Every season, unproven and inexperienced players step up and exceed expectations. With a relatively young roster, there is no shortage of players on this Wildcat team capable of putting together breakout campaigns, just like Isaiah Bowser and JR Pace did last year. Here are our staffers’ picks for who will take their game to the next level in 2019.
Avery Zimmerman: Charlie Mangieri
It’s a bit of an underrated fact that Mangieri featured in 13 games last year, and I think you’ll see the sophomore play an important role in the offense this year due to the departure of Cam Green. The Dunlap, Illinois native is a solid athlete and has a nice frame at 6-foot-4 and 252 pounds, making him a safe option for the quarterback. Additionally, because of how thin the superback position is, Mangieri almost has to breakout. The position is a staple of Mick McCall’s offense, and I can’t see him getting away from it now. Trey Pugh will compete with him for time, but the duo will both see the field early and often. Expect a heavy dose of Mangieri this season, whether it’s blocking or catching the ball.
Eli Karp: Earnest Brown IV
I could’ve gone with Kyric McGowan or JJ Jefferson for reasons of big-play capability and expanded opportunity, but I’m staying defense here. Maybe I’m partial to Brown because we lived in the same dorm last year and shared several elevator rides, but the fact is the skills and size are right there to complement an impressive motor. Gaz gets most of the d-line attention, and for Brown that could bode well this year on a team gifted with talented pass rushers. Second on the team last year in both TFLs and sacks, there was a steady progress throughout the year that really became noticeable in November and December. With another offseason of development under his belt and his spot in at least the rotation solidified, look for a lot of no. 98 in the backfield.
Joe Weinberg: JJ Jefferson
Jefferson is a guy that has flown under most people’s radar despite much talk this offseason about this stacked group of Northwestern receivers. The sophomore’s name seems to have been forgotten as he’s sandwiched between a solid group of junior wideouts in Kyric McGowan and Riley Lees as well as the freshmen on the block in Genson Hooper-Price and Bryce Kirtz. The Houston native was quiet down the stretch after a few good early games, but still appeared in 12 games as a true freshman and proved to be one of Northwestern’s top big play threats as he averaged 18.1 yards per catch. He only caught 10 balls last year, but I expect Jefferson to become a bigger part of the NU offense in 2019 due to his versatility as both a slot receiver as well as a great deep-ball option thanks to his impressive speed.
Claire Kuwana: Cameron Ruiz
Most of the talk surrounding the cornerback position this year has revolved around Trae Williams and Greg Newsome — and for good reason — but, if given the chance, there is no reason Cameron Ruiz shouldn’t join the conversation as a breakout player. Though definitely on the smaller side, Ruiz’s experience is solid. He appeared in 12 games as redshirt freshman, recording 26 tackles and four pass breakups. Ruiz showed playmaking potential in some big games, blocking a punt against Notre Dame and forcing and recovering a fumble at Iowa. Especially if Newsome continues to struggle with injury, I think we could definitely see Ruiz stepping into a larger role in the secondary this season.
Lucio Vainesman: Earnest Brown IV
When looking at what player will explode onto the scene next season, first place to look is which player had the most success at the end of last season. No other player had last season’s highlights back loaded into the last two games quite like the Junior edge rusher. In his last two games - both against ranked opponents Utah and Ohio State - Brown had 4 tackles for loss, 1 sack, and 1 forced fumble. Coming into the 2019 season, with the defense set to lean more heavily on Brown, the 270 pound play-maker will look to continue his run of success and spark an already electric front-seven.
William Karmin: Travis Whillock
Last season, Travis Whillock served as a quality backup to Jared McGee at strong safety. Whillock became Northwestern’s starting safety late in the season after McGee suffered an injury against Notre Dame. In his stint as the starting safety, Whillock registered 52 tackles and recovered two fumbles in six games. While Whillock’s performance at the end of last season was a breakout in itself, he will now showcase his talent as NU’s starting safety. If the end of last season was any indication, Whillock has All Big Ten potential. With J.R. Pace and Whillock as Northwestern’s starting safety tandem, Wildcat fans will have a degree of confidence in the team’s last line of defense for the next two seasons.
Noah Coffman: Alex Miller
All of a sudden, Miller is the only interior lineman defensively who has any real experience. With Marty Long telling me during camp that he never considered moving Alex’s brother Samdup inside for rushing downs, the elder Miller’s presence at tackle becomes a whole lot more important.
Alex told me that he added about 20 pounds of muscle over the offseason, and he certainly looks ready to step into the mold of Jordan Thompson, Tyler Lancaster, and others with the grind of Big Ten play awaiting. If he can be a stalwart on the interior against the run, and even throw in an impressive pass rush move or two, Miller will be an incredibly valuable player, stepping into the spotlight along with the (currently) bigger names the Wildcats feature at defensive end.