With our position group previews in the books, it’s time to make some assessments regarding the roster as a whole. Here, our writers debate which unit of the team will be able to find the most success next season. Let us know which group you have the highest expectations for in the comments below.
Daniel Olinger: Secondary
A close call between the defensive backs and hog mollies on the offensive line, as both have the fewest holes and question marks entering 2021, but I’ll give the secondary the slight edge. On top of possessing an absolute stud in Brandon Joseph, they have proven, rotation-level players to offer support in Rod Heard, A.J. Hampton, Coco Azema and Cameron Mitchell. It never felt like the offensive line was overwhelmed last season, but never did it feel like they imposed their will on opponents. That’s exactly what the Northwestern secondary did to everyone on their schedule in 2020, and even with the departure of Greg Newsome II and JR Pace, I’d expect more of the same this fall.
Jacob Brown: Secondary
Dan put it pretty well. Brandon Joseph could very well be a top 15 pick in my opinion, and A.J. Hampton, while a bit undersized, but has performed well when given opportunities. Additionally, Cameron Mitchell looked like a stud in the Big Ten Championship against Ohio State, and just as we saw Joseph break out in his redshirt freshman season, Mitchell could do the same in his RS Sophomore campaign. What more worries me more is Coco Azema, who has shown some very good flashes, but could be required to cover a lot of ground depending on how the linebacking core shapes out.
Ben Chasen: Running Back
The Sky Team is the obvious answer here, with Brandon Joseph, Rod Heard, A.J. Hampton, Cameron Mitchell and others all returning. But let me opt for what might seem like a ludicrous selection by picking the group headed by Cam Porter. As you’ll see in all of the preseason coverage I contribute to, I’m incredibly bullish on Porter, who I think has the potential to be as good as (if not better than) Justin Jackson was during his college days. Add on top of that the presence of Evan Hull, who has shown on more than one occasion his breakout capability, and the exciting addition of Anthony Tyus III (my personal pick for first-year to watch), and you’ve got a knockout group that, with the support of a stellar offensive line, should wreak havoc on Big Ten defenses.
Michael Barthelemy: Secondary
I don’t want this roundtable to be too repetitive, but what else am I supposed to say? We all know that Brandon Joseph is an electrifying talent and Northwestern’s best returning player, so this is an easy enough choice. The loss of Greg Newsome II and Cam Ruiz hurts, but Cam Mitchell and A.J. Hampton showed in 2020 that they can step up and make plays. I like the potential of Coco Azema a lot as well. Northwestern’s defense is brimming with young players that have potential to be impact starters, the question is if there will be a learning curve. This group has experience in big moments, so if Joseph or Hampton is able to be the leader JR Pace was a year ago, the Sky Team should be ready for lift off once more.
William Karmin: Running back
Ben is spot-on. Cam Porter will be the best offensive player not named Peter Skoronski next season and that is not a knock on Northwestern’s other offensive players. Beyond Porter, Andrew Clair should thrive as the backup RB after being on the All-MAC team several seasons at Bowling Green. Northwestern also has a solid back in Evan Hull who has shown flashes in his NU tenure. The real wildcard, however, is Anthony Tyus. Given the depth at RB, I fear Tyus may redshirt. If not, though, Tyus gives off serious AJ Dillon vibes.
Lia Assimakopoulos: Secondary
Agreed with what the majority said above. Brandon Joseph is poised for another All-American season. Cam Mitchell will have a breakout year and build on his Big Ten Championship performance. And A.J. Hampton and Coco Azema will be reliable role players in the group. Losing Greg Newsome and JR Pace but still remaining the team’s strongest unit shows just how impressive these defensive backs are. We’ll need a new towel thief, though.
Mac Stone: Secondary
I second what’s been said above. They may have lost Greg Newsome and JR Pace, but man, the Sky Team is loaded with talent. Give me them for this pick any day of the week.
Sarah Effress: Running back
I think we all know what the right answer is, but I’m going to go with the second rightest (?) answer, which is Cam Porter and Co. in the running back room. What Porter accomplished in the tail end of last season as a true freshman, stepping up against Ohio State and Auburn when he was called on, shows how bright the future is for this position group. With the addition of experienced grad transfer Andrew Clair and incoming freshmen Anthony Tyus (question marks above whether he red-shirts or not, but for now we’ll just wait and see) and the tenacity of Evan Hull, not to mention a solid O-Line to run off of in the mix, ‘Cats fans can expect big things from this year’s backs.
Didi Jin: Offensive line
While the tape from recent seasons might not indicate that the offensive line is Northwestern’s greatest strength — or a strength at all — this will be the season that Kurt Anderson puts it all together. Coming into his third season as the program’s offensive line coach, he’s recruited a talented group of players to compete for playing time on the NWO. Despite a few departures from last year’s starters, Peter Skoronski and Sam Gerak provide experience and stability with an abundance of players capable of stepping up to take on bigger roles, from redshirt senior tackle Ethan Wiederkehr to former four-star guard Josh Priebe. No matter who the starters end up being, it is the position group’s talent and coaching that makes me believe they are Northwestern’s strongest positional unit headed into 2021.
Gavin Dorsey: Secondary
A year after allowing the least touchdowns in the Power Five, the Wildcats’ secondary is once again the strength of this team. The unit loses its lockdown leader in Greg Newsome, as well as JR Pace and Cam Ruiz, but the defensive backs still return a crew ranking among the nation’s best. Preseason All-American Brandon Joseph is obviously the star of the group, while A.J. Hampton and Cam Mitchell are poised to each make leaps, given the first-round shoes they must fill. Although the group as a whole may not return as many starters as other positions, the overall talent in the secondary is enough to make it the strongest group for now.