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.
Yesterday, we discussed which position group was Northwestern's strongest. Today, we put a lid on our positional previews with the other side of yesterday's question: which unit is Northwestern's worst?
Josh Rosenblat: While the focus all offseason has been on who will be throwing passes for Northwestern, the more troubling part of that equation is really who will be catching them. Presumed No. 1 Christian Jones missed all of 2014 with a torn ACL, then had another surgery in the spring to repair torn cartilage in his knee. Mike McHugh, a 6-foot-3 junior who made an impressive one-handed catch against Iowa last season, had foot surgery in the spring and when I spoke to him after a practice he was sporting a protective boot on both feet. He had just nine catches last season. Another lanky unknown is Pierre Youngblood-Ary. He caught seven passes in 2014. Cam Dickerson and Miles Shuler both contributed last season, but Dickerson struggled with drops and Shuler was never able to find a rhythm. It's truly amazing how Northwestern went from having a deep, veteran receiving corp in 2013 to the group running routes now.
Zach Pereles: It's tough to argue against the wide receivers, a group that really struggled last year and hinges on the questionable health of Christian Jones, but the weakest position group is also the most important one: quarterback. Pat Fitzgerald hasn't chosen a quarterback, but let's look at the options realistically. The two guys with experience at the college level are Zack Oliver and Matt Alviti. In the lone game Oliver started, he threw three picks to just one touchdown, which came in garbage time any way. He also fumbled twice. Not exactly promising. He did a good job in the Purdue game, but that game was hardly competitive. Matt Alviti has completed two out of four career passes for three yards. He has also ran four times for nine yards. Not exactly awe-inspiring. Clayton Thorson, who we believe to be the leading candidate for the job, has no college experience, and while he has drawn solid reviews, it is still very difficult to predict success — at least immediately — from a guy who hasn't played a down. The talent may be there, but, to me, the transition period may be rougher than hoped for.
Henry Bushnell: The answer to this question is largely dependent on how you view last season's offensive struggles. Were they on Trevor Siemian — who was, by all accounts, by far the best quarterback on the roster? Were they on the offensive line, who couldn't give Siemian sufficient time to get the ball downfield? Or were they on the wide receivers, who couldn't get separation, thus severely limiting NU's offensive options? The answer, of course, is a combination of the three, but it's a matter of who bears the brunt of the blame.
I'm placing more blame on the receivers than anybody else. And since I don't believe the unit will improve considerably, if at all, I'll go with the receivers as the worst position group. Quarterback could be the worst; but it also could bring some much-needed hope to an offense that really struggled last year. And while the offensive line is certainly a work in progress, I think it can be solid, or slightly below-average. But this group of receivers was a lot worse than "slightly below-average" last year. Cam Dickerson and Miles Shuler are athletes, but have struggled with drops; Pierre Youngblood-Ary, Mike McHugh, and the rest of the unit just haven't shown much, if anything; and even if Christian Jones is healthy enough to play, can we really expect him to be the same player he was two years ago? I don't think so. There's a chance one (or even two) of the four true freshmen gets an opportunity and runs with it, but overall, this is a pretty awful unit.
Kevin Dukovic: This question is much more difficult to answer than yesterday's because there are more candidates (sorry Northwestern faithful). But I think we can all agree that the worst position group lies on the offensive side of the ball, whether it's the quarterbacks, the receivers or the offensive line. So which is it? It's tempting to go with the receivers because they are the least complete group of the three. But I'm going with the offensive line. Not because of the uncertainty surrounding them, but because of the ramifications of that uncertainty. Every successful offense starts with the line. And it won't matter who starts at QB or receiver if NU's offensive line is as porous as it was last season.
Michael Odom: It is certainly too early to write off any position group as bad. You just can't do that during the offseason. We aren't even sure who will be playing, let alone how well they will perform. Nothing terrifies me more than the quarterback situation, but, since the probable starting quarterback hasn't done anything wrong yet, I'll say the receivers are the "worst." The receiving corps could very well be good this year, but as of now they look like the weakest link.