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Entering 2023, Northwestern Football still has more questions than answers

As the rest of college football makes improvements, it is eerily quiet inside the Walter Athletics Center.

Wisconsin v Northwestern Photo by Michael Reaves/Getty Images

After the worst season in the last three decades and back-to-back years of the worst records since Pat Fitzgerald took over the program, a massive overhaul was needed in Evanston. The ‘Cats were the lowest-scoring power five team and scored more points in their one game in August than in four games in November. As loyal as he is, Fitz realized that changes needed to be made when he relieved Defensive Coordinator Jim O’Neil, Defensive Line Coach Marty Long, and Wide Receiver Coach Dennis Springer of their duties. However, since those announcements, it has been silent from the Walter Athletics Center.

Since Fitzgerald announced his staff changes, 24 schools have hired new head coaches, including three in the Big Ten West alone, and have filled their staffs out. As the coaching carousel is in full swing, it begs the question, what is Fitzgerald waiting for? There seems to be zero urgency coming out of the football office. For a team that has not won a game on American soil in 446 days, NU seems to be in no hurry to show their fans and opponents that they are making the necessary changes to be competitive in the Big Ten. Could this long, drawn-out search mean that Fitzgerald did not plan on making any staff changes, but was forced to by Dr. Gragg or Pat Ryan, leaving NU behind in a search? If that is the case, Fitz needs to explain himself, because everyone who watched a moment of this season could see that changes needed to happen.

I, for one, am hoping that Northwestern is in negotiations with Jim Leonhard and Ryan has dug deep into his pockets, but the realistic chance of the former Wisconsin Interim HC joining the Wildcats is slim. Unless Fitz is going to go back to the NFL pool or is waiting for Georgia’s defensive line coach Tray Scott to finish the season, there is no reason that a new defensive coordinator shouldn’t be prepping the ‘Cats’ defense for 2023. Northwestern’s defense was not good this past season and has already lost its top run stuffer and pass rusher, as well as its two starting corners. If there is a time when the ‘Cats need to find a spark and a scheme that will get the best out of this team, it is right now.

Furthermore, not having a defensive coordinator has hurt the Wildcats in recruiting. To all of Jim O’Neil’s struggles, recruits said that his pitch on how to get them to the NFL convinced them to come to Northwestern. Without a defensive coordinator, recruits do not know what type of scheme they will be playing in, making it difficult to get commitments. Also, without position coaches, it is challenging for recruits to build relationships with the coach they will interact with every day. As Northwestern lost two four-star edge rushers after this season, the sluggishness of bringing in new coaches has already put NU at a disadvantage for the class of 2024. Fitz does not seem in any rush to bring in new staff members, but the program desperately needs an outside voice to come in and shake things up. Just like Chris Lowery came in and helped turn the men’s basketball team into one of the best defensive teams in the nation, a defensive coordinator who has no prior affiliation with Northwestern is vital, not only as a fresh voice for Fitzgerald, but to give a jolt of energy into a struggling program. Fitzgerald is known to value his connections, but an outside voice could go a long way in not only turning the program around, but saving Fitz’s job.

On the other side of the football, Northwestern has done nothing to improve an already abysmal offense. The ‘Cats have lost their top two weapons and their stalwart blind side tackle of the 2022 season. Even with Evan Hull, who was 13th in the nation in all-purpose yards, Northwestern offense was predictable and lacked creativity. Mike Bajakian’s inside run-heavy scheme left the ‘Cats in many third-and-longs. After watching Bajakian fail to develop multiple quarterbacks and lead NU to the worst power five offense of 2022, what has he shown to keep his job that O’Neil did not? Or, did Fitzgerald prevent Bajakian from calling a game as he wanted to? Bajakian has not shown a reason to keep his job for the incoming season, yet Northwestern continues the status quo on offense. This conservative style does not work if you can’t score double digits or have your defense hold the opponent to less than 21.

As Hull, Washington, Navarro, and Skoronski have all moved on from the program, Northwestern has not made any moves to replenish the roster. With the utmost respect to Jacob Gill and Bryce Kirtz, neither of them have shown that they are ready to become a true number-one receiver. As college football evolves and the transfer portal becomes vital to any program, Northwestern needs to embrace the portal, as the rest of their Big Ten opponents have, if they want any chance to compete in the conference.

The Wildcats have yet to land a single transfer for the 2023 season, the only Big Ten team without one. It would be one thing if most starters are returning on a bowl-eligible team, but this was a 1-11 team that is losing four of its week 0 starting o-lineman, two top receivers, and a running back who was the second best pass catcher on the team. Fitz said on National Signing Day that, “We’re going to start with high school players. We’re not going to build this any other way.” However, it is incredulous to think that an 18-year-old will be ready to play at a high level compared to a transfer who has done it already. There is a gap between high school and the colligate level, and these young guys need time to develop to be adequate on the field. If players are not brought in from the portal, the ‘Cats are setting themselves up for failure. As many Northwestern players headed for the portal after the season, the Wildcats will need to bring in enough players to replenish what they lost.

Whether Fitz likes it or not, the transfer portal has become a prominent feature of college football, and the teams that compete for conference championships use the portal to improve their teams. Every team in the Big Ten West has made moves to improve their teams instantly, yet Northwestern has only gotten worse in the offseason. Development is great if proven you can develop talent. The system that Fitzgerald built to become the winningest coach in NU history worked for the first 15 years he was at the helm, but as college football rapidly evolves, the program has failed to keep up. I still firmly believe that Pat Fitzgerald is the right coach for Northwestern and no one can do what he has done in Evanston; however, his stubbornness and inability to evolve is now costing the program wins.