It's one of those preseason college football questions to which everybody wants to know the answer. Who are the flashy young prospects? Which incoming freshmen are good enough to make an immediate splash? Especially with Justin Jackson's success as a true freshman last year, the question of who could follow in Jackson's footsteps in 2015 seems especially relevant.
Ahead of camp, head coach Pat Fitzgerald already has an idea of who will redshirt (most of them will) and the true freshmen will have to earn the right to burn the extra year of eligibility.
There are two main things to look at. One is readiness, both physically and mentally, aspects that will come out in training camp and during workouts.
The other is opportunity. For example, even if Clayton Thorson had been ready to play last year, he still likely would've redshirted to preserve a year of eligibility, because Northwestern had a capable starter in Trevor Siemian. The opportunity aspect is where we're currently more informed.
With that in mind, let's take a look at some redshirt freshmen who could potentially see the field:
The leading candidates to contribute as true freshmen are the four wide receivers. Northwestern's current crop of wideouts is not very deep and struggled mightily last season, so all four freshmen will have opportunity. As for which of the four could/will play in 2015, that'll come down to readiness.
It also could come down to what type of player offensive coordinator Mick McCall and wide receiver coach Dennis Springer are looking for. Nagel, a slot receiver who runs sharp routes, might have the most polished game of the four, making him the favorite. But if NU needs a threat on the outside, Green, an impressive 6-foot-2 athlete, might have the most overall ability of the bunch. Green, though, is recovering from a shoulder injury he suffered toward the end of his senior football season en route to an Illinois state championship for Stevenson. Fessler is a big 6-foot-4 target. And Roberts would fill the speedster role, and would immediately be one of the team's biggest threats in the return game. But would his slight frame hold up in the Big Ten? It's tough to see Fitzgerald using a year of his eligibility solely on special teams, but it's certainly not completely out of the question.
Another area of apparent need for Northwestern is at linebacker. Vitale, younger brother of senior superback Dan, is the only one of the three players that was listed as an outside linebacker coming out of high school, and that's where NU has the biggest need, on the weak side. Perhaps it's also worth noting that Dan did play immediately as a true freshman three years ago. Additionally, our Michael Odom has been mentioning Tommy as a player in the WILL competition.
Simba Short will be making the move from safety to linebacker at the college level, so in all likelihood, a redshirt year will be necessary to make the transition smooth. But Short still has decent size (6-foot-2, 210 pounds in high school), and could at least get a shot to compete for playing time.
The most highly-touted linebacker in the class though is Nathan Fox. A Texas kid who had offers from Oregon, Mississippi State and Utah, and had drawn interest from Baylor, Texas and Notre Dame, Fox is primarily an inside linebacker though, and Northwestern is set in the middle with Anthony Walker. Walker should be there for the next three seasons though, so even if Fox doesn't see the field this year, could he be moved outside for two seasons before heading back to MIKE?
Thompson might not be big enough to step onto a Big Ten field at defensive tackle in his first year on campus — he was listed at 250 pounds in high school. But he's at least worth mentioning here, because he is, according to most recruiting sites, the top player in this class. Thompson had offers from Notre Dame, Alabama, Michigan State, Iowa, Louisville, West Virginia and others. If NU does in fact see him as a tackle rather than a defensive end though, he'll likely need to put on some weight.
OL Jared Thomas
Thomas, an interior offensive lineman, is another one of the class's most highly-rated players. Also working in his favor is the fact that there's quite a bit of uncertainty on the offensive line. It's tough to see a true freshman beating out Brad North for the starting center role, but if Thomas' performance in camp is eye-opening, he could compete for one of the guard spots. It's a longshot, but not totally out of the question.
K Mason Weissenhofer
The preferred walk-on from Plainfield, Illinois would have to usurp incumbent Jack Mitchell for the starting spot, but kicker is probably the easiest position for a true freshman to make the transition from high school. An athletic kid who played wide receiver in high school, Weissenhofer had offers to play at Penn State, Nebraska, Purdue and Cal. He also has the leg strength to kick 65-yard field goals in practice, so there's that.