Football is back! Almost. Kind of. Okay, not really. But spring football is approaching, and for those of you who are dearly missing the pigskin, that's a positive sign. It's only been a month-and-a-half since Northwestern's 10-win season ended on a sour note in Tampa, but in the interim, Pat Fitzgerald has welcomed 20 recruits to the program, added four verbal commits to the Class of 2017 and announced all of his assistant coaches will be retained. The Wildcats get to strap the pads back on beginning Feb. 23 for the start of spring practice.
As the program heads into a new season, it's time to get refreshed and geared up. Over the coming week, we'll be delving into the outlook for the team in 2016. We'll go position by position, breaking down strengths, weaknesses and position battles. But we start with a look at the five biggest questions facing the Wildcats heading into the offseason.
1. How will Clayton Thorson develop?
The rising sophomore must progress this year if his team is to do the same. Thorson was near the bottom of the Big Ten in nearly every single passing statistic as a redshirt freshman in 2015, and despite his impressive rushing numbers (374 yards, 5 touchdowns), he must make major strides in the passing game. This includes working on his arm. His mechanics can use some tightening, as can his accuracy, which was at times all over the place. But perhaps more important is the mental aspect. Thorson threw some poor passes last year because he simply couldn't (or perhaps didn't have time to) read the defense. That's a department that he should show marked improvement in, considering the winter portion of the offseason is spent getting stronger and watching film.
This is also Thorson's first full offseason as a starter. He could be challenged by Matt Alviti, but in all likelihood, Thorson will be the guy. Last year, he was appointed QB1 just over a week before Northwestern's season kicked off against Stanford. Now, he should have an entire offseason's worth of reps as the starter, meaning he will also be throwing to the starting wide receivers and superbacks and working with the starting offensive linemen on a more regular basis. It's important that this groups meshes as quickly as possible.
2. Who steps up at the pass-catching positions?
It would be easy to look at the wide receiver group and immediately be worried. Christian Jones and Mike McHugh graduated, and the group as a whole didn't exactly instill any sort of confidence last year. It's also important to note that the best pass-catcher in Evanston the past couple years — and a key cog for his entire career as a Wildcat — is going to the NFL. Dan Vitale's presence will be sorely missed unless someone steps up in a major way at the superback position.
The wide receiver position loses not only Jones and McHugh, but also Cam Dickerson, Miles Shuler, Garrett Kidd and Stephen Buckley. Add in Vitale and Northwestern has lost over half of its receptions from last season. It will be interesting to see who gets first-team reps this spring, although it's very likely that Pat Fitzgerald takes the same approach as last year and rotates a lot of guys in. One player who seems to have a lock on one spot is former walk-on Austin Carr, who is the leading returning wide receiver. After that, it is very much up in the air. Solomon Vault's potential move to wide receiver is one that fits his skillset, but it takes time to learn the nuances of the position. Flynn Nagel was just beginning to come into his own as a slot guy before a serious ankle injury that ended his season prematurely. Jelani Roberts was used in a very limited role even though his speed is obvious.
That leaves us with the question of who steps up outside. It could be one of the aforementioned players, but it could also be big-bodied redshirt freshmen Cameron Green and Charlie Fessler. Either could immediately be a red zone option. Andrew Scanlan, a rising senior, is yet to make much of an impact in his career. Incoming freshmen Ramaud Chiaokhiao-Bowman, Riley Lees and Ben Skowronek could also challenge for playing time, but they won't arrive in Evanston until the summer. Regardless, Northwestern has to find someone who steps up on the outside. That search begins in the spring. If nobody emerges, this anemic pass offense could see little improvement in 2016.
At superback, the loss of Vitale is a big one. A do-it-all player, Vitale had soft hands, good speed and strength and was a more-than-willing blocker in both the run and pass game. Garrett Dickerson is yet to show that pass-catching ability, although his incredible physical skills certainly could mean he's ready for a bigger role. Jayme Taylor, who missed the entire season, is a more natural pass catcher, but he must show that he's completely recovered from the injury.
3. Who are the five up front?
Just like wide receiver, Fitzgerald tends to rotate his offensive linemen throughout the game in an effort to keep them fresh. And unlike some other positions, linemen can really separate themselves in the winter by packing on the pounds and the muscle during weightlifting.
Ian Park, Eric Olson and Big Ten All-Freshman Team member Blake Hance seem to have starting spots at center, right tackle and left tackle, respectively (although Park can also play guard). Shane Mertz, who's back for a sixth year, has experience at guard and tackle. Brad North has experience at guard and center. There's also the opportunity for someone like well-regarded redshirt freshman Jared Thomas to earn a spot.
4. Who replaces Dean Lowry and Deonte Gibson?
Lowry and Gibson were among the best defensive end tandems in the Big Ten this past season, but both are now gone (and at least one is likely NFL-bound). Ifeadi Odenigbo is the first candidate to step up. Odenigbo burst onto the scene with 5.5 sacks as a redshirt freshman. Since, however, he has registered 3 and 4 sacks in the past two seasons. He's a physical freak who struggles with consistency and technique in the run game. He has shown the ability to wreak havoc when he brings it (see 1.5 sacks against Stanford), but he needs to bring it with the same level of consistency as his predecessors.
To a lesser extent, Xavier Washington is similar to Odenigbo. He has a lot of ability but struggles with consistency. He will certainly have his chance to claim his spot as a starter. Redshirt freshmen Trent Goens and Joe Gaziano should also see considerable time on the field. Nevertheless, Northwestern's defense was so effective in part due to it's ability to get pressure while rushing only four. Lowry and Gibson were both terrific in the run game and the pass game. There won't be a major drop-off on passing downs, but finding defensive ends who can be effective on standard downs is an offseason priority.
5. Who will go from obscurity to big-time contributor?
Last year, Jaylen Prater and Nate Hall combined for a very solid season at the starting WILL linebacker spot; neither had seen meaningful time in a game before. They replaced one of the most productive players in Northwestern history, Chi Chi Ariguzo. Blake Hance stepped into perhaps the most important position on the offensive line and performed solidly. Keep in mind that was after Geoff Mogus, regarded as Northwestern's best lineman at the time, struggled to play tackle.
Who can do that in this year's bunch? It's probably best to look at wide receiver first. Fessler and Green are both big, long-armed targets. Fessler has good straight-line speed and is a lanky pass catcher with a big pass-catching radius while Green is a physical player who runs solid routes and had several impressive offers coming out of high school. Another candidate to step up is Parrker Westphal, who's fallen somewhat into obscurity after arriving on campus early, but certainly has the pedigree to see time on the field. In fact, any of the competitors for the third and fourth cornerback roles — Westphal, Montre Hartage, Alonzo Mayo — could surprise.