With our position group previews in the books, it’s time to make some assessments regarding the roster as a whole. Here, our writers debate which piece of the team will be able to find the most success next season. Let us know which group you have the highest expectations for in the comments below.
One of the things I’m most looking forward to this season is seeing which receivers from a loaded list of options emerge as the primary starters for Northwestern out wide. In my opinion, this unit has the perfect mix of returning talent (Skowronek), breakout potential (McGowan/Lees/Jefferson) and new talent (Kirtz/Hooper-Price).
Even if Kirtz and GHP end up redshirting, the two fresh faces look like absolute studs who will at the very least compete for practice reps and challenge the older receivers of the unit to elevate their own level of play in order to retain playing time. Hunter Johnson could face a variety of problems as he tries to adapt in his first-year in Mick McCall’s, but having reliable guys to throw to will not be one of them.
As Joe said, one of the best things about this position group is the depth it brings this season. Despite the loss of Flynn Nagel, there are a number of returners that provide great options for the ‘Cats to work with. Skowronek will likely step in as the top receiver, and behind him will be other talented players like McGowan, Lees, and Chiaokhiao-Bowman, all of whom showed real potential in last year’s Holiday Bowl.
Even so, these returners may have some competition for playing time — the newcomers this season are some of the highest-rated wide receivers in Northwestern football history. Kirtz and Hooper-Price bring a level of talent that this offense isn’t necessarily used to seeing, but that can definitely be used to elevate the receiving game, whether through just practice or game play.
I agree with Joe and Claire that the wide receivers are one of the strongest groups heading into this season, but for the sake of varying things up, I think there is a strong case for the linebackers as well. Similarly to the receivers, the linebackers lost one tremendous weapon last season (Nate Hall), are returning a few powerhouse players (Paddy Fisher and Blake Gallagher) and have some young talent coming in. 2019 is the defense’s season and the linebackers are the heart of that. Luckily for Northwestern, Fisher and Gallagher have shown time and time again that they will step up to make the big plays when needed, and the rest of the squad will bring a dynamic mix as well.
Lia thoroughly laid out why the line backing core should be the most dominant force on the Wildcat team next season. For me, Paddy Fisher was all it took for convincing. He might be Northwestern’s most talented player of the decade, let alone linebacker. AP All-America Third Team and Big Ten First Team nods for Fisher last season serve as only a small taste of what he is truly capable of. This is his defense and his year to prove that he is worthy of all of the first-round hype that has been following him.
It seems as though a lot of folks are sleeping on Northwestern’s safeties, and I couldn’t really tell you why. Perhaps it is because they aren’t the most visible position unless they make a huge play or get burned. Maybe people aren’t quite sold on Travis Whillock despite his impressive showing down the stretch of the 2018 season. Either way, despite losing one out of two starters, the back line of the Northwestern defense should be as impressive as it has been in a while.
JR Pace is coming into his own as a ballhawk who can successfully play the run, and Whillock didn’t show any true weaknesses while displaying flashes of his ability to cover some of the best tight ends in the country against Iowa, among others. The two are veterans within the Northwestern program now, and work well off of one another. Expect this year’s Northwestern defense to be adept at both limiting big plays and making plenty of splashes of their own thanks to the two guys quarterbacking them from behind.
Given Northwestern’s recent success at linebacker, this should not come as a surprise. The linebacker unit is Northwestern’s best position group, and there is not a close second. Northwestern has two starters who will garner all-big ten attention at linebacker in Paddy Fisher and Blake Gallagher. As a sophomore last season, outside linebacker Blake Gallagher led the Big Ten with 127 tackles. Fisher was a third team All-American last season and could be a first round pick in the 2020 NFL draft. Last year’s starting outside linebacker, Nate Hall, graduated and there is an opening for a starter at SAM. Right now, Chris Bergin is the favorite to replace Hall. Bergin started four games last season, was solid in his playing time including recovering a fumble in the Holiday Bowl against Utah. While SAM may be an area of concern, Fisher and Gallagher are talented enough to shoulder the load and help Bergin or whoever else may start at the position.
As Claire and Joe noted above me, this group has all the potential in the world. A mix of returning veterans in Skowronek and Lees as well as talented players like McGowan, Jefferson and Chiaokhiao-Bowman would likely be enough to sustain the group on its own. But considering the fact that NU has two of its most touted wide receiver recruits coming in, this unit will be a fun one to watch.
If Hooper-Price or Kirtz can establish themselves in a similar manner to how Isaiah Bowser did last year, we’ll be in for a treat. That’s a tall ask and shouldn’t be expected, per se, but the duo has the capability to earn rare freshman playing time, it’s just a matter of what they do with it. I’m excited to see what the newcomers do, and even more excited to see the group as a whole.
As a significant majority of us have pointed out, we have an incredible amount of depth around Hunter Johnson this year. Bryce Kirtz’s experience playing with Johnson should prove to be beneficial to Northwestern and I expect JJ Jefferson and Ramaud Chiaokhiao-Bowman to have improved significantly and receive more playing time as a result.