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Five potential breakout players for Northwestern football

These players could make big leaps in 2017.

NCAA Football: Duke at Northwestern Patrick Gorski-USA TODAY Sports

With the spring football football season in the rearview mirror, questions still remain at several key positions. A battle to be Anthony Walker Jr.’s replacement at middle linebacker is ramping up, a starting offensive line spot is still up for grabs and a host of receivers are vying to become more prominent contributors in the offense. Based on both last season and this spring, here are five potential breakout candidates for 2017.

Flynn Nagel

No surprise here. Nagel was Northwestern’s No. 2 receiver last season behind Austin Carr, reeling in 40 catches for 447 yards. Those numbers would’ve put Nagel as the Wildcats’ top receiver in 2015. Because of Carr’s departure, there now exists a massive production hole at wide receiver, and Nagel appears to be the No. 1 option heading into next season. Sliding into Carr’s position in the slot, Nagel, who already has a strong rapport with Clayton Thorson, isn’t afraid to go over the middle and make contested catches, and he has great run-after-the-catch ability. For those reasons, he appears to be primed for a big 2017.

Solomon Vault

Another receiver who could be destined for a marked improvement for the Wildcats next season is a former running back. Vault, who’s one of the most dynamic players on the entire team, now has two full offseasons and a whole regular season of experience at wide receiver. The Gaithersburg, Maryland native is the best deep threat on the Northwestern offense, and always is a weapon with the ball in his hands — especially on kickoffs. Nagel will replace Carr in the slot, but it’s unlikely Nagel will be able to match Carr’s 2016 numbers next season. There’s still a lot of room for Vault to get involved, and behind what will (probably) be a better offensive line next season, Thorson should have time to take more deep shots. If so, Vault will be a big beneficiary.

Paddy Fisher

The story of the spring may have been Fisher. The middle linebacker out of Katy, Texas has come on of late, and entered a battle with Nathan Fox for the starting MIKE linebacker job. At 6-foot-3 and 235 pounds, the redshirt freshman has great size and range for the position. Fisher is strong enough to play in the box and deal with the run, and agile enough to hold his own in coverage. Putting the signal-calling duties in the hands of a player seeing his first true collegiate action may be a tall ask, but Pat Fitzgerald still might do it anyway. Even If Fisher doesn’t win the job, his spring performance has undoubtedly earned him playing time next season, possibly with Fox on the field at the same time.

Gunnar Vogel

Vogel has gotten first-team reps at right tackle this spring, and could fill the final available starting spot on the line next season. His biggest competition — ex-Georgia Tech lineman Trey Klock — doesn’t arrive until the summer, so Vogel has had a head start in learning the blocking schemes and tendencies of the NU offense. Any semblance of consistency at that position will be an improvement over last season, and Fitzgerald would love to have a potential four-year starter on his offensive line. He has a great frame to work with at 6-foot-6 and 287 pounds, and should continue to improve as the offseason progresses.

Joe Gaziano

Entering his sophomore season, Gaziano has already had some success for Northwestern. He finished 2016 with a solid 4.5 sacks, including one that always merits showing:

Stepping into a starting role in 2017, Gaziano will be asked to do more in the running game than he did a season ago. If he can at least be solid in that area, he could be a pass-rushing menace opposite Xavier Washington on the defensive line. Northwestern has great depth at defensive end, but an improved Gaziano could still make a huge difference for Mike Hankwitz’s defense next fall.