Over the past week-and-a-half or so, we've done some very early previews of the 2016 football season, including our season expectations and our biggest worries. We now wrap up with our final Wildcat Shootaround: What's the most exciting or encouraging thing about this team heading into 2016?
Josh Rosenblat: I'm pretty excited for Northwestern to surprise people nationally, yet again. I checked up on the various "way too early Top 25 posts" from after last night's championship game and 10-win Northwestern is nowhere to be seen. Sure, the 45-6 loss in the Outback Bowl left a bad taste in people's mouths and Northwestern could still be ranked in the "official" preseason polls released in August, but with a stout defense and young offense coming back, the Wildcats are, again, being overlooked. Which is fine and exciting. Seriously.
Zach Pereles: Justin Jackson the ball carrier. The leading returning rusher in the Big Ten has a chance to be even better next year if a relatively young offensive line, quarterback and receivers can improve even just a little bit. Jackson's a workhorse and his astonishing number of touches over the past two years — 557 carries and 43 receptions for an even 600 — would normally be cause for concern, but he showed no signs of slowing down at the end of this year, finishing the regular season with four straight 100-yard games. He managed to register over 200 more yards this year than last year despite the lack of any semblance of a passing game. I'm excited to see what he can do next year. Two 1000-yard seasons in a row is none too shabby, especially for a guy that didn't redshirt. Three in a row would put him in elite company.
Martin Oppegaard: It's hard not to be excited about the influx of talent coming in next year. First off, the vastly underused recruiting class of 2015 is sure to make an impact, especially the wide receiver corps. Jelani Roberts, Flynn Nagel, Cam Green, and Charlie Fessler should all contribute to perhaps the most disappointing group of this season. The coaching staff did a respectable job of capitalizing on a 10-win season with a late push in recruiting the class of 2016. They aren't done yet either. December commit running back Jeremy Larkin won Ohio Offensive Player of the Year, and his film is very similar to former Northwestern running back Venric Mark. Athlete Riley Lees accounted for 4,435 total yards and 62 touchdowns, quarterback Aidan Smith should push both Clayton Thorson and Matt Alviti, and cornerback Roderick Campbell could see extensive playing time next season. There is much more talent in this class to watch out for, and I'm excited for more underclassmen see the field.
Sam Brief: Somewhat piggybacking off of Zach, the running game as a whole. In addition to Justin Jackson's excellence, Clayton Thorson put his mobility on display during this past season, rushing for almost 400 yards. Thorson's scrambling ability gives this offense an edge, and the possibility of a true dual-threat rushing attack in the backfield gives Mick McCall more options for 2016. That is, if he returns. I also look for Warren Long to continue to play a role in the red zone and short-yardage running games — he scored five touchdowns last season. While Jackson will certainly be the workhorse back, I look for an explosive and well-distributed rushing attack for Northwestern next season.
Josh Burton: Sure there are some important guys on defense that won't be back next season due to their graduating, but guys like Anthony Walker, Matthew Harris and C.J. Robbins will be back to anchor what should still be a stout defensive unit. Walker, who's only going to be a junior in the 2016 season, has the potential to improve even more after his breakout sophomore campaign and is a possible first-team All-American candidate. The defense will probably regress some after its surprisingly successful 2015 season but will still be very good and has the ability to serve as the cornerstone for a team with a hopefully strengthened offense.
Henry Bushnell: I'm shocked that some of us think the answer to this question is anything other than Anthony Walker or the secondary. And for me, it's that defensive back unit that offers the most excitement moving forward, even with two starters departing. The safety duo won't miss a beat with Kyle Queiro stepping in for Traveon Henry; it might even be better in 2016. And while Nick Van Hoose is a loss, Matt Harris will be one of the best corners in the Big Ten, and there's so much depth that Northwestern is bound to have an above average player opposite Harris. Keith Watkins, the most likely candidate, looked very solid in place of VanHoose in the Outback Bowl. The secondary will have the athleticism to match up with anyone in the conference.
Ian McCafferty: Honestly I'm most excited for another season of Clayton Thorson. Throughout the season we saw flashes of a really good, game-changing player, but much of that was covered up by the offense's problems as a whole. This of course isn't to say that much of that was not Thorson's own fault, I just think he handled the pressure pretty well for a redshirt freshman quarterback on a ten-win team. The success of the team somewhat magnified many of Thorson's shortcomings. The fun thing here though is he's only going to get better. He'll get a full offseason of starter reps as well as an improvement in his receiving corp (hopefully). If he can improve even slightly over this season, Northwestern will be a top team once again. We know the defense is going to be good, but I'm excited to see what redshirt sophomore Clayton Thorson can do.