Northwestern returns a lot of talent from last year, including its best player on both offense and defense, its quarterback and perhaps its best cornerback. But the team also loses a lot of key players. In fact, per Phil Steele, by combining Northwestern's six returning offensive starters and five returning defensive starters to get 11 returners puts Northwestern at tied for 98th in returning starters (out of 128 Division I teams). Out of the 14 Big Ten teams, Northwestern comes in 12th in the category. It's interesting to note that fellow Big Ten team and 2016 opponent Ohio State comes in dead last with just six returners: three on offense and three on defense.
You can argue, however, that it's an inexact science to count returning starters, and you would be right. Nick VanHoose, for example, counts as a departed starter, but his presumed replacement, Keith Watkins, played a ton this season in sub-packages and even started in the bowl game. So VanHoose is technically a lost starter, but it's not like his backup is completely inexperienced.
That's why SB Nation's Bill Connelly made up a more statistically-accurate way to measure returning experience:
My goal was to begin compiling "percentage returning" data for every level of an offense and defense -- passing yards/attempts/completions, rushing attempts/yards, receiving targets/receptions/yards, offensive line starts (because that's all we have), and tackles/TFLs/pass breakups at each level of the defense.
Once I had this, I could tinker to see how much each category affects a team's offensive or defensive improvement. In theory, this could allow me to create a "percentage of offense/defense returning" figure that could dwarf the effectiveness of just data on returning starters.
Northwestern fares slightly better in this measure, finishing 82nd. Still, there is a lot of opportunity for new blood to step up into either starting roles or key backup spots.
So here are five true freshmen who can come in and contribute in 2016, bypassing their redshirt season.
(NOTE: All highlights from Hudl)
Skowronek has the frame (6-foot-4, 205 pounds) and hands to make a significant contribution his freshman year. He appears to be a very natural catcher of the ball, and that sort of size is enticing for any offensive coordinator. He has the same height-weight combination as Charlie Fessler, tying him for the tallest wide receiver on the team. And while Fessler redshirted, he was also measured 10 pounds lighter coming out of high school.
But it’s not just the size that will help Skowronek’s cause to find early playing time, but also his ability to block and his ability to do so. Just watch his senior year highlights.
How often do you see such a significant proportion of a wide receiver’s highlight tape dedicated solely to blocking? Now, granted, Skowronek definitely won’t be seeing time on defense and probably won’t be on special teams units any time soon, but he shows a definite willingness to stick himself onto defenders to block for his teammates, regardless of the situation. In fact, it almost seems like he seeks out contact sometimes. Here’s an example from that video.
If you’re a wide receiver who can block a little bit on the outside, you’ll give yourself a chance to contribute, especially in this offense. And given the major questions surrounding the wide receivers, Skowronek could see playing time in his first year in Evanston.
Lees has the most fun highlight tape of anyone in this class, and it’s not really close.
The local recruit will be transitioning to wide receiver for the Wildcats, but goodness gracious that speed and agility is enticing. As a senior, against then-defending Illinois Class 8A state champs Adlai Stevenson, he ran for 270 yards... in one half. Yeah.
If there’s any position where Pat Fitzgerald could have two true freshmen playing, it’s definitely wide receiver. The precedent is there — last year both Flynn Nagel and Jelani Roberts played (and contributed) — as is the opportunity. If Skowronek or Lees or both impress, don’t be surprised to see them on the field come the regular season.
The second-highest-rated recruit in the 2016 class, Campbell comes into a cornerback group that is significantly thinner than it was last year. Nick VanHoose graduated, Marcus McShepard is a wide receiver and Parrker Westphal has moved to safety. As we discussed in the position preview, there’s very little experience behind starters Matt Harris and Keith Watkins. Montre Hartage played mainly special teams as a freshman, and everyone else redshirted. Campbell has the pedigree to make an impact, and the skills he displays on his highlight tape translate well to the next level: strong fundamentals, good closing speed and solid open-field tackling technique.
Carnifax enrolled early at Northwestern and, like Campbell, finds himself entering a situation in which the depth is very young and very fluid. Behind starters Ifeadi Odenigbo and Xavier Washington, there is zero collegiate experience. Carnifax has been in the system longer than his fellow true freshmen. The biggest thing for him over the next few weeks is to pack on the pounds. He only weighs 250 pounds right now. But he’s talented, athletic and plays a position that needs players to step up.
Athletic linebackers who can contribute on special teams are always going to have a shot to play immediately. We saw that last year with Tommy Vitale, who saw time primarily on special teams but also played on offense as a superback and defense as a linebacker. Glackin is not only well-regarded (and one of the better names in all of the NCAA) but he comes from a program, IMG Academy, where he has competed against Division I-level prospects. IMG produced 17 Division I recruits in the incoming freshman class nationwide, 12 of which committed to Power Five programs. If Glackin can prove he can contribute on special teams, he could find a way to skip a redshirt year, even with the depth at linebacker.