After reviewing every 2022 position group, we’ve brought some of our staffers together to discuss where Northwestern football’s strengths and weaknesses will lie. Here’s which squads we think will provide the most benefit and detriment to the outcome of the ‘Cats’ upcoming season:
Best position group
Sarah Effress: Secondary
Now I actually agree with everyone else in that the RB room is indefinitely the strongest, but in the name of variety, I’ve picked the 2022 secondary as Fitz’s alternate best position group. I know this is a hot take, but the reality is, Brandon Joseph didn’t show the entirety of his talents last season, likely due in part to the stagnant nature of the defense in general. But, leaders like AJ Hampton Jr. and Coco Azema rose to the top and managed to hold the secondary somewhat together. Hampton ended up second in the Big Ten in passes defended and third in fumbles recovered, while Azema landed seventh for fumbles caused. No, they didn’t perform up to par last season, but with rising upperclassmen Jaheem Joseph and the experienced Cam Mitchell yearning to break through, we could see the secondary inch closer to its former glory.
Gavin Dorsey: Running backs
Among a roster with many deficiencies, the running back group is absolutely loaded. The squad gets back Cam Porter, who showed just how great he could be at the end of the 2020 season, from an ACL injury that ended his sophomore campaign before it started. Pending the health of his knee, Porter should be the workhorse that powers the offense, regardless of the situation under center. Beyond him, the position has incredible depth. Evan Hull was a small bright spot on an abysmal offense last year with his 1,000-yard season, and the unit also returns graduate student Andrew Clair and Anthony Tyus III. Even if Porter doesn’t return to full health, the depth behind him should help keep the offense afloat.
John Olsen: Running backs
I second everything Gavin has said above. This is the only position group on the team I’d classify as Big Ten Champion-caliber due to its top-end talent and depth. It’s nice knowing that even if the guy who was your primary option out of the backfield in the Citrus Bowl two seasons ago isn’t fully healthy, this unit is going to produce. Ultimately, the running backs might be held back by issues at the positions around them, but that shouldn’t, and won’t, impact my evaluation of them.
Bradley Locker: Running backs
It’s no coincidence that the first four writers have gone with the same choice. Northwestern’s running back room is unequivocally the most talented and deepest position group on the roster, rivaling the skill it had with Cam Porter, Drake Anderson, Isaiah Bowser and Evan Hull in 2020. With Hull and Porter slated to earn the majority of snaps, Andrew Clair slots in well as a bruising third-down back, and Pat Fitzgerald seemed highly impressed by the spring that sophomore Tre Tyus had. That doesn’t even account for newcomer Joseph Himon III, the reigning Arkansas Player of the Year. This room is so good that extremely valuable backs might struggle to earn carries.
Ignacio Dowling: Running backs
I would love to be creative here but there really is no other answer to this question. Evan Hull had poor run-blocking in front of him plus negative game script most of the time and still rushed for 1,000 yards last year. And he may not even be Northwestern’s top option out of the backfield in 2022 if Cam Porter is healthy! There are some other position units that each have a star player, but take their top options away and many severely lack in depth. You can’t say that about this group after watching Hull, Andrew Clair and Tre Tyus all thrive in their roles last year.
Ben Chasen: Running backs
Glad we’ve all avoided any manufactured controversy here. This running back room is set up to be absolutely lethal should it be provided ample offensive line support, as the ‘Cats return a 1,000-yard rusher in Evan Hull, a player I believed to be a future All-American before his season-ending training camp injury in Cam Porter, and two support backs with big burst potential in Anthony Tyus and Andrew Clair. Add in the addition of first-year Joseph Himon, who scampered his way across Arkansas en route to becoming the state’s Gatorade Player of the Year, and you’ve got a fearsome unit that — again, with some help from Peter Skoronski and company on the offensive line — could wreak havoc across the Big Ten even if NU lacks a threatening passing attack.
Worst position group
Sarah Effress: Quarterbacks
Given that we’ve only seen one of our quarterback options play on a college field and his performance was not entirely that great, undoubtedly the team’s most important room leaves the most questions to be answered. Rumor has it Hilinski was not supposed to play last year at all, but Hunter Johnson and Andrew Marty didn’t cut it, so he suited up. There’s not much to say yet about Brendan Sullivan either, so until we see one of them suit up in Dublin, it’s a waiting game.
Gavin Dorsey: Linebackers
What was probably the best position group on the team just two years ago has fallen into the worst. After the graduations of Paddy Fisher, Blake Gallagher, and now Chris Bergin, the unit has almost no depth and certainly appears to be the thinnest heading into the season. Bryce Gallagher got significant time last season, logging 90 total tackles, but was less than impressive and now will likely have to take over the Mike spot. Among other projected starters are Greyson Metz, who has three tackles to his name, and Wendell Davis Jr, who had 22 tackles last year for Pittsburgh.
John Olsen: Quarterbacks
My answer here could’ve gone a number of different ways, which says something about the current state of this program, but I settled on the signal-callers because no quarterback on the roster inspires me with confidence heading into this season. I can pick out at least one name everywhere else that I think should be starting for a competitive Big Ten team, but not here. Ryan Hilinski has a strong arm, but his immobility, both in and out of the pocket, and tendency to miss simple throws are too great of problems for me to ever trust him. I don’t know what Brendan Sullivan can do, considering he’s not played a snap of collegiate football yet, but given Mike Bajakian’s track record with developing quarterbacks here, I can’t imagine him being much better than Hilinski. I hope I’m wrong about at least one of these guys, as this team is only going to go as far as the man under center can take them, but there’s just no evidence that indicates I will be.
Bradley Locker: Quarterbacks
I was considering offensive line, defensive line and safety, but those three position groups all offer a player of at least solid quality. For those under center, however, that is not the case. In his first year in Evanston, Ryan Hilinski had a wholly disappointing season; while he may not have had a real chance to settle into a new program and a new offensive scheme, the gunslinger displayed inconsistent accuracy and effectively no mobility. With Hilinski at the helm, Northwestern’s offense never seemed to establish any sort of rhythm or groove. Redshirt freshman Brendan Sullivan has buzz growing around him, but he is yet to play a snap in the collegiate ranks. Backup veteran options Carl Richardson and Cole Freeman don’t move the needle, either, while first-year Jack Lausch isn’t likely to see any meaningful time in 2022. Northwestern must establish some level of decency at QB to avoid repeating the cataclysms it faced in 2021.
Ignacio Dowling: Quarterbacks
None of the five options in the QB room have proven themselves as a capable starter, which makes this an easy choice. Ryan Hilinski should at least slightly improve if he is named the starter, given he has now spent a full year learning Mike Bajakian’s offense. But echoing John and Bradley, I do think his immobility and inconsistency as a precision passer are issues that will hinder Northwestern’s offense. Outside of Hilinski, there just isn’t enough experience among Brendan Sullivan, Carl Richardson, Cole Freeman and Jack Lausch to feel remotely confident about the group going into 2022.
Ben Chasen: Linebackers
As Gavin mentioned, the ‘Cats haven’t had much luck in finding replacements for the superb trio known affectionately as the Irish Law Firm, and while I was more bullish than he on Bryce Gallagher’s 2021 campaign — I saw steady strides forward in his play throughout his sophomore season — there isn’t anyone in the entire LB room that has established himself as a reliable and forceful college starter. Now, the same could be said of the quarterback position, but, as other writers have also mentioned, it seems unlikely that Ryan Hilinski will win the starting job if he fails to at least present some modest improvement from a season ago. With that in mind, I could totally envision the linebackers not only not improving upon their play in 2021, but actually regressing in the absence of Chris Bergin. With additions like Wendell Davis Jr., I think they will likely avoid that fate, but, nonetheless, I see them as NU’s weakest link heading into the year.