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Four Northwestern players opt out of 2020 football season

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The loss of Whillock and Miller on defense hurts.

Just eight days out from the start of Northwestern’s 2020 football schedule, the program announced Friday that four veteran Wildcats — DL Samdup Miller, QB Aidan Smith, S Travis Whillock and QB/TE Jason Whittaker — elected not to participate in the coming season.

The opt outs mark the first for the Wildcats since Rashawn Slater chose to forgo the season and declare for the 2021 NFL Draft in late August. Additionally, the program announced at the beginning of the month that wide receiver Jace James and offensive lineman Sam Stovall medically retired ahead of the season and were no longer on the roster. As a result, the 2020 roster is now seven players short heading into the season.

While the program did not specify why the four latest opt-outs chose not to participate this season, with multiple college football programs around the country facing significant COVID-19 outbreaks, many athletes have had to reevaluate their decision to play.

Last week at a press conference when asked about opt outs, Fitz said everyone he expected to be at practice was there but followed up to say they would have a press release soon about certain players’ decisions. Now, a week later, the program delivered the anticipated news.

“We completely support the decision each young man made during the spring and summer as they evaluated their personal circumstances,” Pat Fitzgerald said. “All four Wildcats have been outstanding teammates throughout their time in our program. Nothing about the support we promised their families during recruitment will waver with the full complement of scholarship, academic, sports medicine and professional development resources available.”

Seniors Travis Whillock and Samdup Miller are the two most significant losses from the group. Whillock was slated to start at safety again this season after solid contributions in 2018 and 2019. Last season, he recorded 78 total tackles, three tackles for loss, two fumbles recovered, one pass breakup, one sack and one forced fumble. He earned All-Big Ten honorable mention for his efforts.

Miller was also set to start again this year and step into a significant role to fill the void left by Joe Gaziano. He started eight games at defensive end last season before missing the final four due to injury, recording 29 total tackles, 2.5 for loss, a half a sack and a pass breakup.

Junior quarterback Aidan Smith was a major contributor in Northwestern’s quarterback room last season, but he would have likely not seen much playing time this season. He appeared in eight total games and started six, completed 86 of his 171 passes on the year for 760 yards and threw three touchdowns and nine interceptions. He also added 72 rushing attempts for 211 yards.

Finally, sophomore quarterback Jason Whittaker has seen limited minutes in his time with the program thus far. In his redshirt freshman season last year, he appeared in two games and recorded three rushing yards.

Now, Northwestern will have to find replacements for these key contributors in the next week as they are set to kick off their 2020 season a week from Saturday.