Last August, Pat Fitzgerald made the decision to hand his offense over to a quarterback who had never played a down of college football. That might have seemed like a recipe for disaster if taken at face value, but when Clayton Thorson trotted onto the field for Northwestern’s season opener, he had spent well over a year in Evanston preparing for that moment. Thorson, a member of Fitzgerald’s 2014 class, went on to start all 13 games in his redshirt freshman season. He struggled, as many players do in their introduction to Big Ten football, but made enough plays to help Northwestern reach 10 wins. And he still has the job.
Yesterday, we gave you five true freshmen who could contribute this season. Today, we’re talking about the other kind of freshmen. The redshirts. These are players who spent the last year waiting in the wings, learning their position, and getting stronger. They make up the wide majority of the 2015 class — only five true freshmen played last year. The redshirts are familiar with the system and the coaches, and are ready to finally show what they can do on the gridiron. Now, no one in this group will be as important to Northwestern as Thorson was last year, but there are a number of guys who are likely to play meaningful roles. Without further ado, here are some redshirt freshmen who will make an impact in 2016.
(NOTE: All highlights courtesy of Hudl)
Charlie Fessler (WR)
At 6-foot-4 and 205 lbs, Fessler has the size to potentially earn significant playing time as a big outside target for Thorson. There’s a lot of uncertainty for Northwestern at the wide receiver position heading into this season, but one thing we know is that there isn’t a lot of size coming back. Austin Carr, Solomon Vault, and Flynn Nagel are all smaller, shiftier receivers, and it would be a huge help to Thorson if someone like Fessler could step up and have the ability to go get the ball above defensive backs, especially in the red zone. Check out the second clip of his senior year highlight tape for a prime example of that, albeit against much weaker competition than he’ll face as a Wildcat.
Fessler is also deceptively quick and athletic for his size. In a large crop of unproven receiving options, my guess is Fessler emerges as a reliable option in 2016. One of the guys he’ll be competing against for snaps is a fellow redshirt freshman named...
Cameron Green (WR)
That I’m starting this list with back-to-back receivers is a testament to the lack of experience Northwestern has at wideout. The 6-foot-3 Green is another potential big pass-catcher for Mick McCall’s offense. Green racked up over 3,000 yards from scrimmage at nearby Stevenson High, and chose Northwestern over Iowa, Nebraska, and Illinois. Like Fessler, Green will have the opportunity to compete for snaps as a redshirt freshman, and I can see him finding a role throughout the year, probably as a backup.
Joe Gaziano/Trent Goens (DEs)
These two can be lumped together because they are primed for very similar roles this season. Gaziano and Goens are firmly entrenched as the two backup defensive ends, behind starters Ifeadi Odenigbo and Xavier Washington. The title of backup can be somewhat misleading in this case, since both of these guys will rotate in pretty frequently to spell the starters, as Odenigbo and Washington were for Dean Lowry and Deonte Gibson in 2015. If either Odenigbo or Washington were to miss time with injury, one of Gaziano or Goens would be thrust into an extremely important starting role. Both were heralded recruits out of Massachusetts and California respectively, and reports out of spring camp were that they were progressing quite nicely. Playing a crucial position, these two could make the biggest impact of any redshirt freshmen in 2016.
John Moten IV (RB)
For the second straight offseason, an intriguing redshirt freshman running back enters the fall with a chance to contribute. Last spring/summer it was Auston Anderson, but he dealt with injuries and wasn’t able to climb up the depth chart. Anderson is still around and could prove to be a different player when fully healthy, but this spring, the guy who generated buzz was John Moten IV. As it stands right now, we project Moten IV to be slightly ahead of Anderson for the third running back spot, behind Justin Jackson and Warren Long. Solomon Vault carried the ball 56 times in that spot last year, and Moten IV should have a similar role as a change-of-pace back with some big play ability. The highlight reel from his senior year is just silly.
Moten IV runs a 4.4 second 40-yard dash and will help out Northwestern’s offense in some capacity, provided he can hold off Anderson for the third-string job.
Trae Williams (DB)
Northwestern’s depth at cornerback is shaky at best. Matt Harris and Keith Watkins are the starters, but who’s behind them is uncertain. One guy with an opportunity to seize a role is Williams, a versatile, athletic player who starred at running back as well as DB in high school. Alonzo Mayo and Jake Murray are two other redshirt freshmen who could compete for playing time in the secondary, but Williams tentatively seems to have the best shot at seeing the field of that trio.