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Top position battles for Northwestern in 2018

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Which positions are up for grabs heading into the fall?

NCAA Football: Michigan State at Northwestern Patrick Gorski-USA TODAY Sports

As we get ready for fall camp to begin, it’s time to begin speculating about Northwestern’s depth chart. Here, we highlight three noteworthy position battles that range for very important (center) to less important (WILL linebacker). And yes, there is a note about quarterback near the end.

Center

As Caleb wrote earlier, center is the most difficult position along the line mentally, not to mention that a center has his hands on the ball on every play. Northwestern loses its starting center of two and a half years in Brad North. Never a truly dominant offensive lineman, North was solid nonetheless and breaking in a new center won’t be easy.

The competition figures to come down to junior Jared Thomas and redshirt freshman Sam Gerak. Thomas figures to get the first look, given that he earned three starts at tackle last season and saw action in 2016 as well. Still, Gerak knows the position well (he was the No. 6 center in the country back in 2016) and has good size at 6-foot-3 and 278 pounds.

Whoever wins the starting job will slot in among four returning starters on the line. Expectations are high for this experienced group, especially because Northwestern needs to improve up front. The Wildcats finished 97th in adjusted line yards in 2017.

Superback

Garrett Dickerson and his 887 career receiving yards and nine career touchdowns are gone. In his stead are Cam Green, James Prather, and Trey Pugh who each bring different strengths and weaknesses to the table.

Green should be considered the favorite to earn the starting role given his background as a wide receiver and strong production last season. Still, Green hasn’t proven himself to be a premier blocker, and superbacks in Mick McCall’s offense need to be able to block first and catch passes second. Prather appeared in short-yardage situations the past two years. He only made one catch in 2017, but at 265 pounds, he’s got 35 pounds on Green. Prather should be the primary guy in short-yardage and red zone situations.

Pugh is more of a wild card. He was an early-enrollee in 2017 and was one of twelve true freshmen to see time, although he only reached the field on special teams. Pugh was the No. 14 tight end in his class and knows how to use his 6-foot-4, 236 pound frame well. It’s unclear exactly where Pugh slots in but he could leap Green and Prather on the depth chart given his pedigree.

Weak-side (WILL) linebacker

Northwestern has a couple bonafide stars in middle linebacker Paddy Fisher and SAM Nate Hall. Still, the loss of Brett Walsh, who racked up 67 tackles in 2017, leaves a hole at WILL, and Warren Long’s departure undermines Northwestern’s depth at linebacker at well. Hall, Fisher, and sophomore Blake Gallagher are the only linebackers with extensive experience on the roster.

Gallagher, who amassed 33 tackles in his first year on campus, figures to get the first look at WILL given his experience. Nonetheless, expect freshman Khalid Jones, an early enrollee, to spell Gallagher at times as well. The star power of Fisher and Hall bodes well for the front seven, but the third linebacker will need to contribute as well.

***Quarterback***

I really didn’t want to do this, but the powers that be might take my blogging rights away if I didn’t mention the battle for quarterback. Northwestern fans are hoping that this is just a battle for second string and Clayton Thorson is back for Week One, but it’s still important that the Wildcats establish a solid backup for the next couple years.

Northwestern was lucky to have Matt Alviti when they needed him in the Music City Bowl. Now, the Wildcats will turn to TJ Green, Aidan Smith, or Andrew Marty. It’s hard to know what to expect. Green is the son of the NFL quarterback. Smith was the highest-rated recruit. Marty has the best size.

Optimally, Marty would win the backup job and develop behind Thorson and Hunter Johnson in 2019 before winning the starting job in 2020 as a redshirt junior. Right now, 2020 doesn’t matter though. What matters is August 30, and if Thorson will be ready to play by then or not.

Honorable mentions: Second cornerback, Z-receiver, return specialists