Football season is back at Ryan Fieldhouse as the ‘Cats finished Week Two of spring practices. After finishing with a horrid 1-11 record last season, Northwestern brought in five new coaches, including new defensive coordinator David Braun. However, the Wildcats suffered massive losses across all positions. With Peter Skoronski, Adetomiwa Adebawore, Evan Hull and Cam Mitchell entering the draft, along with Malik Washington and A.J. Hampton transferring to other schools, the ‘Cats have many holes to fill before their season opener against Rutgers on Sept. 2. When a team is 1-11, every position has room for improvement — but here are three position battles to watch this spring.
An old saying goes, “if you have two quarterbacks, you have no quarterbacks.” And when five quarterbacks play in a single season, there is a high chance that no one had the starting gig locked up. Heading into the spring, it appears to be a three-man race between Brendan Sullivan, Ryan Hilinski and Jack Lausch.
Sullivan, who appears to be the favorite at the opening of camp, took over as the ‘Cats’ QB1 midway through the 2022 season. The rising junior was a solid dual-threat quarterback and showed flashes of becoming a good quarterback for the Wildcats; however, his durability has been questionable. Sullivan left the game against Ohio State late in the fourth quarter, and after returning against Minnesota the following week, he was again injured before the half and missed the rest of the season. Although his stats are nothing to gawk at, No. 6 continued to show improvement in decision-making throughout the season. He played turnover-free football for his last eight quarters and made a handful of plays that made jaws drop against the Buckeyes.
While his sophomore season showed promise of what he could become, there are still multiple questions regarding Sullivan. Although he is a fantastic runner, his development in his ability to deliver the ball from the pocket is imperative for him to become a competent Big Ten quarterback. Sullivan only played roughly four games worth of quarters this past season and only finished three games all the way through as the starter, so the question about whether he can sustain success across 12 games is still unanswered. Furthermore, Sullivan’s style of play puts him in harm’s way, as he took multiple big shots throughout a game. Sullivan struggled to make it through four games as the starter, so if he can stay healthy to play all 12 has a major asterisk next to it. At the end of the day, I do believe he will be under center in Piscataway on Labor Day Weekend.
While it would be a major surprise to anyone who follows this team, Pat Fitzgerald did not rule out Ryan Hilinski reclaiming the starting job. Hilinski, who went into the 2022 season as the starter, was benched five games into the season. Despite playing fantastic in Ireland, Hilinski was unable to build on his 300-yard performance in the rest of his starts. The junior was careless with the football, racking up 12 turnovers in his five games at the helm. He struggled to misdirect defenders and often put the ball in dangerous situations.
Hilinski did replace the injured Sullivan against the Buckeyes and the Gophers, but he too would leave the Minnesota game early, being carted off with a serious knee injury. While still not being cleared to practice, Fitz said that the rising senior has been working his tail off to get better and back on the field. While it would catch most of us off guard, Hilinski could find himself back as QB1 if he makes the leap Northwestern has been hoping for.
Finally, the dark horse of the race is Lausch. The first-year saw action in the final game against Illinois but otherwise, his first year was a developmental one. While Lausch was expected to play both baseball and football, he decided to spend his spring working to be the ‘Cats’ signal caller. Fitz had high praise for the young quarterback, who was named the Chicago Sun-Times Player of the Year his senior season of high school. Lausch is definitely the most unknown member of the quarterback room, but maybe he is the answer the ‘Cats are looking for.
Every quarterback needs playmakers, and right now the Wildcats do not know who is going to be on the outside to haul in passes. The ‘Cats lost their top three pass catchers this season; Malik Washington transferred to Virginia, while Evan Hull and Donny Navarro III declared for the NFL draft. The leading receiver in the NU locker room is Bryce Kirtz, who only had 212 yards last season and no touchdowns. No other Northwestern wideout broke 100 yards last season. Seeing the room was underperforming, Fitz relieved long-time receivers coach Dennis Springer and hired Armon Binns, bringing the former NFL player to Evanston.
With the position group leaders departing, the starting WR spots are wide open. Trying to fill the void, Northwestern brought in transfer Camron Johnson. Johnson, a 6-foot-1 sixth-year, played four years at Vanderbilt before transferring to Arizona State for the 2022 season. He lead the Commodores in receiving yards with 545 in 2020. I would expect to see him secure one of the starting positions by the summer.
On the other side, there are multiple receivers trying to secure a starting spot. Both Kirtz and Jacob Gill look to earn the nod for their senior season. Gill did haul in a touchdown against the Nittany Lions but otherwise did not contribute to NU’s offense. Another name to watch is Preston Bacon, who did not play in 2022 but received high admiration from Fitzgerald. NU also has a trio of sophomores in Jasper Stratton, Calvin Johnson Jr. and Donnie Gray who look to see their first collegiate action.
This is the most concerning one for Northwestern. After a disappointing season up front, long-term DL coach Marty Long was let go and the position group went through a large transition this offseason. Adebawore declared for the NFL Draft and is likely to be taken by the end of Day Two, and the ‘Cats lost multiple members of the group to the transfer portal or graduation. First-year Austin Firestone, who was expected to be a cornerstone in the trenches for three years, headed south to the University of Missouri. Expect Sean McLaughlin to be a mainstay this year, with Najee Story and Adrian Hubbard mixed in. It is also possible for incoming first-year Michael Kilbane, a four-star edge rusher, to see the field earlier than expected. Also, expect the Wildcats to add more experienced D-linemen to the roster when the transfer portal reopens on May 1.