In honor of completing our position previews for every unit of the 2019 Northwestern football team, we’ll put an end to our latest summer football series by identifying, analyzing and predicting how the most important clashes for playing time will resolve themselves:
Players Battling: Charlie Kuhbander, Drew Luckenbaugh, Trey Finison, JOE GAZIANO
The job will likely be Kuhbander’s so long as he remains healthy, but the addition of freshman Trey Finison as an early enrollee as well as the Drew Luckenbaugh magic in 2018 make this a group worth keeping an eye on.
Kuhbander SHOULD be good to go heading into 2019 after starting the final few games of last season, although the placekicker never seemed to be at full strength. Furthermore, the junior seemed to regress last season (likely due to injury) after a record-breaking freshman campaign. After setting the NU single-season record for most field goals made by a first-year kicker, Kuhbander hit just 5-of-9 during his sophomore season.
Projected starter: Kuhbander
Players Battling: Trey Pugh, Charlie Mangieri, Trent Goens
All three of these guys have limited experience in the position as program retiree Cameron Green dominated playing time and production from the superback position in 2018. Trey Pugh was the preferred backup, but Charlie Mangieri saw action in the majority of games during his freshman season despite not catching a pass to show for it.
Pugh has the build to be the redzone target/inside blocker that Mick McCall is looking for to replace Green and should begin the 2019 season as the starter despite missing the entirety of spring practice with an injury. Head coach Pat Fitzgerald experimented with defensive tackle Trent Goens at superback in the spring, but both parties admitted that the switch may have sounded better in theory than in practice after Goens struggled to adapt in spring ball.
If the situation becomes really desperate, first-year Thomas Gordon could be called upon to fill one of Northwestern’s biggest offensive positional holes.
Projected starter: Pugh
Players Battling: Greg Newsome II, Trae Williams, Cameron Ruiz, Rod Campbell
Without a fully established standout cornerback on this year’s roster, we’ll likely see a rotation of bodies throughout the season as Mike Hankwitz tries to keep fresh legs for his NU defense out wide. Expect a lot of mixing and matching corners in coverage early in the season as this unit tries to find the right two guys to pair with a strong group of safeties in defending the pass.
Ideally, a fully healthy Greg Newsome will emerge as NU’s top shutdown corner in 2019 after a strong, albeit limited freshman campaign. If that turns out to be the case, the experienced Trae Williams should face steep competition from redshirt sophomore Cam Ruiz for control of the No. 2 corner slot.
Projected starter: Newsome and Williams
2. Wide Receivers
Players Battling: Bennett Skowronek, Riley Lees, Ramaud-Chiaokhiao Bowman, Kyric McGowan, Genson Hooper-Price, Bryce Kirtz, JJ Jefferson
The Wildcats are shaping up to have a level of depth at WR that the program hasn’t seen in years. Bennett Skowronek will continue to be NU’s top deep-ball threat as one of the offense’s senior leaders, and juniors Riley Lees/Kyric McGowan seem poised to take the next step in their college careers after solid seasons filling in for an injured Flynn Nagel in 2018.
Although he was rather quiet last season, RCB should remain a reliable target for Hunter Johnson, especially when the Wildcats need somebody to go to on an obvious passing down. Chiaokhiao-Bowman seemed to make most of his noise in 2018 in crucial third-down situations. Speedy sophomore JJ Jefferson should not be overlooked in the starting receiver conversation as well: he displayed significant big play potential at various points throughout his freshman campaign.
Triple J's out here getting it done.— Northwestern On BTN (@NUOnBTN) October 6, 2018
JJ Jefferson makes the pretty catch to add to @NUFBFamily's early lead. pic.twitter.com/8dy0sVp0cp
And let’s not forget about Bryce Kirtz and Genson Hooper-Price — the two offensive gems of Wildcats’ 2019 recruiting class. The battle for Northwestern’s starting receiver slots may evolve into one of the most competitive position battles of any on the team, especially if how Mick McCall and the Wildcats are willing to use all of the talent at their disposal.
Projected starters: Skowronek, Lees and McGowan
1. Strong side linebacker
Players Battling: Chris Bergin, Khalid Jones, Bryce Gallagher, Michael Jansey Jr., Jaylen Rivers, Grayson Mann
The battle for the third spot in what’s shaping up to be a daunting Northwestern linebacking corps is not short of contenders. Chris Bergin made four starts at linebacker in 2018, filling in for an injured Nate Hall, but he’ll be met with three guys in Jones, Rivers, and Mann who will be hungry for playing time in the middle of the NU defense after redshirting last season. Any of those three could take the undersized Bergin’s spot alongside Paddy Fisher and Blake Gallagher.
In addition to those returners, Bryce Gallagher will be doing everything he can to earn a spot in the linebacking unit next to his brother while fellow first-year Michael Jansey Jr. competes for playing time after enrolling early in the spring. Redshirts seem likely for the two promising youngsters given the Wildcats’ depth at the position, but you never know what can happen once the fall rolls around,
Projected Starter: Bergin
Honorable Mentions: (Projected Starters in Parentheses)
-Defensive End opposite Joe Gaziano (Samdup Miller/Earnest Brown IV)
-Quarterback (Hunter Johnson)