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Northwestern football’s offseason questions: Superbacks and hangovers

The Wildcats have a huge hole to fill at the end of the offensive line, and a target on their backs.

NCAA Football: Notre Dame at Northwestern Mike DiNovo-USA TODAY Sports

As spring practice begins to come to a close, Inside NU will be embarking on a new series of stories regarding the most important questions for Wildcat football to address in the offseason. With coaches and players coming and going and potential position battles galore, Northwestern has plenty to focus on going into its season opener in late August. With these stories, we will highlight what we feel are the most important questions that this team is facing as they try to build on nearly unprecedented success. Next, we’ll examine Cam Green’s potential replacements at superback and take on the question of whether NU can deal with new pressure after last year’s historic season.

In case you missed it, Cam Green, Northwestern’s second-most prolific pass catcher from 2018, announced in February that he would be opting out of his fifth year of elgibility due to health concerns. This leaves a gaping hole at superback — a key tight end/fullback hybrid in Mick McCall’s offensive scheme.

So, here’s the big question:

Who will replace Cam Green at superback in 2019?

Northwestern’s options are scarce. As it stands, the Wildcats have just five superbacks listed on the 2019 roster. The frontrunners to replace Green are Trey Pugh, Charlie Mangieri and former defensive lineman Trent Goens, who Pat Fitzgerald confirmed would be making the switch to offense earlier this spring.

Another name to look out for is incoming freshman superback Thomas Gordon from Houston, who flashed strong route-running and pass-catching abilities in his high school highlights. Gordon certainly fits the ideal superback build at 6-foot-4, 230 pounds, and could earn some playing time if he puts together an impressive summer in Evanston.

Pugh, a rising junior, was the only superback besides Green who caught a pass last season, but his three total receptions for 29 yards don’t provide a whole lot of comfort heading into 2019. Pugh also missed the entirety of spring practice with an injury. Mangieri, who will be a sophomore next year, played a minimal role as a blocker in 2018, and it’s difficult to foresee either matching the production value that Green added to the passing game with the second most catches on the team last season.

One of the few potential positives that could emerge from Green’s departure is better run-blocking from the superback position. If he’s able to complete the transition to offense, Goens could be an extremely valuable run-blocker at 265 pounds in a way that Green never quite was. Recruited as a receiver, the smaller Green always fit more as a pass catcher than a run blocker, and he admitted as much in interviews.

Meanwhile, Mangieri and Pugh have been slotted into the superback role for their entire Northwestern career. The Wildcats could potentially see an uptick in blocking production that could be much-needed given the questionable state of the offensive line.

Still, the inexperience at the position is incredibly worrisome, especially when MCCall and co. are tasked with replacing a guy who caught 57 passes for nearly 500 yards in 2018. Green also led all receivers with four touchdowns, emerging as one of Northwestern’s most reliable red zone options and a crucial outlet on third or fourth down. His proven route-running ability, soft hands, and trustworthiness in key spots are all attributes that will be deeply missed, and may not be replaceable drawing solely from the current roster.

How will last year’s milestone season (if at all) affect Northwestern’s approach in 2019?

Northwestern enters the 2019 season is uncharted territory. After last year’s apperance in the Big Ten Championship Game, the program has set a new bar for itself — win the West or bust.

Rising expectations create more pressure to win, and there’s no telling how a team losing a four-year starting quarterback in addition to other key players on both sides of the ball will respond to the program’s new status as a serious contender and even a favorite.

“As the defending champions, we have a target on our back,” senior John Moten IV told Inside NU at spring practice. “People are gonna be coming for us.”

Given how many narrow victories Northwestern put together against Big Ten West foes last year, it wouldn’t be surprising to see teams like Iowa/Nebraska/Purdue come into the 2019 NU matchup with a little extra fire.

Furthermore, Northwestern should face plenty of fight in road games against Wisconsin and Stanford, both of whom were embarrassed in their most recent respective trips to Evanston. Northwestern’s 2019 schedule is heavily front-loaded, with five of its potentially six toughest games coming in the first half of the season.

The Wildcats say they are prepared for this early onslaught. But after the loss of plenty of leaders, including perhaps the most important one of all under center, will their talent be enough to keep them in the title hunt? The schedule will test Northwestern’s mettle from day one, and the Wildcats have a long way to go to prove they can overcome the renewed efforts of this years foes and live up to the expectations they have set for themselves.