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Countdown to Kenosha Question 5: Wildcat Shootaround: Who will the Wildcats miss most in 2016?

The Wildcats lost several talented players from 2015.

Northwestern v Wisconsin Photo by Tom Lynn/Getty Images

Northwestern officially started its 2016 season by kicking off training camp with a team meeting on Sunday, August 7. The team will be in Evanston for a week and then head up to Kenosha, Wisconsin, for a grueling week of workouts and practices in the summer heat, a time for the team to come together on and off the field. Kenosha will go a long way in determining who wins key position battles, who ends up where on the depth chart and much, much more. It’s the equivalent of NFL training camp, except compressed into about one week. We count down the biggest questions—two per day—facing Pat Fitzgerald’s team heading into camp.

We continue the countdown with No. 5: What departed contributor will Northwestern miss the most?

Zach Pereles: The two draftees are the most obvious choices, but I’m going to go with Deonte Gibson. Because of Dean Lowry’s brilliance, Gibson’s work was really under-appreciated (though of course you can attribute a lot of his success to Lowry’s presence on the opposite side). Gibson’s 9.0 sacks led the team by a wide margin—nearly double the next closest (Ifeadi Odenigbo’s 5.0)—and he was effective. Gibson was one of the few guys who showed up in Ann Arbor, registering 2.5 sacks against Michigan, and almost single-handedly dominating Wisconsin to the tune of 3.0 sacks, 4.0 tackles for loss, and six tackles overall. If Northwestern had to replace only Lowry, I wouldn’t be as concerned. That it has to replace Lowry and Gibson (Xavier Washington is in line to replace the current Detroit Lion) is what worries me.

Ian McCafferty: The biggest loss for the Wildcats in 2016 is Dan Vitale. Even if it’s an obvious choice, he’s the biggest loss because Northwestern simply has no one to replace him. Northwestern’s passing attack certainly wasn’t anything great last year, but Vitale was still the number one receiver nonetheless. His 33 receptions, 355 yards and 4 touchdowns may not seem much in a vacuum, but he led the team in all three categories. He caught 10 more passes than anyone else on the team! Vitale combined the ability to catch short passes to move the chains and go deep (he had a 66 yard touchdown against Ball State). He quickly became the safety blanket target for Clayton Thorson, and it will be difficult to replicate that chemistry and his production. Finally, the reason why he’s the biggest loss is that there’s no clear replacement for him yet. Hopefully it’s Garrett Dickerson, but he isn’t nearly as proven as any of the guys on defense. It’s almost impossible for Northwestern’s passing offense to get worse, but in 2016, one of the very few sure things they had last season is now gone.

Martin Oppegaard: Dean Lowry was a relatively easy choice for me. His 4th-round draft status accurately reflects his importance to Northwestern’s football team. Lowry was never a big sack guy, as Zach mentioned above, tallying just three his senior year. However, his contribution can be seen on nearly every defensive play. He led Northwestern with 13.5 tackles for a loss and 7 passes swatted, not to mention continuously disrupting plays in the opponent’s backfield. It’s cliche to say, but Lowry was a real lunch pail guy, one of the hardest working players with a high motor that led him to relentlessly pursue ball carriers and make plays that he had little business making. Part of what makes the Lowry loss so significant is his replacement—likely the unproven Ifeadi Odenigbo. Odenigbo can absolutely replicate Lowry’s sack numbers, but it’s hard to imagine him coming close to Lowry’s constant impact play after play.

Tristan Jung: I’m going to go with Traveon Henry. Henry has been rock-solid at safety for the past three seasons and his loss will badly affect the depth on the secondary. Kyle Quiero is good when healthy, but he missed a significant part of last year. Northwestern relied heavily on Godwin Igwebuike and Henry to prevent big plays last season, and his ability to hit hard and clean up messes will be sorely missed.

Will Ragatz: Dan Vitale. I really wanted to switch it up and go with Nick VanHoose or some other new name here, but just couldn’t rationalize it. When analyzing how big of a loss a player will be, the two main factors are the talent of the departing player and the talent of their replacement. Vitale is arguably the most talented of any of Northwestern’s 2015 graduates, but Lowry, Gibson, and VanHoose are up there as well, and it’s hard to compare skill levels across positions. Like Ian said, what makes Vitale the biggest loss is that he has the most worrisome replacements. The cornerback unit will be just fine, with Keith Watkins stepping up to replace VanHoose, and I’m more optimistic than some of my fellow writers about Odenigbo and Washington not being too huge of a drop off from Lowry and Gibson. I just don’t see how some combination of Dickerson and Jayme Taylor will come anywhere near replicating Vitale’s production and versatility at the superback position, and thus I think the Tampa Bay Buccaneer will be missed more than any other player.

Rob Schaefer: I agree with you, Zach, that the two obvious choices are recent draftees Dean Lowry and Dan Vitale, and in exercises such as this I prefer to operate in the realm of the obvious. For this reason, my choice for Northwestern’s biggest loss in 2016 is Dan Vitale. Lowry parlayed impressive production and unparalleled leadership across the defensive line into a fourth-round selection in the 2016 draft, but, to me it’s all about something Will mentioned above: talent of the replacement. It’s hard to imagine how Northwestern’s offense, inept as it was last season, can recover from losing Vitale, its top threat in the receiving game. Vitale led the team last year in receptions (33) and receiving yards (355) and accounted for four of the team’s eight passing touchdowns last season. Where we stand right now, I simply have more faith in guys like Xavier Washington, Ifeadi Odenigbo and C.J. Robbins to step up and replace Lowry’s production than I do Austin Carr, Solomon Vault and Garrett Dickerson to replace Vitale’s. Time will tell if that assessment is misguided, but if it ends up ringing true, the loss of Vitale will undoubtedly be the most painful for Clayton Thorson and the rest of the Wildcats this season.