Fewer than 75 days remain until Northwestern flies to Dublin, Ireland, to kick off its season against Nebraska on August 27. However, the ‘Cats are not completely ready to go yet. Pat Fitzgerald’s staff has ample questions to answer on both sides of the ball before August. Let’s dive into three of those.
Shoring up depth at safety
Losing Brandon Joseph to the transfer portal will undoubtedly hurt the Wildcats in the fall. But Northwestern will still have some experience on the back end. Coco Azema started next to Joseph throughout 2021, and his open-field tackling ability makes him one of the lone bright spots on a long-run defense that surrendered more rushing yards per game than any Power Five school besides Kansas, TCU, Stanford and Virginia.
Jaheem Joseph is currently projected as the second starter, and he should provide some help in coverage. The issue lies in deciding who will play behind those two. Without the former All-American, Northwestern doesn’t have enough versatility in its secondary personnel to move its corners around the field and deploy a greater variety of effective schemes.
Specifically, Jim O’Neil occasionally ran some Cover 1 with cornerback Cam Mitchell as the disguised center fielder. While it didn’t win games or even protect against the pass that well, it did alleviate Brandon Joseph’s load as the primary deep-field defender by giving him time to help Northwestern’s linebackers defend against the intermediate pass. Utilizing Azema in a similar role this year would allow him to showcase his physicality and strengthen the Wildcats’ front seven against the run.
But with less depth than last year, it will be much more difficult for O’Neil to move Mitchell and A.J. Hampton away from the outside to disguise different looks. Safeties such as Garner Wallace, Trent Carrington and others need to display great instincts in coverage during the preseason for NU to catch quarterbacks off-guard.
Finding an outside receiver to play opposite Bryce Kirtz
Malik Washington will likely be the most prolific receiver in Northwestern’s offense, but he mostly works out of the slot. That leaves Bryce Kirtz as NU’s primary outside receiving threat. Kirtz played well before suffering a season-ending non-contact injury last year, partially due to the defensive attention Stephon Robinson Jr. commanded on the other side of the field.
Robinson’s departure leaves a gaping hole in that area that could prove to be a huge problem for a passing game that isn’t very explosive to begin with. Not only can defenses key in on Kirtz, safeties can also shade farther inward to help limit Washington from wreaking havoc on linebackers in coverage. Fitz probably won’t find another Robinson in his receiver room before August, but he can find someone who can take pressure off his top targets.
Redshirt junior Genson Hooper-Price is projected to be that guy as of right now. Standing at 6’5”, he looks the part of a prototypical Z-receiver. But Hooper-Price has only caught one pass in his collegiate career. Northwestern has some options, though. Jacob Gill saw the field more than Hooper-Price did last year, and Wayne Dennis also offers a solid presence in the red zone.
Any of those three wideouts could step into a starting role, but none have proven themselves as significant contributors that will become a consistent target for whichever quarterback(s) they play next to. That, of course, brings us to the elephant in the room…
Picking the QB1
Ryan Hilinski emerged as the passing leader among NU’s quarterback committee in 2021, but he has not been announced as this year’s starter — a decision that likely won’t be made public until just before Dublin. Fitzgerald said in the spring that Brendan Sullivan was competing with Hilinski for the starting job, and that battle appears to be far from over.
All anyone can be sure of is that it would be unwise to rotate quarterbacks from game-to-game, as Fitz and Co. often did last season with Hilinski, Hunter Johnson and Andrew Marty. For Hilinski, the constant change seemed to limit him from establishing a consistent rapport with the first-team offense.
Whether the coaching staff goes with Hilinski or Sullivan, both quarterbacks are younger passers who would both benefit from uninterrupted periods of directing the starting offense. Thus, barring excessive in-season struggles — something that is definitely possible — Northwestern should make this decision before boarding the plane to Dublin. Failing to do so in 2021 prevented the offense from establishing momentum when the heart of its Big Ten schedule came around.