With our position previews in the books, it’s time to make some assessments of the roster as a whole. We started with Northwestern’s weakest position groups earlier today. Now, our staffers discuss which Northwestern position group is the strongest heading into the 2018 season.
Noah Coffman: There are plenty of groups, mainly defensive, to choose from here, but the linebackers are the cream of the crop. Featuring arguably Northwestern’s two most productive returning defensive players in Nate Hall and Paddy Fisher, the group is established and has tons of playmaking ability. There isn’t a ton of depth behind those two, and the third linebacker spot is up for grabs, but Blake Gallagher was impressive in limited playing time as a true freshman last year. Nathan Fox, who, many forget, was in a competition with Fisher last year for his starting spot, should be able to step in, and Khalid Jones looks promising despite a spring injury. One of those three (my pick is Gallagher) should be able to bolster this talented corps, making the Northwestern linebackers the most dangerous position group on the team.
Lukas Stachtiaris: While the Wildcats will miss Tyler Lancaster, who was signed by the Green Bay Packers this spring following the draft, the defensive line is still Northwestern’s deepest position. In Jordan Thompson, Joe Gaziano and Samdup Miller, the Wildcats return three solid starters. Moreover, eight of the nine defensive lineman who saw extended playing time during Northwestern’s very successful 2017 season. Most notably, Gaziano and Miller will be back and wreaking havoc at the defensive ends positions for Northwestern. Each are coming off of successful seasons as well. Gaziano racked up 36 tackles and 9 sacks last season while starting every game for the Wildcat. Miller brought in 32 tackles, 5.5 sacks and a touchdown in his first season with the Wildcats, and was named to the Freshman All-American team by ESPN. With a lot of experienced players to fill in the rest of the line, expect the Northwestern defensive line to leave Big Ten offensive lines in a cold sweat this season.
Defensive line (specifically defensive end)
Caleb Friedman: Like Luke, I think the the D-line is the strongest unit on the team top-to-bottom, specifically the defensive ends. Assuming none of the ends bump inside (which is definitely a possibility), Joe Gaziano and Samdup Miller form arguably the best pairing in the Big Ten West, and one of the better duos in the conference. Those two alone make a strong case for the defensive ends as the best position group. But what sets the unit above and beyond is the depth, and the potential breakout players down the depth chart. Earnest Brown IV was the crown jewel of the 2017 class, and Trevor Kent wasn’t too far behind. Trent Goens is a solid, productive player too, and talented true freshman Devin O’Rourke will be a major contributor at some point, potentially this season. There’s elite top-end talent, there’s competitive depth and there’s a good blend of youth and experience for Northwestern on the edges.
Davis Rich: Calling Northwestern’s running backs the best position group on the team after the Wildcats just said goodbye to the best running back in program history doesn’t quite sound right. To be clear, I’m not saying Jeremy Larkin is going to be better than Justin Jackson. It would be awesome if he could be, but the truth is Larkin is not going to be asked to do as much as Jackson did. Northwestern will hope to maximize Larkin’s efficiency by giving him 15-20 carries per game, instead of the 20-25 carries a game Jackson shouldered. A big part of that is the strength of this stable of running backs. John Moten IV and Jesse Brown return after productive years as backups, in 2016 and 2017 respectively. And there’s a real chance Isaiah Bowser makes an impact in his freshman season. The former Ohio Player of the Year rushed for nearly 2,700 yards as a senior and was an early-enrollee on campus. Larkin has proven himself to be a Big Ten-caliber back, and with Moten, Brown, and Bowser all capable as well, the running backs are Northwestern’s deepest, and possibly its most talented position group.
Quarterback (If healthy)
Graham Brennan: Thorson completed 60% of his passes while quarterbacking an offense that scored 29.2 points per game last year. He’s also experienced, and Noah and Lukas took linebackers and defensive line. So give me one minute to temper your unrealistic expectations and hype you up at the same time. I stood in the Ryan Field bleachers with my fellow Northwestern students in agony as offensive drives stalled time and time again against Penn State and Iowa. My fellow students usually made a negative, snarky comment about Thorson after those drives that they thought impressed their peers by showing their supposed football prowess. Well, they thought! Save the negativity Northwestern fans; anyone can be negative because it’s easy to be. Channel that intelligence and do something good with it. Perhaps propose to your peers how the offense should adjust and do better next drive. It’ll create a thought provoking dialogue, individual intrigue and anticipation for the next drive- maybe you’ll see Fitz call the ensuing drive similarly to how you would have. Then it will lead to a touchdown and you’ll feel awesome about yourself.
I, meanwhile, quietly blamed the pass-catchers through out all of this. They need to be better. Thorson isn’t Baker Mayfield and this offense won’t be Oklahoma’s offense, ever. But NU fans have to know they aren’t cheering on Oklahoma, or Baker Mayfield. Thorson is a projected first round pick not because he’s big. There’s a lot of 6-foot-4 QBs out there. He is good; he’s shown that while leading this team to 27 wins over the past three years. If he’s not an early round draft pick in 2019 I’m going to blame the lineman and receivers. In 2019 the quarterback position group should be strong again, so let’s go Northwestern fans, straddle up.