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Three reasons for optimism in the 2021 football season

In Fitz we trust!

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Vrbo Citrus Bowl - Auburn v Northwestern Photo by Douglas P. DeFelice/Getty Images

Last week, I wrote a piece citing three reasons for pessimism relating to Northwestern’s 2021 football season: a loss of administrative (and coaching) personnel, a lack of returning experience and a lack of success under Fitz in back-to-back seasons.

In regards to the first reason for pessimism, a loss of administrative and coaching personnel, there are fairly limited ways in which I am able to allay your concerns. I could tell you that Dr. Derrick Gragg will replicate Jim Phillips’ positive relationship with Fitz, but I would be lying if I said that with certainty. So instead, I will leave you with a zoomed in photo from NU FB’s Twitter from Big Ten Media Day signaling the start of a great relationship:

I could also spew something similar about Northwestern’s new Director of Football Operations, Jacob Schmidt, who is replacing Cody Cejda and new Northwestern Defensive Coordinator Jim O’Neil who is replacing legendary DC Mike Hankwitz.

Instead, though, all I can do is echo is a motto many NU fans have found themselves saying: In Fitz We Trust. That same motto also applies to NU’s lack of success in back-to-back seasons. The last reason for pessimism, NU’s lack of returning production, however could be a positive.

Roughly two months ago, Matt Fortuna of The Athletic, published an article that included the following quote from a fellow coach:

“‘They’ve (NU) also lost a lot,’ the coach said. ‘At some point, somebody should have written an article on what was going on with their program, (with) as many people who were leaving in the offseason. It was a little bit scary to see. I don’t know what was going on there. But they’ll find a way to reload. They lose some good players. But offensively I would guess it’s going to be similar and nice and steady and take what they can.’”

Well, the reason that Inside NU has yet to run out an extensive piece highlighting NU’s losses can be summed up in another quote from Fortuna’s piece, this time from Fitz:

“‘I think the narrative right now that (associate AD for communications) Paul Kennedy showed me is, everybody’s talking about what’s graduated,’ Fitzgerald said. ‘I can’t wait for our guys that are young. This might be our most talented team; we’re just going to be a little younger than maybe we were a year ago.’”

As Fitz so eloquently stated, I believe this is one of, if not the most talented roster of the Fitz Era. NU has two surefire first round picks, a multitude of highly-touted transfers and rising second/third-years at the skill positions and an abundance of depth defensively, specifically along the defensive line.

The most glaring area where NU loses returning production is at the quarterback position. Peyton Ramsey was exactly what NU needed last season, a year removed from a three-win campaign: a gutsy, competent QB capable of winning football games. Surrounded by an incredibly talented supporting cast, Ramsey led NU to its second Big Ten West title in three years. While he did his job nearly flawlessly, Ramsey’s production is relatively easy to replicate:

NU was second to last in the entire Big Ten last season, averaging just 186.3 passing yards per game despite throwing the football the fourth most in all of the Big Ten last season (a skewed statistic as NU played eight conference games while others played as few as five conference games and as many as nine). Additionally, ESPN graded NU with the lowest QB passer rating of any school in the Big Ten.

By no means do I wish to bash Peyton Ramsey, but the reality is that he provided middling QB play last season that should be fairly replicable by a *competent* QB.

Having competent QB play is much easier said than done. In 2019, NU received abysmal production from the QB position from Hunter Johnson, who is now competing with Ryan Hilinski for the 2021 starting spot. I would say that Hilinski’s status as a former four-star and 64th ranked recruit in the 2019 class should be all that is needed to convince you of him being capable of providing solid QB play. Unfortunately, though, the struggles we witnessed with Johnson — the former five star recruit and transfer from Clemson — prevent me from doing so.

The knock on Johnson has been his vulnerabilities from an intangibles and leadership standpoint. So far, all signs point to Hilinski being beloved by his teammates, partly due to his leadership skills. He should have no issue commanding Northwestern’s offense and his former status as a freshman starting QB in the SEC should instill confidence that he does not lack raw talent.

Offensively, there are two other areas where NU’s lack of returning production is evident: the running back and wide receiver positions, where NU returns 20% and 38% of its production, respectively.

Cam Porter being one of NU’s three representatives at Big Ten media days as a true sophomore is all you need to know concerning NU’s supposed lack of returning production at RB. He will be a stud.

The wide receivers are a different story. Much of Ramsey’s low QB passer rating from last season can be attributed to a relatively weak group of wide receivers that lacked explosiveness. While Fitz undoubtedly starts the players he trusts most to win games, he had no option last season other than giving his upperclassmen receivers (Riley Lees, Kyric McGowan and Ramaud Chiaokhiao-Bowman) a majority of the playing time. While Chiaokhiao-Bowman did have a career year in 2020, the other receivers had relatively lackluster seasons.

NU has a new wave of receivers in Bryce Kirtz, Malik Washington, Wayne Dennis Jr. and Genson Hooper-Price. This group was a part of the 2019 recruiting class, the first season NU football players were able to use the Ryan Fieldhouse and Walter Athletics Center. If you trust Fitz and believed him when he said that the new athletic facilities would bring in higher-quality athletes, then the quartet of receivers from the 2019 class should be held to high expectations.

NU also adds transfer Stephon Robinson Jr., who is both fast and two years removed from a season where he accumulated 700+ receiving yards and 8 touchdowns (albeit, in the offensively-skewed Big 12). JJ Jefferson, who played for NU in 2018 and 2019, also returns in 2021, adding some speed of his own. Put together, NU’s wide receivers in 2021 offer a significantly higher ceiling than any other group of wideouts we have seen in a long time at NU, in my opinion.

Along the offensive line, NU returns three of five starters in Sam Gerak, Ethan Wiederkehr and Peter Skoronski. Fitz has already announced that Josh Priebe will start, something that probably would not have been publicly stated if there were even minimal doubts around Priebe’s ability to do so. I trust Kurt Anderson to patch up the rest of the offensive line (primarily Wiederkehr and Charlie Schmidt) and deliver a solid unit.

On the defensive side of the football, NU will have turnover as well. However, the returning talent on the defensive line— namely Samdup Miller and Tommy Adebawore — stabilizes this group as a unit of strength.

The back seven, as I wrote in last week’s story, is a little bit murkier. If you are looking for optimism with the linebackers, I would cite both Fitz and linebacker coach Tim McGarigle’s demonstrated history of success in developing linebackers. Alongside Chris Bergin, NU will likely start Bryce Gallagher and Peter McIntyre. If you trust Fitz, you should trust that Gallagher and McIntyre will be ready to step in as starting Big Ten linebackers.

The DB group, however, is a little tougher to trust. Roughly three weeks ago, I wrote that the unit was the weakest position group on the team. I stand by everything I wrote in that roundtable. However, I will say that having an All-American within your weakest position group may constitute as a good problem to have.

While I do believe that Northwestern’s lack of returning production should give many younger and more talented players an opportunity to play, I realize that asking one of the youngest teams in the Big Ten to win the West is a tall task.

And that is where I will provide my last reason for optimism: NU has an incredibly weak schedule. College football writer Phil Steele recently ranked NU’s schedule as the easiest in the Big Ten. Beyond the pure easiness within the schedule, I like the schedule’s layout. In past years, NU has struggled to wake up for its early season games. Facing a Big Ten opponent in Michigan State that dashed NU’s hopes of playing in the College Football Playoff last season should provide the ‘Cats with a sense of urgency in the season opener. Then, matchups against Indiana State, Duke and Ohio should allow NU’s nucleus an opportunity to gel and gear up for its Big Ten matchups.

While Northwestern does have a critically important four game stretch in late October/early November when it faces Michigan, Minnesota, Iowa and Wisconsin, there is not a single opponent on the schedule (like an OSU) that can be chalked up as an immediate loss. Additionally, the conference tuneups against Nebraska and Rutgers should have NU prepared for the noted four game gauntlet, while ending the season against Purdue and Illinois should ease NU into the postseason.

While there are plenty of reasons to be pessimistic in 2021, I believe in Fitz, I believe NU’s returning talent outweighs its departing talent and I believe NU will benefit from a favorable schedule. Those three factors alone should put NU in the drivers seat for the Big Ten West, right next to Wisconsin.