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Post-summer mailbag: Football, football, and more football

With Northwestern’s kickoff in Palo Alto only eight days away, we tried to answer as many questions as possible. This one’s a doozy!

COLLEGE BASKETBALL: DEC 04 Michigan at Northwestern Photo by Quinn Harris/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Well, here we are.

We’ve all but made it through a summer of incessant Northwestern football preview coverage and speculation, and now just 8 days separate us from the start of the season in Palo Alto. For those who have followed our summer preview content up to this point, we congratulate you for making this far. For those just now starting with us, we welcome you! 2019 is shaping up to be quite the rollercoaster, like just about every other Wildcat season in recent memory.

Thanks to everyone who responded to our mailbag last week. You asked your questions, and here are best attempts to answer everything you guys threw our way! Happy Friday!

@Jeff_Heinzmann on Twitter: Complete the succession for the ‘Cats’ go to WR: Carr/Nagel/?

Noah: Nobody! This isn’t gonna be a year with one breakout guy, nor should it be. The Wildcats are simply too deep for that. Ben Skowrownek will obviously be the go to, but expect Kyric McGowan, Ramaud Chiaokhiao-Bowman, and Kyric McGowan to play big roles, JJ Jefferson to become even more of a big-play threat, and the highly-touted freshmen to step up. This may be the position group I’m most excited for.

@JFhoff on Twitter: What special uniform do you like better: gothic or the throwbacks for the Wisconsin game?

Joe: Gothics, next question.

Noah: Look, I love the throwbacks as much as the next guy, but the gothics are absolute classics. In my opinion, they are the best uniforms NU runs out there in any sport, no debate.

@Cyan220 on Twitter: What do you think we will be talking about next offseason?

Joe: Here are my way-too-early 2020 offseason storylines:

  • Will Paddy Fisher declare?
  • Gaz/Alex Miller draft stocks
  • Lackluster 2020 home schedule (Tulane/Central Michigan/Nebraska/Maryland/Morgan State/Illinois) because Wisconsin game is at Wrigley
  • First two conference games are away at Michigan State and Penn State which is super cool
  • The mouthwatering prospect of Hunter Johnson having an entire offseason as the known starter with a loaded group of receivers and some great OL commits coming in

Noah: I think we will be talking about how well the ‘Cats will bounce back after a relatively young team goes through a bit of a course correction. The main storyline will be how far Hunter Johnson and his talented group of skill position players can fly, especially with an extremely experienced defense backing them up.

Safe to say, I’m already excited for football in 2020!

@FakeCoachFitz on Twitter: Is there ACTUALLY still a competition between Hunter and TJ? And if there is, should that concern us?

Avery: Yes, there is actually still a quarterback competition going on in Evanston right now. I was a little skeptical at first as well, believing of course Hunter would get the nod, right? But as time has gone by, it’s become more and more evident based on everything that we’ve heard that there is a legitimate QB battle going on. And to be completely honest, I don’t think it should concern anyone. Hear me out.

HJ is a talented player, and he’ll have the chance to show that at some point in his time in Evanston, it just may not be as the starter or only quarterback that features in Palo Alto. Fitz is going to make the choice that best gives the team a chance at winning games, and if that means starting Green or using a similar system that the team used against Purdue last year, that’s what they’ll do. Rest assured, Johnson will get his moment, but don’t sleep on Green, a veteran quarterback that won’t make many mistakes. Let’s all just take a deep breath and see how the quarterbacks perform against Stanford, then we can freak out. Deal? Deal.

Noah: Gonna disagree slightly with Avery here. I think it is really a quarterback competition, based solely on my own knowledge of the situation (again, Inside NU representatives have been to practices, but we cannot report on them). The most likely situation by far seems to me to be a rotation as well.

Secondarily, I think people comparing this to the Thorson competition are being a bit disingenuous. Thorson used his redshirt year to fully soak in the playbook. Johnson, as the scout team quarterback, did not have that luxury. You can scoff at that distinction and think Fitz is just playing us again if you want, but I think it does make a difference and that both HJ and TJ will see time against Stanford.

Finally, I do think the situation is a bit of an issue. Green clearly has potential despite his struggles last year, and I don’t want to limit him based on his walk-on status. However, Johnson clearly gives this team a higher ceiling thanks to his talent, and I think if Fitz and co. want to reach the promises land, they have to be ready to accept a tough mistake or two.

Now, I will say that in my opinion, a rotation against Stanford and UNLV wouldn’t be the worst thing in the world. It just wouldn’t be what I would do, and if Hunter isn’t starting full time by Big Ten play, there’s a bit of an issue.

@nicklux33 on Twitter: Roderick Campbell was a pretty big recruit, do we finally see all of it put together in his senior year?

Noah: A couple of things here: though Campbell is a senior, he could potentially have another year of eligibility in 2020 after missing all of 2017 with an injury. Secondly, though I don’t think he will start, Campbell will certainly be a valuable member of the secondary, potentially helping to add important depth at the cornerback spot. As to whether that qualifies as “putting it all together,” that’s up to you.

@simonbarnicle on Twitter: Any true freshman we can expect to burn a shirt?

Avery: There are a couple of freshmen that I could see burning their redshirts. Michael Jansey is the one on defense that could be thrust into the fray early, because outside of the top linebackers, there isn’t a whole lot of proven depth. A true or redshirt freshman will earn a significant amount of playing time, and it could very well be Jansey.

Offensively, Genson Hooper-Price is the name that comes to mind. The receivers unit is deep, but an injury here and there and all of a sudden there’s a need for more bodies. Hooper-Price has the size to compete for snaps right away, and he could be an exciting player to watch on the outside. He’s certainly one of the biggest receivers Northwestern has had in a long time at 6-foot-4 and 200+ lbs.

Noah: I would be somewhat surprised if one of the freshman wideouts did not burn a shirt. McCall and Fitz will likely run GHP, Bryce Kirtz, Malik Washington, and Wayne Dennis Jr. out for at least a couple of games, and if one of them impresses there will be no reason not to go the route of Greg Newsome in 2018. Nobody really jumps out besides that position group, but there will definitely be a surprise candidate or two, as always.

Matt McClure on Facebook: What nascent plans exist for the updating of Ryan Field?

Avery: Since construction finished in 1997, Ryan Field has become a beacon of technology and infrastructure. Okay, but seriously, I wouldn’t expect any construction or updates to our beloved Big Ten stadium in the near future. I mean, we still have floodlights that are brought in on wheels for night games. If NU could just get proper flood lights installed, that would be a great first step!

Noah: Fitz has batted around some plans for development in the past, but anything in the works probably couldn’t even be considered nascent. Sorry.

Terry Parker on Facebook: With a new QB under center will there be any change in the offensive game plan?

Noah: I wouldn’t expect much. One of things that has really bothered Wildcat fans during Mick McCall’s tenure has been his seeming unwillingness to develop the playbook based on either changing times or personnel, and I don’t see it suddenly happening now. Outside of the speedier Johnson potentially running a bit more often, expect another year of lots of mesh concepts, zone runs, and a dash of speed option.

Bob Norris on Facebook: What is the theme of next year’s WaaMu show?

Joe: TBD! Last year’s show wasn’t announced until early December, so it looks like we’ll have to wait a little bit before we find out. Hopefully, we’re graced with the announcement the same week Northwestern is prepping for a revenge shot at their second straight Big Ten Championship Game.

James O’Hara on Facebook: What is Duke Olges’ ceiling and do you feel he can achieve the same level of success at NU that he did in high school?

Joe: It’s hard for me to give much analysis here given we haven’t seen Olges play a down in college yet, but I think we have every reason to believe defensive line coach Marty Long is capable of turning the local kid into a successful player with NU with his ceiling as an NFL prospect. Long has a phenomenal track record with developing guys with NFL potential (Tyler Lancaster/Dean Lowry/Jordan Thompson/Gaziano/Miller bros), and it’s no secret that Northwestern’s defensive line is consistently the strongest unit on the team.

We probably won’t see much of Olges in 2019 given the NU depth on the defensive line, but as he develops with the program, I’d expect Long to work with the New Trier kid with the intention of him becoming Northwestern’s next stout interior lineman. Olges’ high school highlights show his versatility as an outside pass rusher, but I think he’s better off trying to bulk up near the 300 pound mark and lineup for NU as a stout run-stopper.

Mike Deneen on Facebook: How’s the nightlife in Kenosha? On a serious note, is there any news on the other NU fall sports?

Noah: Seemingly not great! Though I’ve been up there the last two years, I haven’t stayed overnight, but the players don’t exactly give it rave reviews.

Northwestern women’s soccer kicked off yesterday with a tough 1-0 loss to SMU. You can read their season premiere here. Field hockey will be next to start, on Saturday, and we will have a piece up then. Men’s soccer and volleyball, arguably the best-looking squad of the four in terms of national relevance, kick off later next week. Stay tuned for some coverage!

Augustine Santillan on Facebook: Which West offense (if any) are you most concerned about that is not Nebby? It feels like Io_a doesn’t have a run game and Minny/Wisco/Purdue all aren’t going to have great QB situations?

Joe: I’d have to go with Wisconsin. When you have a Heisman-caliber running back and a mammoth offensive line, you can win a lot of games in the Big Ten. Besides the Northwestern game last year where he dealt with fumbles issues, Taylor was virtually unstoppable in 2018 and there is no reason to believe that is going to change this season. Sure, the Badgers lose a few pieces on the O-line, but they always seem to have plenty of bodies capable of replacing those who graduate to the NFL. Wisconsin’s run game alone could carry them to the West division title.

Noah: I’ll second Joe. I’m no Jack Coan believer, but the Badgers just don’t have much turnover from a year ago, and it’s hard to argue against Jonathan Taylor.

Tc Malik on Facebook: Can kuhbander not kick over 40 yards or does Fitz just really like being aggressive?

Avery: I think we’ll get the answer to this question pretty quickly. Kuhbander struggled with injuries last year, limiting his range to essentially 35 yards and in. That range should extend to about 45 yards this year. On the other hand, Fitz loves being aggressive on fourth down because the data say that’s what he should do, and in this rare instance, he trusts that data.

So whether NU has a solid kicker or not, you’ll almost always see Fitz go for it on the plus side of the field when there’s less than three yards to go. That isn’t going to change for a long time.

Noah: Kuhbander definitely can kick over 40 yards, given that he did it successfully twice two years ago. Given that they are college kickers, it’s safe to say that Drew Luckenbaugh and Trey Finison can too, given that Kuhbander may not be totally healthy.

Look, Fitz is riding the new wave. Personally, I love the embrace of analytics, even if only in this small capacity, and even if going for it infuriates me at times, taking chances is fun and is often the right move. Love it or hate it, Wildcat fans are probably going to have to deal with it regardless of who is at kicker.