As summer gets underway and we get closer (hopefully!) to college football’s return, Inside NU is carrying on an annual tradition by counting down the players our staff has judged as most important to the team’s success in the coming season.
The definition of importance in this setting is, of course, up for interpretation, but that just makes this exercise all the more intriguing and, potentially, revealing. If you want to check out last year’s list, follow this link, and if you need a refresher on our overall rankings this time around, click on this one.
Now that we’ve made it through our top 10 rankings, here are a few other significant names on Northwestern’s roster that some of our staff members noted — just not enough to get them in the top 10.
Travis Whillock (S)
Whillock stepped into a much larger role in 2019 as a starter and is expected to replicate his success in 2020. He led the secondary stat-wise recording 78 tackles, two fumble recoveries, one sack, one pass breakup and one forced fumble. He was awarded All-Big Ten honorable mention honors for his efforts and was reliable throughout last season.
However, the junior showed some weak spots and struggled at times in his first year as a full-time starter. Against tougher competition like the Minnesota receivers — some of the best in the Big Ten — he found himself beaten. In his senior season, he must step up against the toughest of competition to help lead the safeties.
While the offensive line is returning the bulk of its talent this season, the group lost its starting center Jared Thomas, who graduated at the end of last season. Thomas was one of the most reliable pieces of the line and paved the way for the run game that improved significantly in the later months of the year.
Now, Northwestern is faced with the challenge of replacing the charismatic leader. Charlie Schmidt and Sam Stovall are the two contenders for that position — neither of whom saw any action in their first season in Evanston last fall. Whoever earns the role has big shoes to fill and will have to step up to anchor the ever-important offensive line.
John Raine (TE)
Back in May, Northwestern landed FAU tight end John Raine as the third graduate transfer of its class. In a position group that hasn’t seen much action since before Cam Green retired, Raine’s commitment brought some life to the tight ends and hope for Northwestern fans after all. The superbacks last season proved as more of a liability than an asset with barely any offensive production resulting from the group.
Raine, however, had a standout season in his final year at FAU, recording 38 catches for 343 yards and six touchdowns. One can expect Raine will earn the starting tight end position this season, and if he can produce similar numbers in the Big Ten, he could become one of the most important offensive weapons.
Ramaud Chiaokhiao-Bowman (WR)
RCB will likely hold the incredibly important receiver No. 2 role this season behind Riley Lees and his production is imperative. In his junior season, he recorded 17 catches for 188 yards but did not haul in a single touchdown. Northwestern only had six receiving touchdowns on the year and cannot afford to replicate those numbers in 2020.
In his senior season, RCB will have to become more of a weapon in a wide receiver group that is already of concern.
Sam Gerak (LG)
Gerak is another crucial piece to Northwestern’s offensive line that will (as always) play a significant role in the team’s overall success. In his first season as a starter, he had his fair share of ups and downs. While he had a number of impressive blocks in the run game, he was also a part of a few miscommunications in pass protection.
Ultimately, he showed plenty of promise last season and is prepared to take significant strides in 2020 as a now-veteran left guard.
Charlie Kuhbander (K)
All eyes are on Kuhbander to see how he can bounce back from a rocky 2019 campaign. In his junior season, he converted on 10-of-14 field goals and 17-of-18 extra points. He especially struggled in the mid-range, going just 60 percent from 30 to 39 yards. To make matters worse, he also missed some significant, game-altering kicks against Purdue and Nebraska.
In 2020, Kuhbander is one of the many that needs to improve. If he can resolve some of his mid-range issues and come up clutch in late-game situations, the special teams unit could be a real asset for the Wildcats.
Did we miss anyone? Drop your most important players in the comments below.