Northwestern football fans are naturally pessimistic, with good reason, but sometimes it's fun to actually think your team will win games and look towards the future. Even if that future is inevitably five wins and crushed dreams.... Anyway, there's a lot to like about the 2015 Northwestern Wildcats, and could be a lot to like about the 2016 and 2017 Wildcats, so let's all come out of our doomsday shelters and get excited for the season!
Here are six reasons to be optimistic about about Northwestern football:
1. CLAYTON THORSON!
Northwestern's four-star backfield signals start of a new era of Wildcat football
Those great recruiting classes from 2013 and 2014? They're here. Time to get excited.
If you don't already know that Clayton Thorson has been named the starting quarterback, I'm not exactly sure what you were doing yesterday (or even how you found your way to this site.) But now you know! Pat Fitzgerald named the redshirt freshman the starter for week one against Stanford, and the fan base has been rightfully electrified ever since.
Let's just look at some raw numbers real quick. Out of high school, Thorson was a four-star recruit and the second-ranked player in Illinois according to 247 Sports. He was also the sixth-best dual-threat quarterback in the nation according to Rivals. In his senior season, he threw for 2,809 yards and 29 touchdowns while also running for 630 yards and 12 touchdowns. (This includes a game against my alma mater, Naperville North, where Thorson basically just did whatever he wanted. I was there. We lost. It wasn't fun.)
If high school rankings don't get your blood pumping, then maybe measurables will. Thorson clocks in at 6-foot-4 and 220 pounds. He also apparently runs a 4.51 second 40 yard dash. Sure, it's not Trevor Siemian's totally legit 4.38, but that's still fast. He can throw. He can run. He's really good at football. Come on, get excited!
All the hype aside, Thorson is the best choice to start week one. We pretty much know what we're going to get from Zach Oliver and Matt Alviti at this point. Thorson is the best upside play for the future of the team, and has the skills to make some noise this year. More importantly, he could be making noise for the next four years, which is an exhilarating thought for NU fans.
2. Justin Jackson
Speaking of people that are really good at football! Justin Jackson is still on this team, and could be for the next three years! If you read Kevin Dukovic's piece from earlier this week, you'll know that not only was Jackson really good last season, he also outplayed and overcame the quality of his offensive line. This year the line should be improved and if they can actually block for him, there's no limit to what he can accomplish.
There isn't a lot more that can be said about Jackson that either you don't already know, or we haven't already written about. He ran for over 1,000 yards last season, he's a strong runner, he's good. One thing that is interesting though, is the concept of pairing Jackson with Thorson. As Kevin Trahan noted yesterday, Northwestern is now only one of two teams in the Big Ten West with four-star recruits at both quarterback and running back. For the first time in maybe forever, there isn't an offensive talent gap between Northwestern and other teams in the conference.
3. This year's team is healthy
*Knocks on wood*
Even with all the on-field problems that swirled around the 2014 Wildcats, the overall health of the team was downright terrible. Christian Jones was out before the season even started. Ibraheim Campbell missed four games, and Trevor Siemian destroyed his knee in West Lafayette after already being hampered by an ankle injury all year. The top two wide receivers, Kyle Prater and Tony Jones, also missed time.
Keeping players healthy and on the field is of premium importance in any sport, and even more important in football. So far, things seem to be going pretty well in this department in 2015. Northwestern did just lose backup superback Jayme Taylor for the season due to an ankle injury; and Matt Frazier is out indefinitely after a staph infection over the summer. The health of some others like Greg Kuhar is still up in the air, but other than that, Northwestern has thus far avoided major injuries, and is certainly more healthy at this point than either of the past two seasons. Let's just hope it lasts.
*Knocks on wood again*
4. Northwestern plays Illinois and Purdue
4. The Schedule
Come on, don't make that face, this is all about optimism, remember? Yes, admittedly the schedule would be much easier to be optimistic about if Northwestern just played Purdue 12 times, but unfortunately (or luckily, not sure) they can't do that. There are two reasons the schedule is good for Northwestern. The first is that it gives the Wildcats the chance to win some big games. Home against Stanford, in the Big House against Michigan, a late season matchup at Camp Randall, there are four or five marquee games for the Wildcats on the schedule. Are they going to go 4-1 or 5-0 in those games? No, probably not — I'm an optimist, but a realist. But can an improved offense help them pull of two or three ‘upsets'? Certainly.
The second reason is that the schedule really isn't difficult at all. There are four games that Northwestern should probably win (EIU, Ball State, Purdue, and Illinois) and six ‘swing' games (Duke, Iowa, Minnesota, Michigan, Nebraska, Penn State). The only truly daunting games are at Wisconsin and against Stanford. So to get to a bowl, NU might only have to go 2-4 in those swing games.
Alongside an improved Northwestern squad, there are also plenty of questions for everybody around the Big Ten. Just because Michigan got Jim Harbaugh doesn't mean they have a quarterback. Is Minnesota really any good? Will Christian Hackenberg have more than .001 seconds to throw the ball? See, there's no use chalking up losses before the season even starts.
5. Depth on defense
As Pat Fitzgerald has noted, this may not be Northwestern's best defense ever when it comes to top-end talent. But "from a competitive depth standpoint," it is. Fitzgerald put together three really impressive recruiting classes in wake of the 2012 Gator Bowl season, and finally, the fruits of his labor are beginning to show. Let's just rattle off a list of names:
Anthony Walker, Godwin Igwebuike, Matt Harris, Marcus McShepard, Kyle Queiro, Keith Watkins, Tyler Lancaster, Brett Walsh, Parrker Westphal, Ben Oxley, Fred Wyatt, Nate Hall, Cameron Queiro, James Prather, Xavier Washington, Jared McGee, Jordan Thompson, Joe Gaziano, Trent Goens, Nathan Fox, Simba Short, Tommy Vitale, Tre Williams, Montre Hartage, Jacob Murray, Alonzo Mayo, Steven Reese.
Of course, some of those players won't pan out, and some are either injured or will redshirt in 2015, and thus won't contribute this year. But that's the combined recruiting haul on the defensive side of the ball over the past three years, and it's darn impressive. Some of that group — Igwebuike, Harris, Walker — are already major contributors, while others — Lancaster, Watkins, Oxley, Westphal — are backups, but have drawn high praise and could be ready to explode onto the scene. And that's not even to mention the 2015 freshman class, about which we've heard a lot during training camp.
6. Special Teams
As we've noted many different times, Northwestern was pretty bad on special teams last year. Like, 110th in the nation bad. There is hope for the future however! Out goes punter Chris Gradone and his 37.9 yard average per punt and in comes Hunter Niswander, who was reportedly punting balls 70 yards in practice. Northwestern also brings back folk hero Jack Mitchell, who will hopefully be able to just pretend he's playing against Notre Dame every week this year. Mitchell was solid down the stretch in 2014, but he did also miss two extra points in one game, so you never know.
The biggest point of special teams optimism is in the return game. Miles Shuler and Solomon Vault, both of whom had return touchdowns last season, have the potential to be electrifying if healthy. The Wildcats add Jelani Roberts to that group of returners as well, and the freshman may have a few chances to do exactly what Vault did last year. The special teams will improve, it almost has to, and when it does, we might be able to start running headlines like this one again.