As the 2023 season inches closer, Northwestern will have the difficult task of rising from the bottom of college football, recording a mere four wins in the last two seasons. Although the ‘Cats were 1-11 last season, it is quite possible that their roster is in a worse state than it was a year ago.
Since the Wildcats last took the field against the Illini, they have seen major losses on both sides of the ball. On the offensive side, NU lost both its receiving and rushing leaders this offseason: Evan Hull was drafted to the Indianapolis Colts and Malik Washington transferred to the University of Virginia. In addition, three-time All-American Peter Skoronski became the latest Wildcat o-lineman to be selected in the first round.
On the defensive front, star defensive lineman Adetomiwa Adebawore also departed Evanston for Indianapolis, while on the back end, Cam Mitchell rejoined former ‘Cat Greg Newsome II in Cleveland, and A.J. Hampton left Northwestern to spend his final season at Tulane.
With key contributors to the Wildcats no longer wearing purple, NU’s returning members have massive holes to fill, and their production so far has been less than inspiring.
The quarterback room is definitely one of the biggest concerns heading into the 2023 season because, to be frank, it has been horrendous since Peyton Ramsey in 2020. Northwestern had five QBs see game action last season, and the results ranged from okay to downright awful. NU has four signal callers back this season with Carl Richardson entering the transfer portal. The four QBs combined for an average 57.1% completion rate, 2,489, 10 touchdowns, 16 interceptions and an average of 47.2 PFF passing grade. With Ryan Hilinski sidelined due to a knee injury, Brendan Sullivan and Jack Lausch took a majority of the snaps this spring; however, Pat Fitzgerald and the coaching staff were not satisfied with their gunslingers, adding sixth-year Ben Bryant from Cincinnati to compete for the starting job.
For the QBs who return to Northwestern, their play can be described as sloppy at best. The ‘Cats’ signal callers often made questionable decisions with the football and failed to protect it. NU finished dead last among all FBS squads in turnover margin last season, having 19 more turnovers than the team created. In his four seasons as offensive coordinator, Mike Bajakian has failed to develop a quarterback into a long-term, viable option for the Wildcats, including two high-profile transfers. His only success was with a graduate transfer, so the team will try to recreate the magic with Bryant in 2023. Will it actually work? Only time will tell, but NU needs a resemblance of decent quarterback play to finish with more than one win in 2023.
With Evan Hull turning pro, Northwestern has a huge hole in its backfield. Hull racked up over 1600 all-purpose yards for 15th in the nation; however, the ‘Cats’ core of backs have shown flashes of production. Cam Porter, while only rushing for 284 in 2022, was NU’s leading rusher in 2020 before missing the entire 2021 season with a torn ACL. Now two years removed from the injury, Porter should resemble a version of himself that he showed in 2020. If No. 4 is able to get back to full strength, he will be the focal point of NU’s offense for 2023.
The other option for the Wildcats in 2023 is expected to be Anthony Tyus III. Tyus displayed glimpses of what makes him a special athlete in his second season in Evanston. Despite only having 56 yards in 2022, he has breakaway speed and good vision to find the open field. The rising junior will see many more meaningful snaps this season, and No. 7 would be my selection to be NU’s breakout player in 2023.
With top pass catcher Malik Washington heading to Virginia, the returning ‘Cats’ receivers have very little production to their names. NU’s current receiving corps combined for roughly 300 yards in 2022, leaving plenty of room for improvement this season. Under new position coach Armon Binns, Northwestern looked to the transfer portal to upgrade the position. The ‘Cats brought in Cameron Johnson and A.J. Henning as grad transfers but hope they’re crops of wideouts to take the leap forward and be contributing factors to the 2023 season.
Northwestern brings back solid production from the tight end room. Both Marshall Lang and Thomas Gordon will see plenty of snaps this season, especially with NU’s lack of viable receiver options. The Wildcats should spend most of their offensive series in 12 personnel, using both tight ends as solid pass-catching threats for Bryant. If both tight ends can stay healthy, the Wildcats will have two productive options for both detached and attached sets.
There is about zero production returning on the offensive line from 2022. Northwestern will have four, or maybe even a full five, new starters from week 0 in 2022. With Josh Priebe coming off a knee injury, the only Wildcat who played meaningful snaps on the O-Line last season was Caleb Tiernan, who struggled in his first season as a starter. On the interior, NU will have three new starters this season, all with minuscule experience at the collegiate level. This group is inexperienced and is definitely one of the biggest concerns entering 2023.
The defensive line is another group that returns very little production from the 2022 season, albeit the little production that even occurred in the ‘Cats’ 1-11 campaign. The Wildcats lost multiple d-linemen to the transfer portal after 2022, so the group has a multitude of unproven talent heading into 2023. Only Najee Story saw action in every game in 2022 inside the trenches, but his numbers are nothing to write home about, earning 15 tackles and zero sacks last season. Carmine Bastone and Brendan Flakes also saw game action last season but were non-contributors on an already awful Wildcats’ defense. It is unclear who will be starting for NU this season, including two new transfers who joined the squad after spring practice.
This group is slightly better than its interior counterparts, but still severely lacks the talent to be a threat to opponents’ passing attacks. With Adebawore leaving Evanston for the NFL, the ‘Cats will need their edge rushers to take a massive leap forward this season. The Wildcats will rely on Sean McLaughlin, Najee Story and Aidan Hubbard to get after the quarterback, yet none of those three have shown a consistent ability to wreak havoc. The group combined for just three sacks and four quarterback hits. Northwestern needs to desperately improve in this area if it wants to get back to its winning ways; otherwise, it will be a slog to survive the Big Ten.
The Wildcats return a multitude of talent at the linebacker position this season. Third-Team All-Big Ten honoree, and NU’s leading tackler, Bryce Gallagher will lead the ‘Cats’ defense as the mike linebacker for his senior season. Gallagher will be joined the middle by Northwestern’s second-leading tackler Xander Mueller. While Gallagher and Mueller struggled in pass coverage, Greyson Metz registered a 75.5 PFF pass coverage grade, and will only improve before his senior campaign. Add in Mac Uihlein off the bench, and the linebacker room is one of the better groups on the Wildcats’ roster.
With Hampton and Mitchell no longer Wildcats, NU will have fresh faces in its secondary. Northwestern will use a slew of unproven corners this season under new position coach LaMarcus Hicks. I expect NU will use Garnett Hollis Jr., Ore Adeyi and Theran Johnson as its main rotation. Johnson saw snaps in every game of 2022, allowing 58.3% of passes to be completed and gave up two touchdowns but did have two pass breakups. Hollis played in nearly two-thirds of the ‘Cats’ game, garnering one interception and two pass breakups. With both of its top corners gone, Northwestern will need each member of the secondary to take a huge leap forward to halt the explosive offenses of the Big Ten (minus Iowa).
By far the position with the most production in 2022, Northwestern has three safeties who are primed for success in 2023. Rod Heard II, Jeremiah Lewis and a healthy Coco Azema will be the backbone of David Braun’s defense this season. Lewis played the most snaps of any Wildcat defender in 2022 with 823, and Heard was not far behind him, finishing with the third most snaps at 745. Both spent the year bouncing all over the field, moving from slot corners to extra linebackers at time. Azema, on the other hand, was sidelined for most of 2022 with a lower leg injury but should be a major contributor for NU in 2023, if he can remain healthy.
Northwestern will need every member of the team to take a huge step forward to avoid another dismal campaign, but if the past results are any indication, NU does not have the talent needed to compete with the other Big Ten teams. For the ‘Cats to have a successful season, they will need to outperform the expectations.