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Wildcat Throwaround: Who will break out this season?

There are a lot of younger players stepping into bigger roles.

NCAA Football: Northwestern at Wisconsin Jeff Hanisch-USA TODAY Sports

Every season, unproven and inexperienced players step up and exceed expectations. Last season, Joe Gaziano, Nate Hall and Bennet Skowronek took their games to new levels, becoming important cogs in Northwestern’s success. Now, our staffers at Inside NU make our picks for who will break out in 2018.

Caleb Friedman: Earnest Brown IV

Brown was the crown jewel of the 2017 recruiting class, and but didn’t quite make the same impact classmate Samdup Miller made last season (importantly, Miller enrolled early). Brown is a superb athlete, and showed flashes of the explosiveness and pass-rush acumen that made him such a sought-after recruit coming out of high school. Injuries slowed him down last season, but, with a full offseason of weights and college-level training under his belt, he should be a terror off the edge on passing downs this season. Many players make a significant jump after from their freshman to sophomore seasons, and Brown is a candidate to do just that. Many of the plays that were hurries or disruptions last season should turn into sacks this season.

Davis Rich: JR Pace

The Wildcats need someone to step up and become a playmaker at safety following the departures of Kyle Quiero and Godwin Igwebuike. Jared McGee is the more experienced player in the defensive backfield, but I like JR Pace to build off what he accomplished last year and become a ball-hawking safety. You’ll remember Pace had a couple big interceptions against Wisconsin and Iowa as a true freshman. He also knocked away two passes, showing an ability to make plays on the ball. The Georgia native will have plenty of chances to develop his skills in 2018, as Northwestern doesn’t have a lot of experience at safety.

Noah Coffman: Blake Gallagher

Gallagher is only a true sophomore this year, but he’s the presumptive favorite to start at the open third linebacker spot. Though he had a couple of gaffes last year in limited action, a role at outside linebacker with the focus taken fully off of him by Nate Hall and Paddy Fisher should work wonders. Gallagher was slightly undersized last year, but he’s bulked up to 221 pounds, and his ferocity and quickness should put him in the backfield often this season. With opposing offenses intent on stopping Northwestern’s bigger names, Blake Gallagher should get a chance to shine in 2018.

Matthew Albert: Jalen Brown

In a talented pool of receivers, Jalen Brown is expected to be the Wildcats main deep threat. A 2017 graduate transfer from Oregon, he suffered a season-ending ending injury in last season’s 49-7 victory over Bowling Green. The main issue with the Wildcats receiving corps this season is the lack of a true go-to receiver for Thorson. Due to his injury last season, opposing defenses may focus more heavily on other receivers like Bennett Skowronek and Flynn Nagel, providing Brown with more favorable matchups. The Arizona native is the most explosive of the Wildcats receivers and has the highest ceiling in a position full of competitive depth.

Martin Oppegaard: Cameron Green

I think Cam Green is in for a huge year. He went off against Michigan State, hauling in six balls for 76 yards and the first touchdown of overtime. It appeared to be the breakout game that would ignite Green’s sophomore campaign; then he caught just two passes in the final five games of the season. Nobody will benefit more from Garrett Dickerson’s departure than Green, who will receive consistent snaps in passing situations. Let’s not forget that Green was recruited out of Stevenson as a wide receiver. I think 500 yards (Dickerson’s career high is 401) and five touchdowns is certainly within the realm of possibility. Also, Riley Lees is going to break out. Remember his 78-yard punt return against Purdue that was negated by Gaziano’s unsportsmanlike conduct penalty? Lees is explosive.

Avery Zimmerman: Jared McGee

With Northwestern losing both of their starting safeties going into 2018, Mcgee will play a vital role in the development of the Cats’ defense. The rising senior is a player that has a ton of game experience and exposure. He played double digit contests in each of the past two seasons and displayed the attributes that have put him in line to replace Godwin Igwebuike. Mcgee has relied on his tackling and athletic ability throughout his past 3 years at NU, but he’ll have to be a more consistent ball hawk to help fill the safety void. With a full offseason of starting reps under his belt, Mcgee is primed to achieve the level of all around talent needed to be a safety net on the backside of the Northwestern defense. Montre Hartage’s words at Big Ten Media Day provided further credence to this belief. “We have all the confidence in the world in our new safeties. This summer has shown me that although you can’t replace [Godwin], we have the depth to play great ball.” With Paddy Fisher and Nate Hall in front of Mcgee, Northwestern’s defense will be just fine.

Joseph Weinberg: Ramaud Chiaokhiao-Bowman

Chiaokhiao-Bowman saw limited action on offense last year as a redshirt freshman (4 catches, 35 yards), but should earn himself more targets and playing time this season with the departure of Macan Wilson and Garrett Dickerson who both had over 30 catches and 400 yards receiving last year. Chiaokhiao-Bowman brings some much-needed height to the table for a receiving corps that is generally undersized with the exception of Bennett Skowronek. As the second tallest receiver listed on the roster, keep an eye out for Chiaokhiao-Bowman to emerge as one of Thorson’s primary check-down options this year, especially given Mick McCall’s hesitancy to let Thorson air it out in the past. He also has by the far the coolest name of the receivers, so that’s a plus as well.