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Wildcat Shootaround: Most Important Player snubs

Who did we questionably leave off our list of top 10 most important Wildcats?

Evan Habeeb-USA TODAY Sports

Our list of Top 10 Most Important Northwestern Players is complete. Over the past two weeks, we counted down the 10 players "who will have the biggest impact on the overall outcome of the season," and while there was no surprise at the top, there were plenty of arguments throughout.

Now retrospectively, it's time to turn our attention to the guys who missed out on the top 10. For this summer football edition of Wildcat Shootaround, each of our writers has picked a player who he believes should have been in the top 10, and has explained why that player is deserving:

Greg Kuhar/Sean McEvilly

Henry Bushnell: I'm shocked no defensive tackles showed up on the list. The argument against their importance is that they were only so-so last year, but Northwestern's run defense was still better than expected. However, I want to direct everybody's attention to these two sentences that SB Nation's Bill Connelly wrote in his annual Northwestern season preview:

[Last year], stellar linebacking play likely made the line look better, and now three of last year's five LBs are gone. That might mean the line needs to improve just to offset regression.

That improvement is a huge question mark though. Chance Carter is gone, and Greg Kuhar tore his ACL against Notre Dame. After missing the better part of two seasons with injuries, Sean McEevilly again struggled with an ailment this spring. That leaves C.J. Robbins as the only surefire contributor. So one of either Kuhar or McEvilly will need to be both healthy and effective. If neither is, there's not much behind them, and Northwestern's line could be weak up the middle in 2015.

Hunter Niswander

Jason Dorow: Call me crazy, but Niswander — or whoever the starting punter is — would easily be in my top 10. Over the past two seasons, Northwestern's punting situation was abysmal. Brandon Williams' numbers dropped significantly from 2013 to 2014, and last season, Chris Gradone didn't do much better with 37.9 yards per boot. Sure, he had a magic foot when trying to pin opponents inside the 20, but you knew he couldn't boot the pigskin more than 45 yards.

Now, a relative unknown is taking over as starting punter in Niswander. Based on his limited experience and what we've seen, Niswander will probably perform on a similar level as his predecessors, but predicting his production isn't any easier than predicting NU's next quarterback.

No matter who is punting, there's tons of room for improvement. Our Zach Pereles noted that NU was 124th in the country in punt efficiency last year, and if you followed my "By the Numbers" posts at all last year, you'd know that Gradone's stats were an excellent predictor of whether NU won a ballgame (and that Gradone punted for more yards than the offense gained some Saturdays). Plus, if the offense stalls as often as it did last year, the punter will boot it 7 or 8 times in a handful of games. And if he can consistently send the Wildcats' opponents 10-15 yards deeper than last year, it will have an enormous effect.

Jack Mitchell

Ian McCafferty: Guys, Notre Dame just called... And they think Jack Mitchell should be in the top 10.

In all seriousness though, the theme of Mitchell's 2014 campaign was improvement, and I think we'll see him improve even more this year after a full season of experience. Last year in the first six games, Mitchell was 6 for 7 on field goals, but all 6 makes were from 30 or fewer yards out. He also missed two extra points. In the last six games, Mitchell was 8 for 11, but only one of his attempts was shorter than 30 yards. Also, one of the most important qualities that a place kicker can possess is grace under pressure, and Mitchell certainly showed that against Notre Dame.

No matter how much better or worse Mitchell is this season, he'll still have two of the most important jobs on this team, scoring points and handling kickoffs. Last year Mitchell accounted for about 25 percent of the team's points, which is more than anyone else not named Justin Jackson. He'll have to step it up on kickoffs though: in 54 kickoffs he only had 19 touchbacks; and as Zach Pereles already showed, field position is very important. As Nick Saban has seen time and time again, the quality of your kicker can make or break a football team. Now I don't think Mitchell will be the end all be all for this team, but he'll certainly have an important role throughout the season.

Nick VanHoose

Kevin Dukovic: How is senior cornerback Nick VanHoose not on this list? Arguably Northwestern's best defensive player, VanHoose was one of two Wildcats who earned second-team All-Big Ten honors last season. The other was Ibraheim Campbell. And like Campbell, who was selected by the Cleveland Browns in the fourth round of the 2015 NFL Draft, some see VanHoose as one of the few Wildcats talented enough to be drafted. (Note: CBS' rankings have since been updated and no longer have VanHoose listed, but at one point early in the process, he was rated the 21st best cornerback in the 2016 draft class).

VanHoose doesn't "wow" anyone with his athleticism, but he's been solid as a rock in pass coverage his whole career. Last season he ranked second in the Big Ten and 26th nationally with 1.2 passes defended per game. VanHoose is more than just a ball hawk though — he's found other ways to make an impact. He averaged a team-high 5.9 tackles per game last season, and was one of six players in the nation to block three kicks in 2014.

Anyone who's tasked with defending the opposing team's best wide receiver is extremely important. That responsibility alone should have been enough to earn VanHoose a spot in the Top 10. Add in how impactful he's been for NU over the last two seasons, and you have someone who's as valuable as it gets to Northwestern football.

Starting WILL Linebacker (Joseph Jones/Nate Hall/Tommy Vitale)

Michael Odom: Why is nobody else concerned about this? No one else on our staff ranked the defense's primary run-stopper in their top 15 most important players. Chi Chi Ariguzo led the team with 104 tackles last year. He had 106 in 2013. Ariguzo was an All-Big Ten honorable mention selection in each of the three seasons he started for the Wildcats, and is Northwestern's 10th all-time leading tackler.

So why is the starting WILL linebacker important? Because that guy, Ariguzo, isn't on the team anymore! And the guys behind him have combined for zero tackles from scrimmage. This is important!

We don't know who is going to start. As of now, it seems like neither Pat Fitzgerald nor Randy Bates (the linebackers coach) knows who's going to start. We think the battle is between redshirt junior Joseph Jones, redshirt freshman Nate Hall and true freshman Tommy Vitale. Jones — who moved from safety to linebacker during his freshman year — has the size and athleticism to be a good player, but he has minimal in-game experience. We know little about Hall (younger brother of Jimmy Hall) or Vitale (younger brother of Dan Vitale), as neither of them have seen the field since high school. So basically, we know nothing.

Though the weak-side linebacker situation is alarming, it won't be time to panic until after the team returns from its annual fall camp in Kenosha. By then, we should have a clearer idea of who will trot out with the first team defense on Sept. 5. Whoever it is WILL have some big shoes to fill.

Cam Dickerson

Josh Rosenblat: I think we got pretty much anyone right. One player I would add to the list is wide receiver Cam Dickerson. Over the past couple seasons, Dickerson has played sparingly, often with mixed results. With Christian Jones' health still a major question mark, Dickerson's consistency must improve as he has to be able to use his 6-foot-3 frame to be a reliable target for whoever is playing quarterback. He has shown the ability get open but his hands have been the real issues. Dickerson needs to step up to make Northwestern's offense more explosive.

Marcus McShepard/Parrker Westphal/Keith Watkins

Zach Pereles: I'll write about them together, because I think their development this year will be key. The Northwestern cornerbacks weren't hit hard by graduation or transfers. In general, we know what Northwestern will get from Nick Van Hoose. He's an upper-level cornerback who is solid but unspectacular. Matt Harris was also good last year. But what will be key is the development of slot corners Marcus McShepard, Keith Watkins and Parrker Westphal.

McShepard has the edge in experience in this role, and in general played reasonably well last year when called upon. Westphal was a highly-rated recruit who has battled injuries thus far. Watkins also struggled with injuries last season, but looked good in practices. Can one of the three really step up against a team that spreads out defenses and forces them to consistently have five defensive backs on the field?

The development of these three guys will be key, especially if Harris or Van Hoose were to get hurt. Northwestern should be solid everywhere defensively, even with the losses of Ibraheim Campbell and Chi Chi Ariguzo. It would be very helpful if the cornerback group stood out; Northwestern's defense could be really good if that happens. The development of the backup corners can make that possible.

Ifeadi Odenigbo

Ben Goren: I'm not writing this to say that Ifeadi should be in the top 10, because I ranked him 14th. But it's interesting that almost all of us had him somewhere between 10-15. One would think that expectations for Odenigbo's junior season would be through the roof. It feels like a long time ago now when Odenigbo was a blue-chipper who Northwestern swung to Evanston in a recruiting coup. An injury-filled first season, a redshirt freshman year as a limited third down specialist, and a sophomore year that started hot then fizzled have put Odenigbo in an unusual position: he doesn't need to be, and isn't expected to be, an all-star.

Dean Lowry and Deonte Gibson are going to start at defensive end and both of them are going to be on the field plenty. Lowry will undoubtedly play some snaps at tackle, but Odenigbo, unless he's put on a heap ton of weight in the offseason, is going to be used in spots where he can just be turned loose in pass rush situations, and that's okay.

Odenigbo is, realistically, a 3-4 outside linebacker who's playing defensive end in a 4-3 scheme. His upside is still undeniable. Would it shock me if he ended up with 7 sacks in 2015? Not really. But it also wouldn't shock me if he still was in a limited third down specialist role. If Odenigbo takes a giant leap forward, NU's defensive line is going to be beyond stacked. If he doesn't? It will probably be okay. It feels like Northwestern fans have tempered their expectations on Ifeadi for the first time. Maybe that's going to help him thrive this season.


Did we miss anybody else? Was there a player that went unmentioned that you would've had in your top 10?