With our position group previews in the books, it’s time to make some assessments regarding the roster as a whole. Now, our writers discuss the misgivings they have regarding potential gaps in production at select important positions. As always, let us know which group you are most concerned for in the comments below!
This position is really one of the biggest unknowns going into the 2019 season, and that worries me. With Cam Green retiring early due to health concerns, the most viable option to step into the superback position is Trey Pugh. He is the most experienced, which is saying a lot considering he only had three receptions in his sophomore season. An injury this past spring only makes matters worse, so it is possible Charlie Mangieri will be forced to step into the position. Defensive lineman Trent Goens was also moved to superback during the spring, which hints at a level of desperation that only makes me more worried.
Replacing a starter who totaled close to 500 yards last season would be difficult alone. Trying to do it with one of three players who have little to no experience (only one of them has actually caught a pass) is a whole other story.
I have to agree with Claire on this one. The superbacks are not looking good heading into August. After losing Cam Green early in the offseason to medical retirement, the Wildcats were left with hundreds of questions and no answers at the superback position. If losing one of its biggest offensive weapons (one who accounted for almost 500 yards of offense last season) isn’t enough, Northwestern has to select a starter from a group that has totaled three receptions...in their careers...
Northwestern has some big decisions to make when it comes to how the offense will run this year and how instrumental the superback position will be. Someone will have to step up big-time, otherwise it won’t be pretty.
Losing three starting lineman should be concern enough - the three successors having played a combined 14 collegiate games pushes it over the top. Lacking experience in arguably the most important position group in football isn’t ideal. Regardless of talent, building chemistry as a unit takes time. On top of the blatant lack of experience, Northwestern’s long time offensive line coach Adam Cushing was poached by Eastern Illinois during the offseason.
With Northwestern’s schedule being as frontloaded as it is, the Cats’ O-Line will be put to the test early and often. Hopefully, Nik Urban, Sam Stovall, and Gunnar Vogel can give Hunter Johnson time in the pocket and make Isaiah Bowser’s life easier. If not, the offense is going to be real tough to watch.
If Greg Newsome fails to become a reliable one-on-one coverage guy in his second year and/or continues to struggle with injury, I’m most worried about this unit in 2019. Last season’s Big Ten Championship Game showed us just how vulnerable this thin unit is. Luckily, NU should have a strong safety unit to mitigate the risks of having vulnerable one-on-one corners.
While new offensive line coach Kurt Anderson is off to a hot start on the recruiting trail, he will face a tougher challenge in managing this year’s offensive line. NU has two returning starters in center Jared Thomas and offensive tackle Rashawn Slater. Both are solid players with experience to lead the other NU linemen.
Wildcat fans, however, may have concerns about the new starters. By replacing three key players from last season (J.B. Butler, Blake Hance, and Tommy Doles) with inexperienced players, the offensive line is the most vulnerable position group on the team. The probable starters to replace the departures are juniors Gunnar Vogel and Nik Urban, and sophomore Sam Stovall. All were three star recruits in high school. Traditionally, Northwestern’s offensive line starts out slow and develops nicely as the season progresses. This year could be different as Kurt Anderson will replace former offensive line coach Adam Cushing. It is essential that Anderson’s offensive line has a strong summer and carries the momentum into the start of the season to avoid a slow start.
As most Wildcat fans know, Northwestern will face a challenging slate of teams in 2019, especially during conference play. Though the Wildcats were able to eke out crucial wins down the stretch in the Big Ten last year, they did so without coming close to excelling in a category that is often highly touted when it comes to winning close games. The kicking situation was out of Pat Fitzgerald and Jeff Genyk’s control, but NU’s coverage and return units left plenty to be desired.
Though Charlie Kuhbander should return, there are questions about both his confidence and health after the whirlwind that was his 2018 season. The punting situations still entirely up in the air after Jake Collins’ solid one year of work. Last but not least, the return game hasn’t had any semblance of explosiveness since Solomon Vault was back there consistently three years ago, and the coverage unit has been mediocre for even longer. They need players to step up in both regards.
Failures in the third phase of the game didn’t cost them much in 2018, but all indications point to the Wildcats playing plenty more one-possession games in the upcoming season. Special teams miscues or just plain lack of execution could be the thing that keeps them out of the win column one or two times too often.
The loss of Montre Hartage will impact this group, but will also have a big impact on the rest of the defense. As Joe noted, the team will be losing his stellar one-on-one coverage ability, and that completely changes the defense’s complexion. J.R. Pace, Travis Whillock and co. will have greater responsibilities knowing that they don’t have a safety net like Hartage on the outside. Fortunately, the two are more than capable of filling those newfound responsibilities, but it will be a challenge.
While Charlie Kuhbander should be back this year, I am still concerned about the future of our kicking this season. Not to mention the fact that nobody knows who our starting punter will be, which is a much more significant point than many Wildcats fans think it is. Additionally, our punt and kick return game was somewhat mediocre last year (I’m reluctantly gearing up for another season of watching Riley Lees return punts).