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Projecting Northwestern football’s 2017 depth chart

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It’s never too early to look ahead, and the Wildcats return a ton of starters but lose some key backups.

NCAA Football: Pinstripe Bowl-Northwestern vs Pittsburgh William Hauser-USA TODAY Sports

With Northwestern’s 2016 campaign having wrapped up with a Pinstripe Bowl victory, it’s time to take an early look ahead to the 2017 season. The prospects, at least at this very moment, are very bright; key pieces return at almost every position and the Wildcats have talent across the board. Here’s our first projection at the 2017 two-deep along with some thoughts.

(NOTE: All eligibility classes listed will be for next season. These projections do not include any of Northwestern’s 2017 recruiting class.)

Offense

Quarterback

Starter: Clayton Thorson, junior

Backup: Matt Alviti, senior OR Lloyd Yates, sophomore

This is pretty straightforward. No one will challenge Thorson, who set the school record for passing touchdowns in a season and showed major growth from his rookie season. If Alviti, who will be a fifth-year senior, returns, he’ll be the backup. Yates, a dual-threat reserve, is also listed.

Running back

Starter: Justin Jackson, senior

Backup: Warren Long, senior OR John Moten IV, sophomore

A position of major strength, running back has a clear-cut starter but also a ton of talent behind him. In his senior season, Jackson will almost certainly (provided he stays healthy) shatter the program’s career rushing record and go down as one of the best running backs in Northwestern history, if not the best. Long, who missed virtually all of this season due to injury, could take a fifth year via medical hardship waiver and return. Moten IV showed impressive speed and development and should be a significant part of the backfield rotation going forward. If Long returns, this will be an incredible backfield.

Wide receivers

X wide receiver

Starter: Flynn Nagel, junior

Backup: Macan Wilson, senior

Both of these players will see significant time, but we’ll give the starting nod (for now) to Nagel, who was a starter this year and the second-leading wide receiver behind Austin Carr. Replacing Northwestern’s All-American won’t be easy by any stretch, but Nagel has shown flashes of being a very good player. Wilson could easily slot in as a starter, but for now he’s listed as the top backup, much like departed senior Andrew Scanlan was.

Y wide receiver

Starter: Solomon Vault, senior

Backup: Charlie Fessler, sophomore

Vault should continue to improve as a route runner and pass catcher in his second year out wide, and he certainly has the speed to be a good wide receiver. He also has a long way to go to be a reliable option at the position. Fessler didn’t see much action this year, but he has good size and will have a chance to crack the rotation.

Z wide receiver

Starter: Bennett Skowronek, sophomore

Backup: Riley Lees OR Ramaud Chiaokhiao-Bowman, RS freshmen

Skowronek was the only true freshman wide receiver to see the field, and he showed solid hands and even better blocking skills, probably the main reason he bypassed a redshirt year. Skowronek is a big guy (6-foot-4, 210 pounds) who should get stronger with his first full year in a college weight room. Lees and Chiaokhiao-Bowman are both exciting prospects with good speed. Overall, it’s hard to project how this group will turn out, and Fitzgerald tends to also play true freshmen out wide, so take all of this with a grain of salt.

Superback

Starter: Garrett Dickerson, senior

Backup: Cameron Green, sophomore OR James Prather, junior

Dickerson remained a fantastic blocker in his junior year and emerged as a pass-catching threat as well. He’ll be counted on in both areas once again in his senior campaign. Green switched from wide receiver to superback after Jayme Taylor got hurt, and as expected, is much more of a pass catcher. Prather is used primarily in running formations.

Offensive line

Left tackle

Starter: Blake Hance, junior

Backup: Gunnar Vogel, RS freshman

Both spots are unchanged from this year’s depth chart. Hance got off to a rough start and had his ups and down this season, but there’s little reason to envision anyone supplanting him. He tends to struggle with smaller, quicker edge rushers.

Left guard

Starter: J.B. Butler, junior

Backup: Adam Lemke-Ball, sophomore

Butler took over at left guard after Connor Mahoney got hurt, and he kept the starting spot there for most of the stretch run. Butler, a former walk-on, was a productive player and a favorite of the coaching staff who should be even better with a full offseason of preparation as the starter. Ian Park would’ve had a shot to back him up if he came back, but he is transferring to Division II Slippery Rock due to NCAA Eligibility rules.

Center

Starter: Brad North, senior

Backup: Jared Thomas, sophomore

North was quietly, consistently a solid center throughout 2016 and has developed an excellent rapport with Thorson. Thomas seems like the likely candidate to replace him when North graduates in 2018.

Right guard

Starter: Tommy Doles, junior

Backup: Andrew Otterman, sophomore

Doles got better and better throughout the season and will go into the offseason as the starter. He’s athletic and especially good in run blocking. Otterman’s a big body behind him.

Right tackle

Starter: Ben Oxley, junior

Backup: Jesse Meyler, RS freshman

Northwestern only replaces one offensive lineman, Eric Olson. Oxley showed promise switching from the defensive side of things and is a good athlete. If he’s not ready, Doles could pop out to play tackle, instead. Meyler redshirted this year but brings great size and length to the position.

Defense

Defensive line

Left end

Starter: Joe Gaziano, sophomore

Backup: Trent Goens, sophomore

Gaziano had a very good year as a backup and key part of the rotation. He has good size and power to get after quarterbacks and can run really well. And remember this sack?

Yeah, Gaziano should have a lock on a starting spot with Ifeadi Odenigbo and CJ Robbins leaving. Goens didn’t play a ton this season, but should be a solid backup.

Defensive tackle

Starter: Jordan Thompson, junior

Backup: Fred Wyatt, junior

Thompson dealt with some early-season injuries, but the highly-touted defensive end convert should hold a starting spot going into his third year in the program. Wyatt made his fair share of plays this season after gaining a ton of weight to be big enough to play inside.

Defensive tackle

Starter: Tyler Lancaster, senior

Backup: Alex Miller, sophomore

Lancaster is a quiet space eater in the middle who often takes up two blockers. He doesn’t rack up stats, but that’s not his job. Miller played in a lot of sub packages and third downs and held his own. He certainly exceeded expectations and saw a lot of time as a true freshman.

Defensive end

Starter: Xavier Washington, senior

Backup: Tommy Carnifax, RS freshman

This is an interesting spot behind Washington, who’s pretty much guaranteed a starting spot. Carnifax is talented but hasn’t been healthy. Perhaps there’s a spot for one of the three talented incoming freshmen: four-star recruit Earnest Brown, Trevor Kent and Sam Miller.

Linebackers

Will

Starter: Brett Walsh, junior

Backup: Jango Glackin, RS freshman

Walsh joined the starting lineup when Jaylen Prater went down and performed admirably, showing good speed and athleticism. He’ll be another year stronger and more experienced. Glackin came from Florida powerhouse IMG Academy and has added a lot of weight this year.

Mike

Starter: Anthony Walker, Jr., senior

Backup: Nathan Fox, sophomore

This projection is, of course, assuming Walker comes back for his senior season instead of entering the NFL Draft. If he does go, however, it isn’t the end of the world here. Fox played a lot this year, especially early in the year when Walker struggled through a nagging knee injury.

Sam

Starter: Nate Hall, junior

Backup: Paddy Fisher, RS freshman

Hall is a great athlete and should continue his ascent for Northwestern as the undisputed starter. Fisher was a well-regarded recruit out of Katy High School and Roberts could also see time as a backup.

Left cornerback

Starter: Keith Watkins II, junior

Backup: Trae Williams, sophomore

Watkins II missed the entire year with a knee injury, but assuming he makes a full recovery, he should have a decent amount of time to get back into football shape and claim the top cornerback spot. Williams will see the field in sub packages and could even be a starter if Watkins isn’t quite the player he was pre-injury.

Right cornerback

Starter: Montre Hartage, junior

Backup: Alonzo Mayo, sophomore

Hartage accrued five interceptions this year and showed growth in what was his first season on defense (he was almost exclusively a special teams contributor his freshman year). Behind him, Mayo returns, though he may get a run for his spot from Roderick Campbell, a well-regarded recruit out of St. Louis who saw time on special teams as a true freshman. Senior Marcus McShepard could also stake a claim here.

Safety

Starter: Godwin Igwebuike, senior

Backup: Parrker Westphal, junior

This projection, like that of the middle linebacker two-deep, is contingent upon one player (Igwebuike in this case) returning rather than declaring for the draft. Westphal finally saw the field after injuries derailed his early years in Evanston, but he fell prey to the injury bug once again late in the year. If he’s healthy, he should claim the top backup spot here.

Safety

Starter: Kyle Queiro, senior

Backup: Jared McGee, junior

Queiro is back and if Igwebuike is, too, they’ll form a fantastic safety tandem. McGee showed his immense value this season as a starting-quality backup and could end up being a starter if Igwebuike turns pro.

Special teams

Kicker

Starter: Mason Weissenhoffer, sophomore

Backup: Drew Luckenbaugh, RS freshman

The Jack Mitchell era has ended. His backup, Matt Micucci, is also gone. So it’s really anyone’s guess as to who wins this job. Weissenhoffer’s been in the program an extra year, so that’s why he gets the nod here, but of course it’s impossible to know. Perhaps true freshman Charlie Kuhbander could step right in and jump to the top of the depth chart.

Punter

Starter: Hunter Neiswander, senior

Hunter the Punter has no competition.