With no bowl game to keep Northwestern football fans occupied for the month of December, the 2020 offseason has come early. After a tumultuous, disappointing campaign saw the Wildcats finished with a losing record for the first time since 2014, there is much concern and uncertainty surrounding the program heading into next season.
With Mick McCall gone, significant changes are coming, but Northwestern’s 2019 struggles extended far beyond one coordinator. Here are some reasons to be both optimistic and pessimistic about the state of the program moving forward:
Three reasons to be pessimistic
A lot of talent will be leaving Evanston before next fall
Like last offseason, Northwestern will lose a handful of crucial players, which could have a huge impact on its performance next year. While the biggest blows were to the offensive unit last year, NU will be without some major defensive parts next season like Joe Gaziano, Alex Miller, and Trae Williams to name a few. Additionally, the ‘Cats will lose offensive lineman Jared Thomas — a major contributor and leader as a senior captain this year.
However, Northwestern may also lose more players than just its graduating class. So far, three players have been announced as potential (or definite) transfers this offseason: senior DB Roderick Campbell, sophomore DB Brian Bullock and senior WR Bennett Skowronek, who may return to Evanston as a redshirt senior or choose to graduate transfer elsewhere.
Finally, Northwestern could lose the heart and soul of its defense in junior linebacker Paddy Fisher. Last offseason, there was discussion of Fisher entering the NFL Draft in 2020, and some “way-too-early” predictions even had Fisher as a first-round pick. Losing the middle linebacker to the pros could leave a serious talent deficiency on the side of the ball that kept the Wildcats competitive in the 2019 games they had a chance at winning.
Northwestern is still unsteady at quarterback
While Northwestern’s strong offensive performance against Illinois was a nice distraction, it’s hard to forget the fact that there are still tons of unanswered questions at quarterback for the ‘Cats. Hunter Johnson’s first year did not come close to the high expectations that were set, and his future role in the program should be considered up in the air after a 2019 campaign that never saw him find his groove.
But the concerns at QB extend far beyond Johnson. In one of the final press conferences of the year, Fitz slammed the quarterback room as a whole, citing a lack of preparation on the part of both coaches/players. No matter who was under center in 2019, the Wildcats lacked a true game manager/leader, and it showed as they stumbled their way to a 3-9 record.
If Johnson is ultimately not the direction that Northwestern goes in, who is up next? Will TJ Green medically redshirt and return to Evanston for his sixth year? Will Northwestern invest in Andrew Marty or Aidan Smith? Regardless of who comes in at offensive coordinator, the team will not be able to succeed until questions at QB are answered.
While it is hard to think the future could be worse than what we had in the past, Northwestern is currently without an offensive coordinator, and we don’t know what is to come. Firing McCall was just the first step of many to solving Northwestern’s offensive woes, and Fitz has an incredibly important decision ahead of him that will have a huge impact on the future of the program — for better or for worse.
It’s hard to imagine things getting worse, but we really can’t be sure until things start (or don’t start) coming to fruition on the field.
Three reasons to be optimistic
The offense will (hopefully) be new
With Mick McCall gone, there is a cautious optimism about Northwestern fans that the program can take the next step with a more dynamic, or event semi-competent offense. At the very least, the program was likely reaching its ceiling with an offense as predictable as it was for the last few years, and it really bottomed out this year. Fitz has an opportunity to make an exciting hire and revolutionize that side of the ball, but the question many fans have is if he will opt for a young name with ambitions potentially larger than NU OC, or if he’ll go with another conservative play caller.
Johnson definitely struggled in his first year in Evanston, but for various reasons, he was not on the field consistently enough to give his play a fair assessment, and the offensive system wasn’t well-suited to his skillset. Either way, the offensive coordinator who led an offense that averaged 98th in the country in scoring over the last six years is out, and that alone is enough to provide optimism that things are going to better next season.
The offensive line made strides over the course of the season
For as bad as the offense was for the majority of 2019, Fitz continued to praise the offensive line’s play, and rightfully so. Kurt Anderson’s unit took a few weeks to start working well, but after that, it was certainly a brighter spot on this team. The line struggled in pass protection against Stanford, Wisconsin and Iowa, but allowed just five sacks over the season’s final five weeks. Without a healthy Isaiah Bowser, the ground game racked up 180 yards per contest on a respectable 4.6 yards per carry (when adjusted for lost yardage on sacks). That number is even more impressive when considering the fact that opposing defenses didn’t have to focus much on the passing attack and could load the box against Northwestern in any given game.
The dominant HAT performance further proved the growth of the OL unit this season and sent NU into this offseason with something to build on. In a game that Illinois surely knew Northwestern would be passing scarcely, the ‘Cats ran the ball right down their throats for 378 yards on an astonishing 5.8 yards per attempt. The ‘Cats lose senior center Jared Thomas, and he is undoubtedly a big loss. But, every other stater on the line returns, and after losing three starters to graduation a year ago, the offensive line is in a good spot.
The defense has shown the ability to evolve with graduation
Every year, it seems like we talk about how Northwestern will be able to replace its defensive cornerstones and role players. Coming into this season was no different, as Mike Hankwitz had to replace Montre Hartage, Jared McGee and Nate Hall along with run stoppers Fred Wyatt and Jordan Thompson.
So yes, NU will lose program great Joe Gaziano, Trae Williams and Alex Miller to graduation, and potentially Paddy Fisher to the NFL, but this coaching staff and roster depth has shown it can rise to the task of replacing talent. Some credit can be given to defensive line coach Marty Long, who year-in and year-out has molded his players, sometimes previously unknown to outsiders, into formidable block eaters and tackle makers. The secondary wasn’t great this year, but Greg Newsome showed himself as the uncontested no. 1 corner after Hartage left, and both starting safeties, Travis Whillock and JR Pace, return for their senior seasons.