With the college football set to start in a little less than two months, we have begun our preview of Northwestern’s 2021 season. First, we brought you in-depth previews of each position group — and named the best and worst. Right now we’re in the midst of breaking down the 10 most important players on Northwestern’s roster.
Now, we asked each of our staffers to share what they think the biggest concern is for Northwestern this coming season.
Daniel Olinger: Lack of experience relative to the rest of the Big Ten
I’ve hemmed and hawed to no end about the absolute dearth of experience in the receiver room, but in particular I just feel like Northwestern might need to expect a slight drop-off in 2021 due to the vastly different identities of these teams. The 2020 ‘Cats were more senior-laden than just about any team in the country. In 2021, they return only four starters on each side of the ball, which pales in comparison to their conference peers.
Per @philsteele042, here are the only three Big Ten football teams with fewer than 16 returning starters in 2021:— Jared Butler Stan Dan (@dan_olinger) July 12, 2021
Iowa - 14
Ohio State - 11
Northwestern - 8
With the NCAA giving an extra year of eligibility to student-athletes to compensate for the mess that was the 2020-21 academic year, a lot of teams have 15-plus, sometimes even 20-plus returning starters for this upcoming season. Northwestern is a team of college football greenhorns competing in a league of grizzled veterans, and that’s a proposition that I don’t like betting on.
Mac Stone: Regression
Regression is a pretty general concern rather than something more specific, but I think it’s something that needs to be taken seriously. I highly, highly doubt the ‘Cats will flounder back to their 2019 ways, but we have to consider that this Northwestern football team will look vastly different from last year’s. Perhaps most obvious is that Peyton Ramsey is gone, replaced by Ryan Hilinski. Additionally, it’s really not clear who will step up in terms of wide receivers now that Riley Lees, Kyric McGowan and RCB all gone. On the defensive side of the ball, the Wildcats have lost a veteran presence on all three fronts. Taking all of that into consideration, and I think it’s fair to say that Northwestern may slide back to an 8-4, 7-5 or maybe even 6-6 type of team depending on how their ever-present close games swing.
Jacob Brown: Quarterback Carousel
Assuming that Ryan Hillinksi is Northwestern’s starter this year, it will be the third year in a row that the ‘Cats have a transfer under center. Peyton Ramsey worked out well. Hunter Johnson got a raw deal. But how sustainable is it for Northwestern to go fishing every year?
The former Gamecock theoretically has three years of eligibility left if he chooses to take them. But if he doesn’t, or if he doesn’t do the job, will Fitz have to look to the transfer portal again in the near future? Carl Richardson was a quickly aligned commitment to fill a hole left by an action outside the program’s control. Brendan Sullivan balled in high school, is he the next guy up? If not, Northwestern does not currently have a QB in the class of 2022, finishing as runner-ups for Garret Rangel, Brandon Rose, and Conner Harrel. Evan Smith played QB in high school but was recruited as a corner. If Sullivan isn’t the guy, Northwestern will again need to look to the portal, a practice that Northwestern is slowly developing as a dangerous habit.
Gavin Dorsey: Transitioning to a New DC
For the first time since 2007, the Wildcats’ defense will march onto the field without the legendary Mike Hankwitz leading it from the sidelines. Hankwitz will be greatly missed, and it may not be a simple task replacing the man behind last season’s No. 1 ranked defense (among Power Five teams). While the former coordinator’s resume is illustrious, Jim O’Neil’s is far from it. It’s obviously too early to jump to conclusions for O’Neil, who hasn’t coached at the college level since 2008, but his less than flattering track record in the NFL is slightly worrying. As Dan mentioned, experience is certainly lacking from this unit with only four returning starters, so the transition to a new defensive coordinator might be a challenge for this team.
Meredith Revsine: Defense
So much of this team’s past success has been a result of consistency, specifically with regards to defense. The loss of stalwart Defensive Coordinator Hankwitz and long-time staples Blake Gallagher and Paddy Fisher means that NU’s trademark unit will look considerably different. Outside of Chris Bergin — the lone returning member of the Irish Law Firm — Northwestern’s 11 returning linebackers combined for 30 career tackles. The lack of experience in the linebacker position group combined with the unfamiliarity of a new DC gives reason for concern with an area that has historically been a strong suit for the Wildcats.
Bradley Locker: Receiving Corps
Entering 2020, the ‘Cats had a fairly solid set of pass-catchers who performed aptly, including wide receivers Ramaud Chiaokhiao-Bowman, Kyric McGowan and Riley Lees as well as tight end John Raine. However, all four of NU’s leading receivers are no longer with the team, whether due to joining the professional ranks or transferring.
Daniel alluded to it earlier, but this will generally be an inexperienced group in 2021. Players like Bryce Kirtz, Stephon Robinson Jr., Charlie Mangieri and Malik Washington will have to step up to make sure presumptive starter Ryan Hilinski has reliable targets he can trust to make plays.
Didi Jin: Greg Newsome’s replacement
A big reason behind Northwestern having quite literally the best defense in college football last year was the dominance of Greg Newsome. Newsome’s incredible coverage abilities meant that Coach Hankwitz could leave him on an island week in and week out. No matter who the ‘Cats played, the former defensive coordinator could concentrate his efforts on aiding players on other parts of the field, a luxury that the ‘Cats will not have in 2021. While the secondary as a whole should be solid once again, the loss of an elite player like Newsome opens up holes all over the rest of the field, which will inevitably lead to more big plays given up. Couple this with the departures of other defensive stalwarts like Paddy Fisher, and the defense could break more often than it bends this upcoming season.
John Olsen: Forcing Turnovers
It’s no secret that Northwestern’s defense last season was stifling. The ‘Cats ranked 21st nationally in yards allowed per game and 5th (!) in points allowed per game, but as both Gavin and Meredith have already brought up, that defense will look vastly different in 2021. There’s a new defensive coordinator and many of last season’s major contributors have moved on to greener pastures. With all of this change, regression is inevitable, but the most significant area the defense could struggle in is in their ability to get takeaways and give what could be a weaker offense a couple of extra chances to put points on the board.
Last year, Northwestern forced 2.1 turnovers per game, which was good enough for 12th nationally. Of those 19 turnovers, seven were created by players who have left the team, and another six were created by Joseph. For the ‘Cats to be as stout defensively this season they’ll need another Herculean effort from their Sky Team talisman, which is a tall order, even for a player as talented as Joseph. They’ll also need younger, less experienced guys to step in and fill the massive holes left by the departed seniors. With the change in defensive coordinator along with the loss of a few NFL-caliber players, it will be difficult for this year’s defense to replicate last season’s turnover tally.
Sarah Effress: Offensive Inexperience
A wealth of offensive talent departed from Evanston last season, as Northwestern’s beloved receiving corps of Lees, RCB and McGowan took their careers to the NFL, as did tight end John Raine. Additionally, running backs Drake Anderson and Isaiah Bowser decided to transfer closer to home to finish off their collegiate years. They left behind a receiving corps made up of mainly redshirts with limited on-field experience, and a true sophomore in Cam Porter in the backfield, not to mention a likely brand new quarterback in Ryan Hilinski. Grad transfers into both the WR and RB rooms could add some much needed experience and know-how to each position group, but until the ‘Cats kick off in August, there’s room for doubt when it comes to putting points on the board in the end.
Ben Chasen: Turnover of production
Ahead of the 2020 season, ESPN’s Bill Connelly’s numbers showed that Northwestern was returning a larger chunk of its production from the previous year than any other FBS program in the nation. Ahead of the 2021 season, Connelly has released the same list, and this time around, Northwestern sits second-to-last. Needless to say, that’s a staggering difference. Does it mean the ‘Cats are doomed for a repeat of 2019’s post-Big Ten West title-winning flop? Not necessarily. It’s my belief that NU comes into the 2021 season better-situated than it did in before that disastrous 2019 campaign, with talent that has been developing and waiting in the wings for years ready to replace the players who have departed. But it’s hard to know just how much production can be expected from the new guys (based on the fact that they haven’t seen the field much yet in college), and until they’ve proven themselves as reliable — or even nearly as reliable — as their predecessors, it’s impossible to know how different 2021 could look from 2020.
Will Karmin: The Defensive Back Seven
As my fellow writers are quick to point out, Northwestern returns the least production of any Big Ten team. Fortunately, at most positions, there are answers for the departures. Ryan Hilinski should be a competent QB, Cam Porter will easily surpass last year’s starting RB numbers and the WR group may be inexperienced, but the talent is bountiful. The defensive line receives a boost with the return of Samdup Miller, but the back seven — specifically linebackers not named Chris Bergin and members of the secondary not named Brandon Joseph — will be replacing a plethora of talent from last year’s team in Paddy Fisher, Blake Gallagher, Greg Newsome II, J.R. Pace and Cam Ruiz without many household names slotted in as their replacements.