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ROUNDTABLE: What is Northwestern football’s weakest position group for 2021?

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A lot of us are doubting Northwestern’s passing game, if you can believe it.

NCAA Football: Illinois at Northwestern David Banks-USA TODAY Sports

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 might confront the most struggles next season. Let us know which group has you a bit worried for this upcoming season in the comments below.

Daniel Olinger: Wide Receiver

I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it 1,000 times — Cam Porter is the returning leader in total number of receptions from 2020 with a whopping nine catches in a nine-game season. JJ Jefferson and Malik Washington have produced some in years past (22 and 11 career receptions, respectively), and Stephon Robinson Jr. enters having tallied 75 receptions for 1,092 yards during his time at Kansas. There also could be some latent potential waiting to be unearthed in the less experienced wideouts, but the group’s widespread lack of experience and collegiate production to this point makes them the most obvious candidate for a position room in need of a rebuild year for the ‘Cats.

Mac Stone: Quarterbacks

Hear me out. I could have gone wide receiver, but that’s what everyone else did. I’d be lying to say that I’m not a bit worried about the Wildcats’ quarterback room. Sure, they’ve landed South Carolina transfer Ryan Hilinski, but what if the Hilinski plan doesn’t pan out, or worse, Hilinski goes down with an injury? Would the Hunter Johnson experiment begin anew or would Andrew Marty and the option have to carry the offense? On top of all that, Hilinski is playing on an already-repaired ACL and played in just two games in 2020. The quarterback room is certainly in better hands than it once was (cough cough, 2019, cough), but I think it may still be a cause for concern this year.

Jacob Brown: Special Teams

The actual answer is WR, but that’s no fun. Yes, if you want to use facts and reasoning, Daniel is right that the WR group is a question mark. But there is potential for some young guys to step up, and Stephan Robinson Jr. should be a good asset transferring in from Kansas.

Personally, I don’t trust Charlie Kubhander. Never have, never will. It’s just something about Kubhander’s inconsistency. He lost my faith after blowing the 2019 Purdue game with a miss on a very makable attempts, and in the Big Ten Championship his 45-yard miss was a brutal one as well. Northwestern is also losing an unsung hero in Riley Lees. His intelligence as a punt returner proved valuable in many scenarios. Azema has the speed, but it’s going to be hard to replicate what Lees did in his time.

Ben Chasen: Wide Receiver

There’s upside here, as there is with every other position group at Northwestern. I’ve heard and seen great things out of Stephon Robinson from his time at Kansas, and the Northwestern coaching staff seems incredibly bullish on Malik Washington. That said, in terms of proven ability to perform, this is likely where the ‘Cats are most short-staffed. While Northwestern’s passing game took a massive stride forward last year, both of the top targets behind that jump are now gone, and as Dan noted, the remaining player with the most receptions in the 2020 season isn’t even a receiver — he’s a running back. This group certainly has the talent to surpass the expectations surrounding it, but until they make me eat my words or another massive glaring hole opens up in the NU roster, this is my pick.

Michael Barthelemy: Linebacker

As Jacob alluded to, the true answer is the wide receiver group, but for the sake of variety I’ll speak toward the linebackers. We know Chris Bergin is a stud and will hold down the unit, but the main concern is that outside of him there is practically no experience. The second highest returning tackler is Peter McIntyre with seven tackles. The drastic shift from one of the most experienced groups in the Big Ten to one of the least provides question marks as to who will pick up the slack? The positional group is young and has potential all around, but I will be wary until we see results on the field.

William Karmin: Cornerbacks

I am in the minority, but I think the receiver group will be solid this upcoming season. NU may not have any returning starters but the returning production and Stephon Robinson compose one of the more talented WR units in the Pat Fitzgerald era. The cornerbacks without Cam Ruiz and Greg Newsome II, however, are being overestimated by my fellow staffers. While Brandon Joseph is a stud, he alone cannot cover the opposing wideouts all of next season. I am concerned about quarterbacks picking on CB1 A.J. Hampton, and this group will be targeted early in the season as quarterbacks avoid Joseph, putting more pressure on Hampton, Rod Heard and Cam Mitchell. The linebackers are also a valid answer to this question, but I trust Tim McGarigle in developing the future options as that position.

Lia Assimakopoulos: Wide Receiver

Without a doubt, the biggest question mark for Northwestern heading into this season is the receiving corps. With Riley Lees, RCB and Kyric McGowan all having departed, the Wildcats will have to turn to younger talent to fill the void. The possible headliners of this year’s group are Malik Washington, Wayne Dennis Jr., Bryce Kirtz and Genson Hooper Price. Kirtz and Dennis each appeared in nine games last season. Washington played in five, but Hooper Price hasn’t seen the field since 2019. Washington was the favorite to have a breakout season last year but barely saw the field in the second half of the season and almost transferred out of the program. Stephon Robinson Jr. provides some hope, but it’s hard to know what to expect. The uncertainty of who WR1 will be, paired with a new starting quarterback, leaves a lot of questions for the passing game.

Sarah Effress: Wide Receiver

I’m not sure if it’s “weakest position group” is the right label for the receiving corps this year, but it is most definitely the biggest wildcard heading into preseason matchups. With Evanston’s beloved trio now onto bigger and better things, this group has the most to prove. With a limited body of work from veterans JJ Jefferson, Malik Washington and Bryce Kirtz and question marks surrounding grad transfer Stephon Robinson Jr. and newbies Jordan Mosley and Calvin Johnson II, there isn’t much to support a successful receiving game at all. That being said, it’s worth considering that both RCB and McGowan had flown under the radar before breaking out last season, and the offseason has provided time for a new system and connections to develop under likely QB1 Hilinski and this year’s wideouts. Let’s just hope the air game is a pleasant surprise instead of one riddled with inexperience.

Didi Jin: Defensive Line

As many of my fellow staffers have indicated, the wide receiver room has some major question marks going into next season. However, I think that there’s enough talent and experience in that department for the receiving core to be serviceable for whoever is behind center. The defensive line, on the other hand, was perhaps Northwestern’s weakest position group last year, evidenced by Trey Sermon’s 331-yard rushing performance against the ‘Cats in the 2020 Big Ten Championship, and it appears to be shaky once again headed into the 2021 season. The line is losing its two best starters in Eku Leota, who transferred to Auburn, and Earnest Brown IV, who was drafted by the Los Angeles Rams. The rest of the defensive linemen on Northwestern's roster are largely inexperienced, with the exception of Adetomiwa Adebawore and 2020-opt out Samdup Miller. If the defensive line sees major regression from last season, Northwestern could be in big trouble.

Gavin Dorsey: Wide Receiver

It’s the easy answer, but it’s hard to ignore that 80% of the team’s receiving yards from last year will not be returning in 2021. While it won’t be impossible to replace the trio of RCB, Kyric McGowan and Riley Lees, the lack of current experience at the position is slightly worrying. There’s no clear number one heading into the season, leaving plenty of room for someone to step up and become the lead guy. It could be JJ Jefferson, who has the most career yards at NU, but sat out all of last season. Maybe it’s Malik Jefferson or Bryce Kirtz, who both had a small amount of experience last season. Or who knows, maybe one of the first-years or sophomores who have yet to touch the field will prove themself as the offense’s top target.