Following two trips to Indianapolis in the past three seasons for Northwestern football, 2021 has not gone to plan for Pat Fitzgerald’s team. With three losses already on the season and three games remaining against Iowa, Michigan and even Wisconsin, Northwestern’s ceiling this season would appear to be six wins.
Of course, NU could also win any of the above three games and also lose any of the remaining games against Rutgers, Purdue, Minnesota or Illinois, though it is a safe guess to venture that NU will probably be underdogs in the former three games and likely at least two of the latter games. Regardless, the point here is that Northwestern will underachieve preseason aspirations in what now appears to be a rebuilding year.
As a diehard Chicago White Sox fan, I have experienced watching a rebuilding team. From 2017-2019, the most important factor was watching how key players to the team’s future progressed rather than looking for wins or losses. Thus, I am here to tell you, Northwestern football fans, that exerting your attention towards certain individual players the rest of the season may be a more productive use of your energy devoted to Northwestern football.
The number one player to watch over the second half of the 2021 season is quarterback Ryan Hilinski. Of course, every football team’s trajectory starts and ends with the quarterback position. If Northwestern thinks the team has any shot at winning the Big Ten West next season, Hilinkski needs to be the guy.
Beyond Hilinski, Northwestern has Hunter Johnson — whose storyline we have seen play out — and Carl Richardson. The cupboard is bare at this position, and while it may be easy to blame Pat Fitzgerald for that, I think there is a nuance to the situation that can’t be easily explained. But that’s a conversation for another column on another day.
Beyond Hilinski, Northwestern needs a third-year receiver besides Bryce Kirtz to flash. If Malik Washington can prove that he is a reliable number two (or even number one) wide receiver for Northwestern, it would be a huge boon to whoever the starting quarterback next season is. Another pass-catcher to watch for is Marshall Lang. He received significant playing time against Duke and rewarded NU with a touchdown. Charlie Mangieri could return next season, but he has never been a prolific pass-catcher, and having more competent outlets for the quarterback is a necessity. One such outlet would be Trey Pugh, but the Ohio native will be out of eligibility after the 2021 campaign.
Along the offensive line, Northwestern undoubtedly has question marks. Peter Skoronski will be back, but he is the only starter to pencil in with ease.
Will Sam Gerak exercise his extra year of eligibility from COVID? If not, who will take his spot? This question is especially important given Northwestern’s struggles along the interior offensive line. There are no easy answers here, but look for Payne He’Bert at one of the guard sports as a possible solution. At right tackle, the logical replacement for Ethan Wiederkehr, should he not exercise his extra year of eligibility, is freshman Caleb Tiernan. Fitz may want to preserve his redshirt, but he can still utilize him in four games while doing so.
Defensively, Northwestern will need to replenish along the line. Seeing just how good Tommy Adebawore is should be one of the few positive developments to watch this season. But outside of him, NU does not have many answers. Highly touted as recruits, first-year Najee Story and junior Devin O’Rourke could be possible starters along the line next season.
At the second level, Bryce Gallagher becoming a solid linebacker in the middle of Northwestern’s defense would be a welcoming development and encouraging sign for 2022. The same goes for Khalid Jones and Mac Uihlein, the latter of which hasn’t seen the field despite his leading status in Northwestern’s 2021 recruiting class.
In the secondary, the most important player to watch is Rod Heard. He has shown flashes throughout the last two seasons, but if he can develop into a solid number one cornerback, Matt McPherson could have a solid group in 2022, especially if Brandon Joseph returns. Joseph himself is certainly an interesting player to watch. Will he decide to return next season after such a lackluster year for both the team and himself a la Paddy Fisher in 2019?
As you can tell, Northwestern has many holes within the roster in 2021. With such dim prospects remaining for this year’s team, looking at possible fillers for those holes may be the most critical storyline to watch the rest of the year if you believe Pat Fitzgerald can reach this program’s ceiling of contending for Big Ten championships consistently, possibly even more so than whether or not Northwestern is able to claw a few more victories.