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Wildcat Throwaround: Northwestern’s Worst Position Group

A debate on which unit is the weakest.

NCAA Football: Northwestern at Purdue Sandra Dukes-USA TODAY Sports

With our position previews in the books, it’s time to make some assessments of the roster as a whole. We went through our list of best position groups last week, but sadly, life isn’t just about good things. In this Wildcat Throwaround, a few of our staffers discuss which Northwestern position group is the weakest heading into the 2017 season. Let us know what you think in the comments.

Offensive Line

Noah Coffman: The Northwestern offensive line is one of the most senior position groups on the team. The line returns four of last year’s contributors (Blake Hance, Tommy Doles, J.B. Butler, and Brad North), each of whom have started at least 7 games in a Northwestern uniform, and adds experienced graduate transfer Trey Klock. Unfortunately, the line’s experience has mainly been negative thus far. Despite bright spots in last year’s Pinstripe Bowl and the slugfest against Michigan State, the offensive line struggled mightily for Northwestern in the 2016 season. I don’t need to remind you of the dismal outings against Illinois State and Western Michigan, and although it seems that the group was trending upwards to close the year, the season was a step backward for the line group overall.

Despite Clayton Thorson’s strides in terms of pocket awareness and decision-making in 2016, he was sacked 16 more times during the season than he was in 2015. Many of those sacks can be pinned directly on an overwhelmed offensive line, especially embattled left tackle Blake Hance. Justin Jackson’s 2016 success also seemed to come in spite of the offensive line. Jackson rushed for more than two-thirds of his yards after contact, and broke the third-most tackles. As Will Ragatz said a few months ago, the offensive line ranked in the bottom half in the FBS in stats like opportunity rate and stuff rate, forcing Jackson to often make something out of nothing. Despite some signs of improvement, Northwestern’s offensive line has been one of the only units on the team that has been consistently mediocre, and there aren’t a lot of reasons to expect a massive improvement in 2017.

Defensive end

Caleb Friedman: This pick is contingent on Xavier Washington missing significant time next season. Without Washington, Joe Gaziano is the only defensive end with a lot of game experience. The team won't miss Ifeadi Odenigbo on rushing downs, but his lost pass-rushing production will be difficult to replace; Odenigbo accounted for 10 of the team's 27 sacks last season. There are a lot of young players at the position who will be asked to step up next season — Trent Goens, Tommy Carnifax and the Miller brothers are some names that come to mind — but it's no sure thing Northwestern will find consistency out of any of them. True freshmen Earnest Brown IV and Trevor Kent are talented, but probably won't play major roles next season. I don't think the defensive end group is particularly bad, but I'm just not sure who is going to rush the passer for the team opposite of Gaziano.


Tristan Jung: Here’s an offbeat one. Hunter Niswander is definitively a below-average NCAA FBS punter. We know this. We’ve seen him punt for three years. Last year, Northwestern was 90th in punting efficiency. The Wildcats have been well below average in starting field position for two years. Unless he starts to develop some unseen punting talent, Niswander is going to be a bottom-tier FBS punter, and there’s really nothing Northwestern can do about it. Unlike the other two positions, where there is some hope of a resurgence with new players, there’s nothing happening at punter.

Kickoff/Kick Return

Ian McCafferty: This may be a bit unfair to say at this point in time, but this pick is based more on uncertainty than anything else. Jack Mitchell is gone and we don’t know who will replace him and with Solomon Vault injuried, we don’t know who will return kicks. The Wildcats have three players currently listed as kickers on the roster, freshman Charlie Kuhbander, Grad transfer Luke Otto and redshirt freshman Drew Luckenbaugh. We won’t know until after Kenosha who the starting kicker is, and honestly they might be really good, but at this point in time the uncertainty makes this one of the biggest holes on the roster.