Over the next few weeks, Inside NU will be releasing its 2015 Northwestern Football Summer Guide, a season preview that will look at each positional unit, address the biggest storylines, and answer the most pressing questions that face the Wildcats this fall.
With our positional previews wrapped up, we had two questions for our writers. We'll start on the positive side: Which position group is Northwestern's strongest?
Zach Pereles: I think this one is pretty straightforward: the running backs are, by far, Northwestern's best position group. The best offensive skill player, Justin Jackson, is a running back. He alone would probably make this the best position group on the team. But it's the depth of the unit that makes this argument not even close. Warren Long has bulked up and is a great short yardage back, plus from what we've seen in spring ball it looks like he's gotten faster as well. Add the speedy Auston Anderson into the mix and you have one standout back plus two very good, if juxtaposing, runners behind him. All three guys should contribute this year, and all three guys bring something positive to this team.
Josh Rosenblat: I kept trying to think of alternatives to saying the running backs are the best position group at Northwestern. There were only two other options: the defensive line and the defensive backs. First, as much as we like to talk about how good the position group appears to be, the defensive line, frankly, isn't that strong. Dean Lowry's really good (Fun fact: Lowry was second on the team in 2014 in passes defensed. Reminder: he's a defensive end. Context: the non-defensive-back with the next most pass break-ups was Anthony Walker with 3.) The rest of the line, though, is inconsistent with relatively unknown strengths and weaknesses.
The defensive backs don't really have that same problem as there isn't one stand-out player like Lowry, but still there are issues. Matt Harris and Nick VanHoose are good. But the safeties (Traveon Henry and Godwin Igwebuike) still have some question marks. At both positions, depth is a strength, but how much should third-stringers matter in a discussion of best position groups? And even if they did matter, the running backs still have the best one. Warren Long is the most likely back to slot into that spot and he rushed for 4.1 yards per carry last year while sharing short-yardage duties with Treyvon Green. That's not too bad for the team's fourth-string runner last season. No position group has the top-end talent (in Jackson) nor the depth (in Auston Anderson, Long and Solomon Vault) that the running backs have.
Michael Odom: Everyone's high on the running backs, and I am too, but they are not the best position group on the team. The defensive backs make up this season's best group of guys. They have experience at every position and they're deeper than Socrates. Nick VanHoose started the last three seasons for a reason. Traveon Henry, entering his third year as the starting strong safety, appears to be in the best shape of his life. In his 17 starts over the past two seasons, Matthew Harris has proven reliable in coverage and in run support. Finally, Godwin Igwebuike started (and balled out) in five games last season in place of an injured Ibraheim Campbell.
All four of the starting DBs can play, but what makes the "Sky Team" special is the sheer number of game-ready players at Coach Jerry Brown's disposal. 6-foot-3 Kyle Queiro is big enough and rangy enough to play either safety position. Four star redshirt freshman cornerback Parrker Westphal should contribute this year, and Marcus McShepard is a capable backup just off his 4.4 speed alone. We haven't talked much about Keith Watkins (likely due to his injury struggles), but he's a natural playmaker with a nose for the football. No other position group has the depth to prohibit panic should a couple guys go down during the year.
Henry Bushnell: I'm going with the defensive backs, and I'm doing so without hesitation. Michael pretty much stole my thunder. There might be eight — yes, EIGHT — starting caliber players in the secondary. Parrker Westphal is a wildcard, but don't forget how big of a recruit he was, and I've liked what I've seen from Keith Watkins when healthy. And while Josh's point that there's no top-end talent (like there is at running back) is a fair one, I'd argue that Matt Harris is ready to take that next step in 2015. Godwin Igwebuike certainly could too. There's a great mix of youth, experience and talent in the defensive backfield, so for me, this isn't too difficult a call to make.
Kevin Dukovic: Definitely the secondary. Northwestern has one of the best cornerback duos in the conference in Nick VanHoose and Matt Harris, safety Traveon Henry is dependable and Godwin Igwebuike has the potential to fill Ibraheim Campbell's shoes. And don't discount the depth Michael and Henry detailed above — injuries are inevitable and it pays to have capable replacements. On a team facing a plethora of question marks, the defensive backs, with their proven talent and experience, offer the most certainty of any position group. For this Northwestern team, that's as good as gold.