We’ve completed our position previews, so it’s time to take stock of each group in the context of the entire roster. We start by singling out the weakest position groups. Below, our staffers discuss which group they see is the weakest link on Northwestern’s roster:
Noah Coffman: This could easily go to the wide receivers or safeties, but I decided to take a more out-there pick here. With Thorson attempting to return from a devastating injury and no college experience behind him, this group could struggle significantly. Though the stats don’t tell the whole story, Thorson took at least a minor step backwards last year even before blowing out his knee in the bowl win, and attempting to improve while rehabbing could prove quite difficult. Meanwhile, if Thorson has to miss games, his backups are uninspiring. TJ Green seems to be a slight leader in the race for the #2 job as the oldest of the backups, but he and Aidan Smith have seen virtually no action. The relative newcomers, Andrew Marty and Jason Whittaker, each seem to have potential, but have little experience in a college offense to go with it. Until Thorson proves he’s back (or Hunter Johnson enters the picture next year), the quarterbacks room is the weakest group on the roster.
Lukas Stachtiaris: Coming off of an injury-riddled 2017 season, the cornerback position is probably Northwestern’s biggest defensive question mark. While Montre Hartage is a shutdown corner for the Wildcats, he is their only returning cornerback to start every game last season. Trae Williams and Alonzo Mayo are the only other corners with extensive experience, so the Northwestern defense may run into serious trouble with depth when opponents spread the field with more than three wideouts, or if injuries strike the defensive backfield again. Northwestern’s biggest hope is that at least one of the young cornerbacks, perhaps Brian Bullock or Greg Newsome, steps up as a consistent player. Otherwise, this is a position at which balanced opposing teams may be able to expose the Wildcats.
Caleb Friedman: NU has four of five starters back on the line, but let’s not act like the line was a huge success last season. The Wildcats ranked No. 77 in the country in adjusted sack rate on passing plays and No. 97 in adjusted line yards on rushing plays. Those numbers are...not good. The line certainly improved over the course of the season, which could bode well for 2018, but I just don’t see the same personnel being that much better this season. Players usually do improve over the course of their tenures in Evanston, so there should be some improvement in that area. But, for a mostly veteran line, those improvements should be modest. Plus, losing Brad North, who was good down the stretch, will hurt. Center is widely considered the most cerebral position on the line, so there will be a learning curve there for Jared Thomas or Sam Gerak in replacing North. We’ve gotten used to seeing Clayton Thorson run for his life on third down, and I see that trend continuing in 2018.
Davis Rich: Much like cornerback, Northwestern faces some serious depth issues at safety. Jared McGee and J.R. Pace (in limited time, albeit) have proven to be competent in the defensive backfield. The problem is that they represent the only Wildcats on the roster with experience at safety. We know Northwestern is going to need depth at safety given injuries and the prevalence of nickel and dime packages; we don’t know who is going to step up. Travis Whillock has the pedigree, but it’s hard to know what to expect from the Texan after missing 2017 with an injury. Fellow Texan Austin Hiller figures to see sometime at safety too, as will true freshman Jeremiah McDonald. Still, it’s hard to see this position as a strength at all with questions about depth and experience.
Graham Brennan: Bennett Skowronek needs to become that dude. No other Northwestern receivers with any semblance of meaningful experience possess his physical tools. For Northwestern to break through — and still be in contention for the Big Ten West title in November — Skowronek has to demand double teams and prevent opposing safeties from creeping towards the line of scrimmage. He needs to alter defensive schemes or at least factor into them. Clayton Thorson needs a receiver who can consistently beat one-on-one coverage. Jeremy Larkin needs a chance — meaning a front-seven to run against, not a front-nine. If Skowronek doesn’t improve, his roughly-2017 self and Flynn Nagel will qualify as this offenses worst position group. If he does, he and his 6-foot-4 frame along with Nagel and Jalen Brown might make this team really good. Brown was special in high school, but he hasn’t contributed much to a football team since then. If he’s healthy, I think the Oregon grad transfer can be extremely useful this season.