Throughout the past two weeks, we’ve debated our Top 10 most important players. Having finished up with debating No. 1 Clayton Thorson, we have finished the series. But before we move on, we make a case for some of the guys who didn’t make the list.
Zach Pereles: The only guy I had on my list who didn’t make the overall list is Matthew Harris, so I’ll go with him as my snub. Not only is Harris the true No. 1 corner with Nick VanHoose gone, but he absolutely has to stay healthy. As I said earlier when debating with Ian McCafferty about Keith Watkins, we have no clue what the depth is like behind Harris and Watkins. And Harris has missed time in each of his three seasons. Plus, I think Harris is really, really good, and he’ll have to show that covering every team’s No. 1 wide receiver. His play, his new role and his health make him deserving of a spot this list.
Most Important Players
Most Important Players
Ben Goren: I’m more than a little surprised that I’m the only one who had a linebacker not named Anthony Walker in the top ten. Nate Hall could end up going gangbusters next year, or he could be exposed like what Tennessee was able to do a little bit. No one has any idea what to make of the third linebacker situation, and I think it’s fair to be worried about that spot as well. Northwestern is going to need its linebackers to help plug gaps in the running game as well as get after the quarterback after losing Deonte Gibson and Dean Lowry. I’m super high on Hall, but I think it’s fair to be a little wary of what has traditionally been the strongest unit on Pat Fitzgerald’s defenses.
Will Ragatz: To me, the most obvious snub is safety Kyle Queiro. Northwestern’s secondary was awesome last season, but only two of its four starters in 2015 are back this year. Keith Watkins, who is replacing Nick VanHoose at cornerback, made our list, but I think Queiro is right behind him in terms of importance. His predecessor Traveon Henry was an incredibly versatile safety, finishing third on the team with 74 tackles and adding two interceptions and a sack. Queiro showed some promising ball-hawking ability with a crucial pick in week one, but will need to become a complete safety for the secondary to not miss a beat. If Queiro is ineffective coming down to stop the run and/or struggles with his reads in pass coverage, the entire defense may regress.
Zach Wingrove: Besides Hall and Queiro, the only player on my list who didn’t make our Top 10 was kicker Jack Mitchell. I can understand why some left Mitchell off their lists seeing that he sees the field on just a handful of plays each game. However, if this season’s team bears any resemblance to the 2015 team (strong defense, struggling offense), having a reliable kicker with extended range will prove to be crucial in close games where scoring is at a minimum. Mitchell saw his field goal percentage dip from 78% in 2014 to 67% in 2015, as he made 18-of-27 attempted field goals with an average distance of just over 30 yards. Northwestern’s defense is good enough that it should be able to keep the team in most of its games; and if Mitchell is able to knock down kicks from 40+ yards this season with consistency (he made two kicks longer than 40 yards in 2015) — and perhaps extend his range to 50 yards and over — it could help decide multiple games for the Wildcats this season. We know that Mitchell decided not to play baseball this past spring so he could focus more on football; we’ll see if that extra preparation will pay off come next season.
Sam Brief: I agree with Zach Pereles—Matt Harris is definite snub. Last year, he led the team (even ousting Nick VanHoose in passes broken up, with 13. We ranked Keith Watkins at No. 4, but didn’t even have Harris in the Top 10. As a senior, he’ll be one of the leaders of the secondary, if not the definitive leader of the secondary, and is undoubtedly a more important player than we (myself included) ranked him initially. Last season, Northwestern’s pass coverage was one of its calling cards last season, and the loss of Nick VanHoose means more pressure on everyone else, including Matt Harris.
Tristan Jung: I think the biggest snub is Matt Harris, but since that has been covered twice, I will go with punter Hunter Niswander in light of Zach Pereles’s recent article on Northwestern’s poor field position. Northwestern’s poor field position could be significantly helped by improvements on Niswander’s end. Given Northwestern’s offensive issues, the special teams unit needs to be a positive for Northwestern. If Niswander could become a positive instead of a definite negative for Northwestern, the benefits will be subtle but important.
Martin Oppegaard: Matt Harris is probably the biggest snub, but I love talking about kickers, so I’m gonna go with Jack Mitchell. Wingrove summed it up well above, and if Bill Belichick says the kicker is within the Top 10 most important players, he probably is. The Penn State and Wisconsin games absolutely depended on Mitchell’s leg, and Northwestern has a tendency to play close games. I won’t be surprised to see another few games come down to Mitchell, perhaps not in the fashion of the Notre Dame game two years ago, but likely one possession games that will depend on whether Mitchell can make 40 yarders. I’m already nervous.
Ian McCafferty: I definitely think Matthew Harris and Kyle Queiro are snubs, but personally I think the biggest snub is my very generic choice of "the number two wide receiver." The difficult thing here is we don’t really know who that is right now. Looking at last year’s statistics, the leading receiver not named Austin Carr, Garrett Dickerson or Solomon Vault and still with the team is Jelani Roberts. Roberts had 8 receptions for 48 yards. I think that the number two receiver will be Flynn Nagel, as long as he’s healthy, so he’s my biggest snub. In 2015, we all saw how bad Northwestern’s receiving corps was, and it will need to improve to help out Clayton Thorson. I think the quality of the receivers will be what determines how much the offense improves in 2016.