Following the 2019 college football season, there weren’t a lot of positives takeaways for Northwestern fans. However, one thing stood out for NU: it has the most returning production in the FBS, according to ESPN’s Bill Connelly.
Since then, a global pandemic has descended upon the world, Oklahoma has lost two games in a row for the first time since 1999, and Big Ten football has seen three different game schedules in the span of two months. More relevant to the Wildcats, Rashawn Slater opted out of the season to prepare for the NFL draft, wide receiver Jace James and offensive lineman Sam Stovall have medically retired, and a positive COVID-19 diagnosis will sideline players for at least 21 days.
As a result, depth — something that was an issue for the ‘Cats last season — will likely be a major factor of this team’s success in the shortened season. Although these players have yet to see significant playing time thus far in their young careers, here are five redshirt freshmen who have the potential to have an impact for the Wildcats this year.
1. Genson Hooper-Price (WR)
At 6-foot-5 and with a recorded time of 10.57 seconds in the 100-meter dash, Hooper-Price possesses a rare combination of speed and size. Coming out of high school, the three-star Houston native had offers from across the Power Five, including Minnesota, Tennessee and Notre Dame. He didn’t appear in any games in his true freshman season, but an extended period of offseason development and the departure of Ben Skowronek could open the door for him to see some playing time this season.
2. Thomas Gordon (TE)
Going into Week 1 against Maryland, the tight end room should have its two starters in junior Trey Pugh—who was hurt for most of last season—and FAU graduate transfer John Raine. However, don’t be surprised if Thomas Gordon gets some meaningful game reps as well. Gordon appeared in just two games last season and didn’t log any meaningful stats, but he certainly has the size to make an impact on the field, as he stands at 6-foot-5 and 240 pounds. His tape from high school is impressive, as he shows off his ability to make catches and lay down some dominant blocks, and the hope is that he’s made the necessary strides since then to earn playing time. With Mike Bajakian’s offense likely to employ plenty of 12 personnel (1 running back and 2 tight ends) formations, there will be opportunities for Gordon.
3. Rod Heard (CB)
Northwestern already has its star corner in junior Greg Newsome II, but there are question marks around who will start across from him after the graduation of Trae Williams and inconsistent play of Cam Ruiz in 2019. Though Ruiz is the best bet to start the season as the primary option, Heard could have the chance to work his way into the rotation early on. The Michigan native, who enrolled early last spring, appeared in only one game last year, registering a tackle against UMass.
4. Coco Azema (S)
Coco Azema’s most memorable performance from last year was on the offensive side of the ball, when he filled in at running back against Illinois and rushed for 123 yards and a touchdown on just seven carries. However, Azema was also penciled in as a backup safety at the end of 2019, and he was one of just three defensive players on the team to force a fumble. The Texas native had a host of offers out of high school, including those from Big Ten foes Minnesota and Indiana, and his tape from last season—albeit limited—shows off his speed and impressive tackling ability, making him an intriguing option going forward. Seniors JR Pace and Travis Whillock have the starting safety spots locked down, but Azema’s versatility plays to his advantage.
5. Evan Hull (RB)
Hull, who notably ran for 220 yards and four touchdowns against UMass Amherst in 2019, was actually the second-leading rusher on the team last year despite playing in just four games. The Minnesota native showed exciting flashes in his limited playing time, and he recorded an impressive 6.2 yards per carry on 46 rushing attempts. Although Isaiah Bowser is the projected starter with Drake Anderson working as a complement to him, Hull should have opportunities to build on his 2019 success and compete for backfield touches from the get-go.