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Players who NU needs to step up in the Citrus Bowl

Without five players who have played significant roles this season, somebody has to fill the gaps.

NCAA Football: Big Ten Championship-Northwestern at Ohio State Aaron Doster-USA TODAY Sports

In what’s been a weird twist of fate for Northwestern, the Wildcats will be without eight players for the Citrus Bowl against Auburn. Seven have announced their intentions to transfer and Greg Newsome’s groin injury will hold him out. Five of those guys, Newsome; Eku Leota; Kyric McGowan; Drake Anderson; and Isaiah Bowser started or played significant snaps this season, and several guys will need to step up in their absences.

Cam Porter/Evan Hull

I’m only going to touch on this one briefly, since it’s likely that Porter and Hull would have assumed the bulk of the carries in this game based on the past couple of games. Fitz, Mike Bajakian and Co. made it clear that Porter was the lead back against Illinois and OSU, so it’ll be intriguing to see how they do against an Auburn front that gives up an average of 163 rushing yards per game.

Adetomiwa Adebawore

Eku Leota might have been the surprise name of those to enter the transfer portal. The redshirt sophomore led NU with four sacks and added a forced fumble. Northwestern’s defensive line has been on and off all season, with stellar performances against the likes of Maryland but not-so-good showings against Ohio State and Michigan State.

Regardless of Leota’s previous performances, a player now needs to fill the gap across from Earnest Brown IV, and that player is Adebawore, a name most fans already know. The sophomore has had a great year, including a game against Wisconsin in which he recorded five QB hits and made his presence felt in the backfield all game long. With Leota gone, Adebawore must step up to pressure Auburn quarterback Bo Nix and defend against a solid Tigers run game.

Bryce Kirtz

With Kyric McGowan leaving as a grad transfer, one of Northwestern’s few speedy weapons is gone. McGowan was extremely versatile. He handled jet sweeps and was athletic enough to make big time plays (see his catch against Wisconsin in 2018). While Kirtz may not be ready to handle the jet sweeps out of the backfield, he certainly has the potential to fill in the receiving gap left by McGowan.

The redshirt first-year saw limited action throughout this season, recording his first career catch against Nebraska on Nov. 7. He had two catches for 16 yards against Ohio State, including a nice first down grab while on his back. The two pass catchers have a similar frame, with Kirtz standing two inches taller than McGowan at 6-foot. Ramaud Chiaokhiao-Bowman is NU’s largest target at 6-foot-2, so watch for Ramsey to target the Indiana native in one-on-one battles.

Cam Mitchell/Rod Heard/Cam Ruiz

No one can quite replicate what Newsome did this season. This season, he had an insane three game streak in which he played 77 coverage snaps, was targeted just 11 times, and allowed ONE catch for seven yards, grabbing one interception. Stuff like that is nearly irreplaceable, but the Wildcats will have to try. The Third Team All-American won’t be playing in the Citrus Bowl due to a groin injury suffered in the Big Ten Championship Game.

Without Newsome, the cornerback spot looks like a question mark. AJ Hampton seemingly has had a grip on the second starting corner position since NU beat Illinois and after Ruiz was beat on a long touchdown at Michigan State. He may take over the top duties on Friday. Both Cam Mitchell and Rod Heard saw situational playing time this season and minutes against OSU when Newsome went out with a groin injury. Mitchell played extremely well, recording both a sack and an interception. Overall though, it’s going to take a collective effort to replace Newsome’s production.