Even though we are just under five months away from the first football game since the Super Bowl — unless you count the reinvented USFL, which kicks off on April 16 and features Clayton Thorson and Jared Thomas – Northwestern is already preparing for its 2022 season opener.
This past week, the Wildcats held several team workouts in Ryan Fieldhouse prior to the 2022 Aer Lingus Football Classic between NU and Nebraska in Dublin, Ireland. Starting on Wednesday, Northwestern will ramp things up and begin a series of 15 spring practices, which span Friday, April 15.
With the Wildcats’ roster and coaching staff largely solidified entering the upcoming campaign, what must Pat Fitzgerald & Co. determine during these warmer workouts? Here are three questions that are of utmost importance.
1. Is Ryan Hilinski the starting quarterback?
As of now, the answer to this – though it may dismay some Wildcat fans – appears to be yes.
After transferring from South Carolina prior to 2021, Hilinski had a profoundly disappointing first year in Evanston. The California native didn’t earn a start until Hunter Johnson had been benched at Duke and Andrew Marty suffered an injury, and over six games played, Hilinski had a subpar 54% completion rate, 764 passing yards, three passing touchdowns and one interception.
One thing that certainly didn’t help Hilinski’s development was being yanked in and out of the lineup, with Northwestern’s starting quarterback on every series becoming nearly impossible to predict down the stretch. Could a full offseason of work as the starter help mitigate that?
On paper, Hilinski seems to be the favorite for QB1, but fellow junior Carl Richardson – who saw some playing time in blowout games – and sophomores Cole Freeman, Brendan Sullivan and Jasper Stratton might be able to earn some starting reps.
The other element to consider is whether Northwestern will add a quarterback through the transfer portal. While the majority of big names have already landed at new schools, gunslingers such as Peter Costelli – who was recently seen working out with Stephon Robinson Jr. – Taisun Phommachanh and Jack Sears are still available.
Regardless of whether Fitzgerald and Mike Bajakian elect to add another QB or not, Hilinski’s starting spot is not entirely solidified yet.
2. Who starts at inside linebacker alongside Bryce Gallagher?
Following the graduations of Chris Bergin and Peter McIntyre, the Wildcats’ ILB corps are largely unknown outside of Gallagher.
In his sophomore campaign, Gallagher found favor with Jim O’Neil and the rest of NU’s defensive coaching staff, earning playing time in all 12 games. The 6-foot-2 ‘backer was second on the team with 90 tackles and third with 5.5 tackles for loss.
Besides Gallagher, though, Fitzgerald’s LB corps are anyone’s guess at the moment. Sophomore Mac Uihlein, the highest-rated inside linebacker to ever commit to Northwestern, should see the field after waiting in the wings for all of 2021.
Aside from Uihlein, Xander Mueller and Greyson Metz will likely battle for the third spot in the linebacker rotation (an aside: Michael Jansey Jr. is not currently listed on the team’s 2022 roster).
No matter who starts with Gallagher, the Wildcats’ linebacker room has its work carved out for it, as NU’s defense finished with a porous 61.6 overall Pro Football Focus grade – and no returning linebacker earned higher than a 64.8 grade.
3. How do Matt MacPherson and Ryan Smith distribute coaching responsibilities?
When Fitzgerald added Smith, the former Virginia Tech defensive passing game coordinator, to his staff, ‘Cats fans were ecstatic. Smith is known for bolstering secondaries no matter his landing stop as well as for being a premium recruiter.
Formally, Smith’s role is as Northwestern’s cornerbacks coach, which overlaps with MacPherson’s assignment to coach the team’s defensive backs.
In his four years developing DBs, MacPherson’s teaching culminated in a terrific 2020 season that featured a lockdown secondary with Greg Newsome II, Cam Ruiz, J.R. Pace, A.J. Hampton and Cameron Mitchell. However, Hampton, Mitchell and the rest of NU’s secondary were mightily inconsistent during 2021, as the ‘Cats finished 69th in the country in team pass efficiency defense.
Smith will presumably work more closely with Hampton, Mitchell and Rod Heard II, but a balance must be established between the two coaches, especially since all three players have experience learning under MacPherson. After all, a lack of defensive communication was one of many torpedoes that sank Northwestern’s 2021 season, and Fitzgerald cannot afford to have a shiny hire overshadow fundamental coaching and success.