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The biggest questions facing Northwestern entering spring football

Some key graduations leave opportunities for players to make names for themselves.

San Diego County Credit Union Holiday Bowl - Northwestern v Utah Photo by Sean M. Haffey/Getty Images

Northwestern comes off one of its most successful seasons in roughly two decades, springing hope that Pat Fitzgerald can continue the upward trajectory of the program. The ‘Cats will once again begin taking years off our lives Aug. 31 at Stanford, but until then there is spring football and questions to be addressed with the departure of many starters and the arrival of exciting new talent.

The corners are thin

Northwestern’s secondary last year played a lot of soft, conservative coverage, partly to limit big plays and partly because of the litany of injuries that plagued the unit. Montre Hartage’s graduation will leave the cornerbacks room with Trae Williams, Greg Newsome II and Cam Ruiz as those with extended experience. Williams played important snaps last season pretty well, while Newsome was sidelined for most of the season and looked a step behind at times. Defensive coordinator Mike Hankwitz needs a guy or three to improve from last year so there can be a somewhat reliable rotation on the outside.

The offensive line

It all starts in the trenches. And for most of last year, it really did begin and end up front for Northwestern. There were times Clayton Thorson had ample time in the pocket and Isaiah Bowser had holes to pick from, and there were also the times Clayton Thorson had a free rusher in his face and any number of Northwestern running backs were met in the backfield. The O-line will have a different feel to it for two reasons: longtime offensive line coach Adam Cushing left the program for the head job at Eastern Illinois this offseason, and there will be a lot of new bodies with starters Tommy Doles, Blake Hance and J.B. Butler gone. Rashawn Slater and Jared Thomas will need to take control of the unit. Sam Gerak and Nik Urban showed potential in their limited action, and new line coach Kurt Anderson has a resumé that sparks hope that he can develop their talent. After those projected four, though, it’s almost anyone’s guess. This is easily the part of the team that Pat Fitzgerald knows has the most work to do before Stanford. Control the trenches, control the game. There’s reason for excitement with a lot of turnover, but by the same token there is valid concern.

Who will the fourth-down specialist be?

Jake Collins may not have had a fantastic statistical season, but he was on the field a lot. There’s reason to be optimistic that the offense with Hunter Johnson, Isaiah Bowser, and exciting freshmen wide receivers this fall will be more productive than last year’s, but the punting situation is still important and in flux. Collins is gone, and there are currently three punters on the roster: rising sophomores Jake Genyk and Cody Gronewold, and preferred walk-on early-enrollee Trey Finison. Depending on how the below question goes this season, whoever wins the job could see plenty of action.

Who will take over at starting quarterback?

LOL, just kidding, hope you didn’t read that too seriously. Hunter m’fing Johnson.