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Way-Too-Early 2021 Northwestern football two deep

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Speculation doesn’t accomplish much, but boy is it fun.

Clemson v South Carolina Photo by Streeter Lecka/Getty Images

It feels like Peyton Ramsey led Northwestern onto the field for the first time just yesterday. But alas, it’s been over three weeks since Northwestern finished its season with a Citrus Bowl victory.

The beginning of the offseason hasn’t been bereft of action. A lot has happened:

  • Defensive coordinator Mike Hankwitz retired
  • Earnest Brown IV, Blake Gallagher, Greg Newsome, J.R. Pace, Ramaud Chiaokhiao-Bowman and John Raine declared for the NFL Draft
  • Kyric McGowan transferred to Georgia Tech
  • Isaiah Bowser transferred to Miami (OH)
  • Cam Ruiz and Jeremiah McDonald entered the transfer portal
  • Drake Anderson and Gunner Maldonado transferred to the University of Arizona
  • Malik Washington withdrew from the portal, choosing to return to Northwestern
  • Berkeley Holman and Chris Bergin chose to return for another season
  • TJ Green, Gunnar Vogel, Nik Urban, Riley Lees and Peyton Ramsey chose to move on from football
  • Wide receiver Stephon Robinson, Jr., transferred to Northwestern from Kansas
  • Quarterback Ryan Hillinski transferred to Northwestern from South Carolina
  • Fitz reportedly hired Las Vegas Raiders defensive backs coach Jim O’Neil as defensive coordinator
  • Samdup Miller returned after opting out of the 2020 season

With the exception of the transfers, it is bittersweet to see so much talent leave. As much as Northwestern fans would have liked to see players like Ramsey and Lees return, there are other dreams to chase.

Maybe some of the players who declared could have raised their draft stock with another season at NU, but there’s money to be made for these guys, whether it’s Newsome making bank as a high draft pick or some of the other players who will likely find themselves on practice squads. They would have been great additions to the 2021 roster, but having those six, Fisher and Slater all slated to play in the pros is a boon for recruiting.

There’s plenty of speculation to do for this team, especially on the defensive end. Here’s an early prediction for next year’s depth chart, as well as some battles to watch:

Northwestern Football 2021 Way-Too-Early Two Deep

Position First String Second String
Position First String Second String
Quarterback Ryan Hilinksi, Junior Hunter Johnson, Senior
Running Back Cam Porter, Sophomore Evan Hull, Redshirt Sophomore
Wide Receiver Stephon Robinson Jr, Grad Transfer JJ Jefferson, Senior
Wide Receiver Malik Washington, Junior Wayne Dennis, Redshirt Sophomore
Wide Receiver Bryce Kirtz, Redshirt Sophomore Berkeley Holman, Redshirt Senior
Tight End Charlie Mangieri, Senior Thomas Gordon, Redshirt Sophomore
Left Tackle Peter Skoronski, Sophomore Zach Franks, Redshirt Sophomore
Left Guard Dom D'Antonio, Redshirt Sophomore Conrad Rowley, Junior
Center Sam Gerak, Redshirt Senior Charlie Schmidt, Redshirt Junior
Right Guard Ethan Wiederkehr, Redshirt Senior Josh Priebe, Sophomore
Right Tackle Ben Wrather, Sophomore Payne He'Bert, Junior
Defensive End Adetomiwa Adebawore, Junior Devin O'Rourke, Redshirt Junior
Defensive Tackle Jason Gold, Jr., Junior Jordan Butler, Sophomore
Defensive Tackle Trevor Kent, Senior Wyatt Blake, Junior
Defensive End Samdup Miller, Senior Grayson Mann, Junior
WILL Peter McIntyre, Senior Khalid Jones, Junior
MIKE Erik Mueller, Redshirt Senior Michael Jansey, Redshirt Sophomore
SAM Chris Bergin, Redshirt Senior Jaylen Rivers, Junior
Cornerback AJ Hampton, Junior Rod Heard, Redshirt Sophomore
Safety Brandon Joseph, Redshirt Sophomore Bryce Jackson, Senior
Safety Coco Azema, Redshirt Sophomore Donovan Sermons, Senior
Cornerback Cameron Mitchell, Redshirt Sophomore Jaheem Joseph, Redshirt Freshman
Punter Derek Adams, Grad Transfer Jake Genyk, Junior
Kicker Charlie Kubhander, Redshirt Senior Trey Finison, Junior
Long Snapper Peter Snodgrass, Senior
Holder Derek Adams, Grad Transfer
Punt Returner Coco Azema, Redshirt Sophomore
Kick Returner Coco Azema, Redshirt Sophomore

Quarterback

Does anyone remember Hunter Johnson? The highly touted transfer from Clemson, Johnson got a raw deal. He didn’t get a full offseason to learn Mike Bajakian’s system as QB1, and the system that he did learn as a transfer was that of Mick McCall. He committed to Tennessee before de-committing and switching to Clemson. Who recruited him to Knoxville? Mike Bajakian. Jake left Tennessee, and then Hunter de-committed. I’m not saying that Hunter is going to win the job, but there should be healthy competition for the job. And they’re not the only ones who want the job. I think we’re going to see Hilinski start for most of the season, but we can’t be sure by any means.

Linebacker

Bergin coming back for Northwestern is HUGE. Having a seasoned veteran will help bring some normalcy to the defense, and Bergin will very likely be the quarterback of the defense. Peter McIntyre is a redshirt senior with experience playing the WILL. With the ability to play sideline to sideline (like Blake Gallagher did), the veteran will likely get the spot to start the season.

That leaves MIKE spot open. Erik Mueller is the only MIKE currently on the roster, and we don’t know if he will return for another season. Other than him, Northwestern will be looking to convert outside linebackers. Jaylen Rivers and Khalid Jones are two young players that can be developed to this position. Michael Jansey could step into the role, but I would love to see Northwestern take a shot with Mac Uihlein, the four-star true freshman out of Lake Forest High School.

Cornerback

Northwestern is losing two of its top four corners. Cam Ruiz got torched a few times during the season but would still be a valuable nickel back behind AJ Hampton and Cameron Mitchell next year. Mithcell and Hampton also had some rough patches but showed tremendous growth, especially in the Citrus Bowl and Big Ten Championship games. To play behind those two, Northwestern has a variety of young talent. Redshirt freshman Rod Heard played at a solid level in limited action, while none of Garnett Hollis, Jaheem Joseph and Nigel Williams played major snaps this past season. Not only will there be a competition for this third spot, but it is still unclear who CB1 will be. Hampton played as CB2 for much of the season, but Mitchell played two REALLY good games at the end of the season. There are a many elite receivers in the Big Ten, and Northwestern will need one of these two to step up to the task of taking on the top dog on the other sideline each week.

Wide Receiver

Beyond Stephon Robinson Jr, there will be a ton of competition on the outside. Bryce Kirtz and Wayne Dennis Jr looked good in their time at the end of the season and have plenty of room for growth. JJ Jefferson (out all of last season), Malik Washington and Berkeley Holman are also all coming back. All of these guys have different strengths and weaknesses, complementing each other in different ways. It’s hard to know who will stand where on the depth chart until we see how they develop and complement who earns the starting spot at quarterback. But there isn’t much of a worry at the pisition.