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Wildcat Shootaround: What is Northwestern’s most worrisome position unit?

The staff has a few different opinions on this question.

Outback Bowl - Northwestern v Tennessee Photo by Mike Carlson/Getty Images

Having finished our position previews, we wrap up the second part of our Summer Guide with a couple of bigger-picture reflections. The second question: Which position group worries you the most?

Zach Pereles: Although it would be easy to pick one of the offensive positions (it doesn’t take a genius to figure out which two), I’m going to go with defensive end. Ifeadi Odenigbo has shown flashes. So, too, has Xavier Washington, though he hasn’t shown quite as much. But the biggest worry regarding them is: can they even come close to replacing what Dean Lowry and Deonte Gibson provided? Football’s a pretty simple game of numbers when you get down to it, and by only needing four defensive linemen to somewhat neutralize seven players (five offensive linemen, the quarterback and the running back), the Northwestern defensive line allowed the linebackers and secondary to dominant last season. The result was one of the best defenses in the entire nation. And on the three occasions that Northwestern was dominated up front, the team got shellacked. Not only do Odenigbo and Washington have big shoes to fill, but the depth behind them — two guys that haven’t played a down of college football — makes this position all the more worrisome.

Ian McCafferty: It’s the easy answer, but the weakest position group is the wide receivers. Very little, if anything, is solidified at this position for Northwestern currently, and if last year is any indication, it might never be. Austin Carr is the only reliable option right now, and it’s unclear who the other receivers out wide will be. Northwestern desperately needs a big season from Solomon Vault and even then, this position group will only be upgraded to okay. Clayton Thorson needs better receivers to help him improve this year, but it doesn’t look like he’s going to get them.

Tristan Jung: To start, it’s very worrying to me that, unlike the best position group, I had difficulty choosing between the "weakest" position group. Does this mean the team as a whole is bad? Of course not, but there is more widespread uncertainty from a team coming off a 10-3 season than one would expect. The offensive line needs work. The defensive line needs consistency. The kicking game needs more range. The secondary needs one or two young players to step up. The interesting part of 2016 will be seeing which players step up to become next year’s key players and which players stay in place. Yet out of all the team’s weaknesses, the wide receiver group is the one that will require the most rebuilding and is the group that is least likely to produce a breakout player for Northwestern. Did that answer the question?

Rob Schaefer: This one’s a little easier. I’ll use the reverse of the logic I used to choose the linebackers over the running backs as Northwestern’s best position group to choose the wide receivers as the team’s worst. It’s easy to keep berating the team for its offensive struggles last year, and maybe it’s unfair to attribute so much of their ineptitude to the receivers. A freshman quarterback on a tight leash and a patchwork offensive line ideally aren’t two of your featured ingredients in the recipe for an offensive juggernaut. But, my lord. Can you guess how many career receiving touchdowns the listed wide receivers on Northwestern’s roster have between them right now? Two. Two touchdowns. Total. Both of them courtesy of Austin Carr. Improvement should absolutely be expected, especially if Solomon Vault sees his role in the passing game expanded, but as it stands right now, there’s no weaker position group on this team than its wide receivers.

Will Ragatz: The wide receivers are certainly not great, and are a very justifiable selection here, but they weren’t the sole cause of the passing game’s struggles in 2015. I actually think Austin Carr and Solomon Vault should be solid, and it seems likely that at least one other receiver will step up and be productive. To find Northwestern’s worst position group, one needs to look no further than the most important position in all of sports: the quarterback. As we’ve discussed ad nauseam on this site, Clayton Thorson struggled mightily in his first season. I’m still pretty high on his potential, but Thorson will be just a sophomore this season, and expecting a massive jump from him is unrealistic. Northwestern is really hoping Thorson has improved, because it has committed to him as its unquestioned starter going forward. A lot of that is due to his obvious athletic ability and flashes of talent, but the rest is because there’s really no one behind him. Matt Alviti has been injured a lot during his time in Evanston, but also hasn’t shown much growth or skill, and neither Lloyd Yates nor TJ Green are going to strike fear into the hearts of any Big Ten defensive coordinators. This group’s ranking depends on Thorson, but for now can be considered the worst on the team.

Martin Oppegaard: I completely agree with what Will said above. Of Northwestern’s many quarterbacks, I think only Thorson and incoming freshman Aidan Smith will see any meaningful playing time in their Northwestern careers. Matt Alviti has thrown seven passes in two years and it’s probably safe to chalk him up as a bust. The other rostered quarterbacks have no business starting a Big Ten football game. Yes, Thorson’s ceiling is very high, but a 50 percent completion percentage, two more interceptions than touchdowns, and 22 sacks despite his mobility is inexcusable. The consistent struggle from the quarterback position only hurts the wide receivers, although this relationship does work both ways. There’s plenty of room for Thorson to grow, but for now, quarterback remains Northwestern’s weakest group.

Zach Wingrove: I know it’s already been said, but I have to agree with several others and go with the wide receivers. As Will argued above, Clayton Thorson had his struggles last season, but in Thorson’s defense part of those struggles have to be attributed to the receiver’s inability to get open and catch passes. There were way too many times last season where Thorson had to throw the ball away because none of the receivers could create enough separation downfield, and that has to change this season. Austin Carr, who I think was the team’s best receiver not named Dan Vitale in 2015, returns for his senior season and I have been vocal about how I think his experience will be huge heading into next season, but aside from Carr, there are so many question marks with this group. Guys like Flynn Nagel or Andrew Scanlan could make the jump this season as they see their roles increase, or maybe Solomon Vault and Marcus McShepard could thrive in their new positions, but for me there are just too many uncertainties. Until we see these new receivers make an impact in a real game scenario, they have to be the weakest position.