To kick off a summer of football at Inside NU, we are counting down Northwestern’s Top 10 Most Important Players in 2021. We’ve put our heads together as a staff, used the unruly power of democracy and created a list that has already caused plenty of disagreement.
The list’s criteria simply consisted of players we believe to be the most important to Northwestern football in 2021. However, we know that is up for interpretation. For some, it could mean the value of one player over his backup. It could mean players in crucial roles. It could also mean players who have underperformed and need to step up.
Only one thing is known: no two lists from our staff members are the same. That’s why for each player, we’ll have at least one member break down their placement for the aforementioned player.
Gavin Dorsey (4)
Although not as high-ranking on my list as this article’s co-author, a breakout year for Cam Porter is crucial to the success of this Wildcat offense.
Coming into the 2020 season as a true freshman, the Cincinnati native was buried on the depth chart behind veterans Isaiah Bowser and Drake Anderson. Porter managed only eight carries for 32 yards in his first four appearances. However, fumbling woes from those ahead of him allowed Porter to step into the spotlight with a massive performance against Illinois. The first-year gashed the Ilini defense for 142 yards on 24 carries, with two touchdowns to top it off.
Porter’s big game wasn’t just a fluke against a bad team, as he earned his first start against Ohio State in the Big Ten Championship the next week. Although his stats took a hit and usage decreased as the ‘Cats fell behind, he proved he could be the workhorse lead back that the team needed. In the Citrus Bowl against Auburn, Porter pieced together his third consecutive big game, with 125 total yards and a rushing touchdown.
The running back’s numbers through those three games — 73 carries for 301 yards and four scores — are extremely promising. Yet, it’s not the numbers that are exciting, it’s how he got them. Northwestern’s offense was significantly better with Porter in the backfield, whether on designed handoffs, screen passes, in plays that used him as a decoy and even in the “Wildcat” formation. Porter has something his two predecessors didn’t have, and that’s an innate ability to find a hole and run through it. At just 5-foot-10, he’s incredibly shifty and quick, but he also packs a punch with his bruising 220-pound frame (think Dalvin Cook, but 10 pounds heavier).
Porter’s versatility and ball-carrier vision give Northwestern’s offense a huge asset to winning games, and that’s the ability to get first downs without the ball in the quarterback’s hands. Winning by one touchdown in the fourth quarter of the Citrus Bowl, Porter single-handedly marched the Wildcats down the field with seven consecutive rushes, combining for 50 yards and culminating in a touchdown. This ability to take over games is extremely important to the team, and necessary to emulate the offense’s rushing success from the end of last season.
With only three full games under his belt, it’s unknown whether the sophomore can keep up the pace with a larger workload in 2021. Having said that, if there’s anyone on the team that has the tools to make a monster jump, it’s Cam Porter.
Ben Chasen (1)
Much like with Mac’s pick of Peter Skoronski yesterday, this was not a conventional choice. To me, though, it was the obvious one: if Northwestern is to take another big step forward in its progression as a program, the single most important piece is Cam Porter.
The modern college game is dominated by the pass attack and the playmakers involved in executing and defending it. This is evident in the fact that the last time a running back won the Heisman Trophy goes all the way back to 2015, when Derrick Henry was given the honor. Before Henry, the last scatback Heisman-winner was a fellow Alabama alum, Mark Ingram.
But sometimes, you encounter a talent so special and a runner so explosive that the rules simply don’t apply, and it’s a ball carrier, not a signal caller, that surges his program to the next level. At Northwestern, it’s been seen before recently with beloved star Justin Jackson. In smashing the team record for most rushing yards in a career, JJTBC became a major catalyst in driving the ‘Cats forward at a critical juncture in the Pat Fitzgerald era.
Now, I believe that NU is once again home to a game-changing back who has the potential to elevate the program to a Big Ten Championship-winning (not just appearing) level in Porter. Whether it was a hard-cut burst against Auburn that anchored a drive he’d end with a touchdown out of the Wildcat formation, or this direct snap gem from his 142 yard outing in the battle for the HAT, or this elusive dash (also out of the Wildcat) for a score, Porter did a lot to impress while only being the ‘Cats’ true featured back in three contests.
Is he Heisman material? Probably (and those italics are meant to carry some weight) not. But he’s far better than the 390 total yards and five rushing touchdowns he recorded in his true first-year season indicate.
If you don’t believe me, take it from Justin Hilliard, the former Ohio State starting linebacker and captain who went up against plenty of elite backs in conference play throughout his college career and had the opportunity to face Cam Porter in last season’s Big Ten Championship game (which, I remind you, was just Porter’s second college start... ever). When asked to rank the toughest Big Ten rushers to take down he faced during his time as a Buckeye, here’s what Hilliard responded with:
Hilliard’s a pretty credible source and claims that, of all the Big Ten backs he had to tackle, Cam Porter, in his second ever start at NU, was the toughest behind only two college legends in Saquon Barkley and Jonathan Taylor? Simply put, that’s great company to have.
But the real proof that the most essential piece to Northwestern’s progression in 2021 is its running back is found in the fact that last time a non-Ohio State team was the Big Ten Champ, it was led by the last non-QB Big Ten Offensive Player of the Year: Barkley, who led his Penn State Nittany Lions to a Big Ten title in 2016, his true sophomore season.
So yeah, if we’re talking about who is most important to Northwestern’s ability to contend for another bowl win — and even for another Big Ten West title — then the most crucial player is probably likely-starting QB Ryan Hilinski, who was the top choice of all but two (Mac and myself) of the Inside NU staff who participated in the ranking process for this series. But if you have your eyes focused on Northwestern taking the next step as a team and taking the Purple to Pasadena for the first time in 26 years — something I think incredibly possible should the right players play to expectations — then Cam Porter has got to be the pick for most essential member of the Wildcats this year.