The second part of our 2016 Summer Guide is position previews. For each position, we'll outline who's returning, who's gone and what the big question facing the unit is before finishing up with our projected depth chart for each position.
The final group is special teams, where most players return for 2016.
Returning starters: Jack Mitchell (Sr.), Hunter Niswander (Jr.), LS Chris Fitzpatrick (Sr.), KR Solomon Vault (Jr.)
Key losses: PR Miles Shuler, H Christian Salem
Other returners: K Matt Micucci
Incoming freshmen: K Drew Luckenbaugh, LS Tyler Gillikin
The unit remains mostly intact from last year and is very, very experienced. The entire placekicking battery is made up of upperclassmen (assuming Hunter Niswander slides in as the holder). Solomon Vault is one of the best kick returners in the nation, and the loss of Miles Shuler won't be too difficult to overcome considering his relative lack of production.
Mitchell quit baseball to focus on football full-time this offseason, and his progress will be key to Northwestern's success in 2016. Mitchell has a ton of game-winners and other late-game clutch kicks, but he's been very inconsistent. He missed nine field goals and three extra points alone last year, including one in the bowl game against Tennessee. Having a good college football kicker helps so much, because the difference between a good kicker and a middling kicker can be extreme, much more so than in the NFL. If Mitchell can prove his accuracy and distance has improved, that not only changes how the Wildcats approach drives inside the opponent's 40, but also helps in the field position battle, which Northwestern had trouble in last year.
Who replaces Miles Shuler at punt returner?
Although Shuler wasn't a standout returner by any stretch of the word, he was mostly solid last year and took care of the ball. Because he's really the only big departure on special teams, who replaces him is the biggest question. Pat Fitzgerald mentioned it could be standout cornerback Matt Harris, but that also presents a major injury risk. At this point, our knowledge of the position is still limited.
|1st string||2nd string||3rd string|
|Kicker||Jack Mitchell||Hunter Niswander||Matt Micucci|
|Punter||Hunter Niswander||Matt Micucci|
|Long Snapper||Chris Fitzpatrick||Tyler Gillikin|
|Kick Returner||Solomon Vault||Auston Anderson||Jelani Roberts|
|Punt Returner||Matt Harris||Jelani Roberts||Auston Anderson|
|Gunners||Warren Long||Keith Watkins|
The depth chart isn't too complicated. Punt returner and, to some extent, holder are the only two positions where the starters aren't entrenched in their roles. Long and Watkins are two of the best in the business when it comes to punt coverage.