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2019 Northwestern Football Position Previews: Superbacks

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The loss of Cam Green leaves a sizable hole for a position that could undergo structural change this season.

NCAA Football: Northwestern at Michigan State Mike Carter-USA TODAY Sports

Overview:

Returning starters: None

Key losses: Cam Green (Sr.)

Returners: Trey Pugh (Jr.), Alex Oelsner (So.), Cody Link (Jr.), Charlie Mangieri (So.), Trent Goens (Sr.)

Newcomers: Thomas Gordon (Fy.)

The superback position is certainly one of, if not the single largest mystery for the Wildcats heading into 2019. After starter Cam Green retired from football early in the offseason for health reasons, the coaching staff was tasked with replacing one of the team’s greatest offensive threats. In his junior year, Green caught 57 passes for 483 yards and 4 touchdowns and was named an All-Big Ten Honorable Mention. With the loss of their most reliable redzone target, the Wildcats certainly have huge shoes to fill in the coming season, and they will need to do so with a short list of viable replacements.

The three main players in contention for the starting role are junior Trey Pugh, sophomore Charlie Mangieri and senior Trent Goens, who transitioned from the defensive line to superback in the spring. In offseason practices, Goens seemed to struggle in the passing game, with Pat Fitzgerald telling us at the end of spring that Goens may stay on the defensive side of things after all. If utilized at superback, he will likely contribute as a run-blocker, but his passing inexperience is not enough to earn him the starting role.

Mangieri appeared in 12 games during his first season with the program but finished the year without a single reception. While he will certainly get more action in 2019, his inexperience makes it hard to believe he will be selected to fill Green’s role.

That leaves Pugh as the final option for starting superback. In his sophomore season, he recorded 3 receptions for 29 yards, two of which were in the Big Ten Championship game against Ohio State. Unfortunately for the Wildcats, Pugh is the most experienced player of the three.

Key Player:

Trey Pugh (probably)

While it is still hard to tell who will hold the starting role this season, and it will likely depend on who progresses the most over the next few months, Pugh has the most experience and has the best shot at the moment. While three receptions is all that separates him from the rest of the pack, Pugh could be placed in an instrumental position for the offense this season.

In high school, Pugh was the No. 14 tight end in the nation, according to ESPN, and led his team to multiple conference championships. Winning and leadership are both familiar to the Ohio-native, and he will be expected to step up big-time if given the role.

Fitz and the coaching staff do not have the greatest options to play with at the superback position, so we could see some reconstruction of the offense this season. Replacing a player who was good for almost 500 yards in a season with someone who has only played a handful of snaps in his career does not leave anyone feeling very comfortable, so reconstructing the role of the superback may happen in the coming season, leaving Pugh’s precise role on the team uncertain.

Furthermore, the junior missed all of spring practice sidelined with an injury, so there’s no way to judge or measure any sort of progress he may have made since the end of 2018. Ideally, the Big Ten Media Days in a few weeks will give us a chance to get an updated word on Pugh’s health and how the overall battle at superback is shaping up.

Big Question:

How will the superback role be integrated into this year’s offense?

There are many questions facing the coaching staff and superbacks this offseason, and we will not get answers anytime soon. First, the coaching staff has to decide how crucial the superback role will be to the offense. Mick McCall has historically emphasized the position group, but he may have no choice but to make a change this year thanks to the personnel at his disposal. Once the role on the team is solidified, then it becomes a matter of who can step up to continue the high bar set by Cam Green in his time as a superback for the ‘Cats.

While it may seem like an unlikely fairytale ending, many (including those at this website) were similarly skeptical last year after Jeremy Larkin’s retirement. Of course, first-year Isaiah Bowser stepped up for the remainder of the season, leading the Wildcat offense when the team needed him most. For now, we can only hope that Pugh or Mangieri will rise to the occasion and defy expectations in a similar manner.

Depth Chart:

Superbacks

1st String 2nd String 3rd String
1st String 2nd String 3rd String
Trey Pugh Charlie Mangieri Thomas Gordon