To kick off a summer of football preview content at Inside NU, we are counting down Northwestern’s Top 10 Most Important Players for 2019.
We’ve chosen to loosely define the criteria for our list as the players “who will have the biggest impact on the overall outcome of the season.” However, we recognize that that’s still open to interpretation. For some, it could mean the value of a player over his replacement. It could just mean the best player. It could mean a player in a crucial role, or even players who have underperformed in past seasons who now need to step up.
Our staff has created a list that will undoubtedly cause plenty of disagreement, but ultimately highlights ten players that will undoubtedly factor heavily into the seasons success. For each player, we’ll enlist two of our writers to debate the merits of the player in question.
To kick things off for 2019, we’ll take a look at junior superback Trey Pugh.
Avery Zimmerman (Rank: N/A)
When we entered the offseason, Cam Green projected to be a critical part of the offense as well as an important leader. But Northwestern’s best superback elected to retire due to health concerns, meaning Pugh is in place to be the top superback this year. That situation certainly presents itself as important, but I didn’t include him on my list because I’m not sure whether the Wildcats will choose to plug Pugh directly into Green’s important role.
Mick McCall’s offense almost always emphasizes the superback position, but it might become less of a priority this year due to a lack of depth in the group. Defensive lineman Trent Goens was moved to superback in spring practices, which might show you exactly how much faith the team has in Pugh fulfilling that number one role. Pat Fitzgerald can’t necessarily expect Goens to be a reliable second option, meaning Pugh and rising sophomore Charlie Mangieri will be heavily relied upon.
Pugh’s and the position’s importance on this list may be warranted due to the fact that the superback position is so thin. Whether the position is de-emphasized this year or not, Pugh will have a sizeable role to play.
Joe Weinberg (Rank: N/A)
Northwestern’s primary 2019 superback undoubtedly deserves a spot in these Top 10 rankings, I’m just not yet quite convinced Pugh is going to be that guy.
Besides graduating a few key offensive lineman, the hole left by Cam Green’s retirement is probably the biggest position question facing the Northwestern offense heading into the 2019 season. The Wildcats lose a guy who hauled in nearly 500 yards last season in Green as well as their most reliable redzone target. That said, as it stands right now, I’m not banking on Pugh being the go-to source for recreating that production.
By the end of spring practice, Pat Fitzgerald and Mick McCall had identified three potential replacements to Green at superback - Pugh, Mangieri, and Goens.
The former was the only of those three who caught a pass in 2018, so in that sense, I guess he could be labeled the favorite on the lone basis of last season’s production. Still, three career receptions for 29 yards doesn’t provide much of a sense of security. He also the missed the entirety of spring practice with an injury, so there’s not much to be said about any kind of progress since the 2018 season.
When asked about the hole at superback in the spring shortly after the news came out, Mick McCall named Mangieri first when discussing Green’s potential replacements. Interpret that as you like. Mangieri featured in 12 games last season but solely as a run-blocker.
Goens was announced to be transitioning to superback during spring ball, but admittedly did not fare too well in a pass-catching role. He also dropped multiple easy catches in the final spring practice we attended. If he stays on offense in the fall, I would expect his involvement to be heavily if not completely limited to running downs given his inexperience in the passing game.
That leaves Pugh and Mangieri as the two main guys battling to take over in the slot or end of the line of scrimmage where Green used to do the majority of his damage to opposing secondaries. In the little we’ve seen of them in the past, neither seem to possess the size-speed combo that made Green, a former receiver, such a valuable asset in the NU passing game.
Noah Coffman (Rank: 7)
Across the past decade, each iteration of Mick McCall’s increasingly old spread offense has prominently featured an important, pass-catching superback. From Drake Dunsmore, who was recognized as a First Team All-Big Ten Member in his senior season (2011), serving as a security blanket for Mike Kafka and Dan Persa, to Dan Vitale, Garrett Dickerson, and Cam Green performing that are role for Kain Colter, Trevor Siemian, and Clayton Thorson, the Wildcat offense has relied upon a variety of modified tight ends.
Though each functioned differently (Vitale is a fullback at the next level, whereas Dickerson was more of an inline blocker and Green, as mentioned above, was a converted wideout), they all made an impact on the offense with their hands. In fact, you’d have to go back to 2008 to find a season in which Northwestern’s primary super back recorded fewer than 28 receptions.
Despite significant changes in offensive personnel, McCall’s inflexible history shows us that to keep on schedule, the Wildcats will need a super back to significantly contribute. Pugh has had injury issues and concerning drops over his young Northwestern career, but the 6’4”, 240 pound former three-star recruit certainly seems to be the most athletic option, and as Joe and Avery noted, he’s the only one in the room with pass-catching experience.
Hunter Johnson, or whoever starts the season under center, will need somewhere to go on important short and medium-yardage plays. If Pugh doesn’t become that safety blanket, it’s hard to see who will. That makes his development crucial.