Last week, we talked expectations heading into 2016, putting the 10-win 2015 team in the rearview mirror. We continue our way-too-early preview of next season with a simple question that can produce a ton of answers: What worries you most about next year's team?
Josh Rosenblat: It's got to be Jack Mitchell, but you'll read more about why that is below. So up here, I'll use this space to talk about the superbacks. Dan Vitale was Northwestern's best pass-catcher a year ago. He was also Justin Jackson's best lead-blocker. And next season, he'll be doing both of those things for an NFL team. The combination of Garrett Dickerson and Jayme Taylor looks somewhat promising as both players have showed flashes in limited playing stints behind Vitale. Yet Vitale's contributions cannot be taken for granted. Replacing his production would mean career years out of both Dickerson and Taylor, which may be necessary based on the inexperience of the receiving talent coming back and into the fold.
Zach Pereles: Will Clayton Thorson be noticeably better? Northwestern never overcame more than a seven-point deficit in a win against a Power-5 team this year, and the biggest deficit the Wildcats ever faced in a game they went on to win against a P5 school was a touchdown behind against Duke. The Wildcats won in spite of Thorson (9 of 23, 70 yards, 2 interceptions), much like they on several other occasions. A Solomon Vault return touchdown and a Warren Long 55-yard run to paydirt were the only non-Jack Mitchell points the Wildcats mustered that day. As seen in all of Northwestern's losses, when the team got down early, it could not come back. And then games got ugly. What happens if that happens more often next year? Can Thorson progress to a guy that can pull you back into games? Or will he still depend on Justin Jackson to make plays on offense and only throw it when his number is called? It's fine to be a run-first team. It's not fine to be a run-only team.
Henry Bushnell: The receivers were the worst unit, but it'll also be an entirely new unit in 2016. I'm more worried about offensive line play. Going back and re-watching some games from this past season, I was startled by how poor the pass blocking was at times. There were linemen who have been in the program three, four, even five years getting confused by simple stunts or cross blitzes. There were also a ton of one-man breakdowns. The lack of development across the offensive line is really troubling.
Kevin Dukovic: The development of Clayton Thorson. Obviously quarterback is the most important position on the field, so Thorson's play will go a long way in determining the future success of this team. And after this season I'm worried that Thorson might not become the dual threat stud Northwestern recruited him to be. He definitely has enough speed to make plays with his legs, but Thorson's inaccuracy through the air makes him rather one dimensional and predictable. Defenses caught on quickly and Thorson's production waned. In September and October, Thorson's completion percentage was just under 53 percent and his rushing average was about 4.7 yards per attempt. In November and January he completed a smidge over 43 percent of his passes and rushed for 2.5 yards a carry. These numbers don't tell the whole story—clearly Thorson didn't have much help from the rest of his teammates not named Justin Jackson—but they are concerning nonetheless. As the season progressed and he grew more comfortable running the offense, Thorson should have improved. The fact that he didn't raises a red flag.
Ian McCafferty: The pass rush and defensive line as a whole. In 2015 Northwestern's pass rush was pretty much exclusively Deonte Gibson and Dean Lowry. Ifeadi Odenigbo had five sacks, but half of them came in the first two games. However, with Lowry and Gibson graduating, Northwestern is going to need Odenigbo to have a stellar senior season and finally live up to the all the hype from when he was a recruit. They also need him to be more than a complete player than he's been—all of his tackles for loss this year were sacks and he only had 14 other tackles. Odenigbo will need to be a crucial piece of the line in 2016. Northwestern will also need contributions from the younger Tyler Lancaster and Xavier Washington if the line is to be any where near as good as it was last year. The pieces are in place, but they're going to need some younger players to come into their own.
Tristan Jung: Jack Mitchell missed nine field goals and five extra points last season. Fourth quarter heroics aside, Jack Mitchell tested the patience of Northwestern fans all season, and his misses nearly cost Northwestern several games. College kicker performance appears to be very random from year to year, but it would be much safer for Northwestern if Mitchell spends all summer learning how to be more accurate from beyond 40 yards. And 30 yards. And 20 yards. At least his holder is rock solid.
Josh Burton: I'll echo what Tristan said. Northwestern is losing a bunch of key guys on both offense and defense, but is returning its expected starters on special teams, maybe except for the kick and punt returners. Kicker Jack Mitchell and punter Hunter Niswander were extremely inconsistent last season (mostly on the bad side) which often took points right off the board for the Wildcats and put them behind the 8-ball in terms of field position. Things have to get better in those two areas for Northwestern next year, especially with the underwhelming offensive attack that needs to take advantage of any point-scoring opportunities it can get.