At 6-foot-5 and 305 pounds, he has good size for the position and is deceptively agile.
Nick VanHoose, senior cornerback
Steele's Projection: First Team All-Big Ten
VanHoose is coming off a season in which he started ten consecutive games before missing two due to injury and was named a Second-Team All Big Ten performer. He's the undoubted starter at one of the cornerback spots, with the other spot likely occupied by Matt Harris, who was also a starter last season.
VanHoose doesn't possess elite speed -- though he was fast enough to return a blocked extra point for a touchdown against Notre Dame -- but he's an excellent tackler and knows the position well. He also has a knack for making plays in special teams; he was one of just six players in FBS to block three kicks.
Much will be expected of VanHoose in his senior season, and if he can stay healthy he'll most definitely be one of the leaders of Northwestern's defense, both on and off the field.
Dean Lowry, senior defensive end
Steele's Projection: Fourth Team All-Big Ten
Lowry, a 6-foot-6, 280 pound defensive end, has received a good chunk of playing time since his freshman season. He's improved every season and his eight tackles for a loss were second on the team last season. He received an Honorable Mention Big Ten selection for his efforts last season.
The defense -- and front seven in particular -- was a bright spot for Northwestern last season, and Lowry was a big reason why. We project four upperclassmen starting on the defensive line, which should bode well for that unit's continued success in 2015. If Northwestern can force teams into obvious passing situations, look for Lowry to get after the quarterback and hopefully tack on a few sacks.
Dan Vitale, senior superback
Vitale is an excellent blocker in the running game and as sure-handed as they come. He earned an Honorable Mention Big Ten nod last year and has a legitimate chance to set the all-time mark for receptions by a superback at Northwestern this season.
Again, we don't know what the offense will look like next season, but if Northwestern returns to running primarily spread, Vitale should get his fair share of targets. Look for him to be more heavily featured next season.
Godwin Igwebuike, sophomore safety
Igwebuike faces the daunting task of replacing Ibraheim Campbell, but he showed flashes of absolute brilliance last year. Against Wisconsin, Igwebuike became the first Northwestern player to intercept three passes in 41 years, a game that earned him Big Ten Defensive Player of the Week honors.
He's not going to intercept three -- or even one -- pass every game. But Igwebuike, described by his teammates as a "freak athlete," could be the defense's breakout player of 2015.