Northwestern had plenty of questions to answer coming into its 2017 season. The Wildcats had just lost one of the most talented linebackers in program history (Anthony Walker Jr.), the reigning Big Ten sacks leader (Ifeadi Odenigbo), the Big Ten Receiver of the Year (Austin Carr) and several other key contributors.
Early on, it looked as if some of those holes had gone unfilled; a 31-7 home loss to Penn State certainly didn’t inspire confidence. But as the season wore on and Northwestern finished on an eight-game win streak, players stepped into those voids and led the Wildcats to their second 10-win season in three years and back-to-back bowl victories for the first time ever.
Here are five players who exceeded expectations in 2017. And the good news for Wildcats fans is that all of them have eligibility remaining.
Paddy Fisher, LB (R-Fr.)
Walker was the first player in the Pat Fitzgerald era to leave early for the draft, where the Indianapolis Colts selected him in the fifth round. The former All-American left what most thought would be a gaping hole in the center of a talented defense. The battle to replace him was between a redshirt freshman in Paddy Fisher and an inexperienced redshirt sophomore in Nathan Fox.
Fisher won the job. A Texas 6A state champion as a senior for powerhouse Katy High School, Fisher’s high school track record showed reasons to believe, but no one expected him to even approach Walker’s level of play this season, much less immediately. Fisher, however, did just that. He recorded 18 tackles in his second college game and finished his season with 113 tackles, 9.0 tackles for loss, four passes defended, four forced fumbles, one fumble recovered and one interception. It’s one of the most impressive season stat lines you’ll ever see from a freshman; no FBS first-year recorded more tackles this season.
Fisher was a massive piece of Northwestern’s run defense, which finished ninth in the nation in rushing yards allowed per game. He displayed several of the traits his predecessor had, most notably the ability to flow downhill and meet the running back in the hole with tenacity. His nose for the ball was contagious, too: The Wildcats finished 23rd in the nation in takeaways.
Though his historic season ended on the sour note of a controversial ejection in the Music City Bowl, Fisher’s body of work didn’t go unrecognized, as he was recently named a freshman All-American. He’ll have his work cut out for him this offseason as Northwestern loses several key pieces at all three levels of the defense.
Samdup Miller, DE (Fr.)
Another impressive freshman who made an All-American team, Miller emerged as a much-needed second pass rusher opposite Joe Gaziano. With no Ifeadi Odenigbo (NFL) nor Xavier Washington (suspension), Miller stepped in as a true freshman and delivered 5.5 sacks, 8.5 tackles for loss and 32 tackles overall. He also scored a touchdown on a recovered fumble against Illinois. He played in a variety of packages and came through in several clutch moments, like the huge overtime sack at Nebraska pictured above.
Northwestern loses its two starting tackles, and expectations will be raised for the outstanding Miller-Gaziano tandem.
(SIDENOTE: Gaziano was outstanding this year and could have easily made this list. But I had pretty high expectations for him coming in after his own outstanding freshman year. He delivered on those expectations — he was terrific.)
Bennett Skowronek, WR (So.)
Replacing Carr was always going to be a by-committee approach. Skowronek, however, emerged as the leader of that committee, finishing first in yards (644) and touchdowns (5) and second in catches (45) after registering just eight catches, no touchdowns and 70 yards the year before.
At 6-foot-4, 218 pounds, Skowronek has the size and skill to be a true No. 1 receiver, and he showed that on several occasions over the course of the season. He emerged as the Wildcats’ best big-play option with a team-leading seven receptions of at least 25 yards. He also showed his red zone prowess, high-pointing key touchdown passes from both Justin Jackson against Michigan State and Clayton Thorson against Purdue. His ability to “go up and get it” was something the Wildcats had lacked in recent years.
There’s a lot of attrition across the Wildcats’ roster, but wide receiver is relatively unscathed. Macan Wilson is the only departure, while the group gains the services of Solomon Vault and Jalen Brown, both of whom had season-ending injuries. But that doesn’t mean the passing game will be unaffected: Both Garrett Dickerson and Justin Jackson were key pieces of the underneath passing game, and both of them are graduating. Skowronek is only improving, and he and Flynn Nagel will likely be the most prominent figures in the passing game again in 2018.
One area Skowronek could improve upon is his game-to-game consistency. He registered four games of at least 50 yards but also four games of 25 yards or fewer. In wins, he averaged over 56 yards per game and 15 per catch. In losses, though, those numbers dropped to 27 and 10.1. Northwestern and Skowronek himself have to make sure he’s involved week-to-week in 2018.
Rashawn Slater, OT (Fr.)
Per Pro Football Focus, Slater graded out as the top freshman offensive lineman in America. Take individual offensive lineman advanced stats with a grain of salt, because evaluating line play is certainly an inexact science, but that’s really impressive nonetheless.
Slater was the lone newcomer along the offensive line, and he really came into his own as the season went along. The son of former NBA player Reggie Slater, Rashawn showed athleticism and strength during Big Ten play and, like his team, performed at his best down the stretch of the season. Right tackle was a big question coming into the season. It won’t be in 2018.
Charlie Kuhbander, K (Fr.)
Kuhbander missed his first kick and his last kick of 2017. In between, he was impressive, nailing 13 of 14 attempts. An aggressive fourth-down mindset from Fitzgerald limited his attempts — his long was just 40 yards — but Kuhbander was about as good as anyone could have asked for and a big step up from Jack Mitchell, who struggled in his senior year. Kuhbander was the first kicker recruit since Jeff Budzien, and that recruitment certainly paid dividends in 2017. His 13 points against Maryland earned him Big Ten Special Teams Player of the Week honors.