A lot is still up in the air for the Northwestern as we slowly but surely draw nearer to the kickoff of the 2015 football season, but the excitement for football season is undeniable. For most players, it's been over half a year since they last took the field to compete against someone other than their own teammates.
But for those who redshirted last year, it's been a year and a half. These players are ready to prove they belong on the field after taking a year to learn the system, put on muscle and improve. Earlier Wednesday, we looked at five veteran players who could have breakout seasons. Here are five redshirt freshmen who could explode onto the scene and have a major impact on the Wildcats' upcoming season:
1. Clayton Thorson
Regardless of whether he starts the season at quarterback, Thorson may be the most important player on Northwestern's roster, and the team's success may hinge on his play. The dual-threat signal caller sat out last season as Trevor Siemian started 11 games and Zack Oliver filled in when Siemian went down with an injury. Matt Alviti also got some time as a running threat. But with a year of experience in the system and the athletic ability he possesses, Thorson may leap both Oliver and Alviti on the depth chart. His first time on the field as a Wildcat could come in the opener against Stanford.
At 6-foot-4, Thorson possesses the size to be a pocket passer, but he is known for his mobility as well. In high school, he showed the ability to pull the ball out and run effectively. Thorson had a bevy of offers, including Iowa, Illinois, Penn State and Ole Miss, coming out of high school, and for good reason. His film shows good arm strength on throws down the middle of the field and good feel for throws outside the numbers. Of course, that's against high school competition, but still, there's little question as to whether Thorson has the physical ability to make all the throws.
2. Auston Anderson
A speedster with a dynamic personality, Anderson missed last year with a hip problem, but is back and ready to go this year. The running backs this year should be one of Northwestern's strongest units, with Justin Jackson coming off a terrific freshman campaign, Warren Long providing tough between-the-tackles short-yardage running and Anderson bringing some flash. He may also see time as a kick and punt returner and has drawn some comparisons to Venric Mark for his size (or lack thereof) and speed. He was highly-coveted coming out of high school and is surely a player that should get several touches per game.
Speed kills, and if anyone has speed, it's Auston Anderson. His offer list from 247 speaks for itself, and, had he not been injured, there's a good chance he would have seen the field last year. Part of the reason Anderson committed to Northwestern was the spread offense, something he felt would allow him to maximize his impressive speed and agility. He should add an extra element to the Wildcat offense — a guy that can go the distance on any play. If there's one thing the offense severely lacked in 2014, it was big plays. Anderson can provide those.
3. Parrker Westphal
Another redshirt freshman who was heavily-recruited out of high school and struggled with injury, Westphal should contend for the top spot at nickel cornerback. At 6-foot-1 and 190 pounds, he has good size and enough speed to excel in the slot. The secondary is expected to be one of Northwestern's strongest positions. If Westphal's healthy, it could be even better than expected.
Westphal was one of the biggest gets in the Class of 2014 for Pat Fitzgerald. He was a four-star recruit with offers from a TON of schools — Michigan State, Ohio State, Michigan, Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Minnesota, Nebraska, Purdue and Wisconsin were his Big Ten offers alone. Westphal came in with high expectations and even enrolled early — a first in the Fitzgerald era — only to struggle with various ailments. However, from his highlights, you can see that he's willing to come up and deliver a hit, has good speed and might be an asset on special teams too.
4. Nate Hall
The younger brother of Jimmy Hall, Nate sat out last year but is in the mix for the starting job at WILL linebacker spot, a job that Chi Chi Ariguzo manned well for three years. Hall may not be the current favorite to win the job necessarily, but he should at least see time as a back up (should he not win the job) and on special teams.
Hall didn't come in with quite the offer list that Thorson, Anderson and Westphal did (the only other Power Five school to offer was Pitt, according to 247), but he shows his athleticism and versatility in his senior year highlight film. Now officially listed at 6-foot-2," 210 pounds, Hall is on the smaller side for a linebacker (like his older brother was), but he shows good speed and takes good angles at ballcarriers. He's no sure thing, but neither is anyone else vying for that starting spot.
5. Blake Hance/Tommy Doles
These two are grouped together because they play the same position (tackle) and, in all likelihood, will not be on the field together very often. At this point, almost nothing on the offensive line is guaranteed, but one of these two players is likely to see significant playing time, considering Northwestern lost both of its tackles from last year. Both guys are tall and lanky for lineman — Hance goes 6-foot-5," 275 pounds while Doles goes 6-foot-6," 270 pounds — and could benefit from adding some extra weight. Still, the tackle position is extremely important in football, especially with a new quarterback, so Hance and Doles' development may be key.
Hance played a combination of tackle and tight end in high school, and in his highlight tape you can see him just overpowering defenders with his pure size and strength. A well-regarded three-star recruit, Hance had offers from 12 different schools, including six from the Big Ten. Hance shows good hand placement and terrific mobility on film and, if he's strong enough, could make an impact.
Doles, meanwhile, chose Northwestern over Michigan and Iowa State, among others. The first four plays on his film are awesome. He uses an effective right hand chop on screens and shows good speed to get out in front of ball carriers. He also shows good agility on a few plays later in the film, pulling across the formation to pave running lanes up the middle. A big guy who can move a bit, his strength, positional foundation and footwork will certainly be tested if he makes appearances this year.
There are other redshirt freshmen who could see time — for example, the defensive line is seemingly never healthy, so Ben Oxley and Fred Wyatt might see some action — but the above-mentioned players are the redshirt freshmen who will have the most significant impacts in 2015.