Earlier this week, we here at Inside NU unveiled our staff rankings of the ten most important players for Northwestern football going into 2019. Of course, as with any such list, our aggregate rankings were contentious, and there were certainly some that had a case as being snubbed. Let’s take a look at the guys who didn’t quite reach the top ten.
Jared Thomas, C
The senior is one of just two returning members of the starting offensive line, but was placed on just three of the nine writers’ lists. Undoubtedly, as the leader of a position in flux, Thomas’ role with the team this year will be huge. Offensive line trouble would be devastating to a young offense trying to create a new identity.
However, after a solid 2018 campaign, his floor and ceiling seem relatively well-established and close together. Thomas will need to bring plenty to the table for the Wildcat offense to succeed, and he will be relied on plenty as a stalwart member of the group up front. But, at least right now, it does not appear that his performance will be what determines the team’s fate.
Charlie Kuhbander, K
We saw what happened last year when the ‘Cats couldn’t get their kicking game figured out. Thanks to the injuries to both Kuhbander and Drew Luckenbaugh, Pat Fitzgerald was forced to up his (already high) level of aggression in fourth down situations.
But despite missing out on a couple of moments in which three points would have been important, Northwestern put together their best season in years. So though having Kuhbander (or Luckenbaugh) as a fully healthy, relatively consistent kicker would be a big help both to the team and the blood pressure of Northwestern fans, the Cardiac ‘Cats have shown they can find ways to win without one.
Earnest Brown IV, DE
Brown was the most frequently named player to not reach the final consensus list, as he was given the eight-place spot by three writers and put in ninth by another. After an impressive sophomore season that featured a team-high six tackles for loss over Northwestern’s last four games, the gregarious Texan seems to be ready to take a considerable leap. Across from an established pass-rushing threat in Joe Gaziano, Brown will have the opportunity to make any visit to Evanston a bad day for the opposing quarterback.
Though he is steadily improving and could give the Wildcat defense a new dimension with a big year, Northwestern has bigger holes to fill. Without younger members of the coverage unit stepping up and an established presence against the run, even a phenomenal pass rush will have limited effectiveness. And with Brown still having a ways to go to prove himself an every-down defensive end, his usefulness might be limited.
Travis Whillock, S
After stepping in to earn a starting spot late last season, Whillock turned in an impressive performance to close the season. The high school teammate of Paddy Fisher, who had been saddled with hamstring injuries across his first two and a half years with the program, proved himself at least an adequate member of the secondary already. But now, with the departure of Montre Hartage and Jared McGee, he will need to take the next step.
Whillock and J.R. Pace certainly look the part of an impressive safety duo moving forwards. But Pace, as the more established member, may play a bigger role for this season, with Whillock still learning on the job. Regardless, their ability to help their young corners could prove crucial as quarterbacks go after an inexperienced pass defense.
Any Wide Receiver
Of the wideouts, Bennett Skowronek and Riley Lees were mentioned the most often. Both will play an important role in the offense, but the Wildcats have rarely had a star pass-catcher step forward and fully outshine his compatriots over the past decade, with Austin Carr serving as an exception.
With a new quarterback taking the reins, Northwestern will need production across what looks to be a deeply talented crew. If the deep rotation that we saw last year holds, lots of guys are going to get a chance to make an impact, and most of them will be relied upon to make big plays in big moments. If somebody stands out, it can only help, but for now it’s the receiving corps as a whole that will be of the most importance.