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Wildcat Shootaround: Breakout candidates for 2016

Who will be this year’s Anthony Walker?

Northwestern v Illinois Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images

Northwestern is counting on some players to step it up a notch when it comes to performance this year. Last year, it was Anthony Walker who burst onto the scene and ended up an All-American. One could argue that Godwin Igwebuike, Warren Long and Dean Lowry had breakout campaigns too, though not on quite the scale of Walker. That’s what made the team so good. Here’s who we expect to have a similar year in 2016.

Zach Pereles: As a redshirt freshman, Walker emerged as a starter after the guy in front of him got hurt, and he went on the finish the season with a string of promising performances. Nate Hall is in the exact same situation. Hall was very good last year, and the numbers will support that. In four of the final five games, he registered at least eight tackles. He also came up with several key plays for Northwestern over that time, including stopping Penn State’s Saquon Barkley on 3rd-and-short to force a punt and breaking up a long pass in the waning moments against Wisconsin. Hall can really run and is assuredly a starter this year. The little glimpses of stardom we saw from him last year will turn into consistent high-level production in 2016.

Rob Schaefer: Solomon Vault is not only a player I expect to break out in the 2016 season, but also someone Northwestern may need to break out to develop any semblance of a passing attack. Vault was used primarily out of the backfield last season but showed serious potential as a vertical threat when used at wide out. And considering Northwestern’s depth at RB and dearth of proven talent at WR, Pat Fitzgerald may consider upping his reps at receiver even further in the upcoming season. If he can develop any kind of rapport with Thorson, it will go a long way toward elevating the Wildcats’ offense to respectability (or even beyond). All of this goes without mentioning Vault’s impact on special teams, where he averaged 26.3 yards per kickoff return and brought back two for scores in 2015. Vault has flashed the ability to be a high-level playmaker, but in his junior year, it’s time for him to step up and take on a more prevalent and permanent role in Northwestern’s offense.

Tristan Jung: It’s easy to forget that Jordan Thompson was only a true freshman last season, as he played in every game and showed some signs of potential. This season, Thompson has a defined path to success with the defensive line in flux. He will get playing time, and his natural athleticism that earned him great recruitment scores could show through. Thompson doesn’t have Lowry’s natural height and size, but he can definitely replace Deonte Gibson’s key role on the team for last season. If Thompson is able to provide Gibson’s impact as a sophomore, that could easily be considered a breakout.

Sam Brief: Solomon Vault’s speed and athleticism makes him a flashy candidate to be Northwestern’s breakout player, and his potential to play a significant role in two phases (offense, special teams) makes him invaluable. Vault showed off his burst quite a bit last year with two kickoff returns for touchdowns. But, as Rob mentioned above, his threat to be a north-south receiver was also on display. Remember his overturned incredible touchdown catch last year? This guy can catch a football. He can run. He can be used out of the backfield. For a struggling offense, a piece like Vault—a do-it-all type of threat—can make all of the difference. That’s why I tab him as my breakout player.

Martin Oppegaard: Clayton Thorson was bad last season; there’s no way to sugarcoat it. He made poor reads and his execution on throws was subpar. Ultimately, he needs to be better going forward. I think this year is going to be a big step for Thorson. He was thrown into the fire a bit last year with few consistent targets to throw to. With a year of starting under his belt and a firm grasp of the starting job, Thorson should be much more confident. He also gets some fresh faces to throw to and should better understand how to use his speed and athleticism. I’m expecting a significantly higher completion percentage, over 1,000 passing yards more than last year, and at least 20 touchdowns accounted for this upcoming season. The talent is certainly there for Thorson, and if he can improve his decision making, expect a breakout year.

Zach Wingrove: With Dan Vitale gone, the Wildcats are in need of a player to step up at the superback position and fill the huge void that Vitale left. Garrett Dickerson will have a chance to do so this season, and I have high expectations for the former 4-star recruit. There was plenty of hype surrounding Dickerson when he was being recruited in 2013 (he had offers from Michigan, Ohio State, Michigan State and Alabama before choosing to come to Evanston) and thus far many would agree that he has not yet reached his ceiling, catching 16 passes for 168 yards in his first two years. At 6-foot-3, 245 pounds, Dickerson has the size to develop into a consistent receiving option for Clayton Thorson, especially in short yardage and goal-line scenarios. Furthermore, Dickerson will also be able to make an impact run-blocking when he lines up either as a fullback or as an in-line tight end, something he excelled at last season as Henry Bushnell pointed out in May. The Wildcats need someone to replace Vitale and the job will be Dickerson’s to lose heading into the season. If he can continue to block the way he has while also improving his hands and route running, he could be a huge asset for the Northwestern offense in 2016.

Ian McCafferty: Nate Hall is definitely one of the best choices to have a breakout year, but since Zach already covered that above, I’m going to go with someone a little more under the radar. We don’t yet know exactly how the wide receiver position will shake out, but Flynn Nagel looks primed to have a big year. Part of this is honestly an “if not him who else?” opinion. There aren’t exactly great wide receivers lining up behind him, but he’s also incredibly talented. We saw only a few glimpses of it last year, before he got injured, but this is a guy who was highly recruited for a reason. His senior year in high school, he had 93 receptions for 1,431 yards and 28 touchdowns, the guy can play. Combine his talent with a serious dearth at the position — we know he’ll be getting targets — and he seems likes a pretty good bet for a breakout season.