The 2014 college football season starts on Aug. 27 and continues into mid-January with the first edition of the four-team playoff. Athlon Sports is counting down until kickoff with projections and previews for all 128 FBS teams. Here is our team preview for No. 51 Northwestern.
Previewing Northwestern’s Offense for 2014:
After two years with a two-quarterback system and a run-oriented attack, Northwestern likely will return to its pass-first roots under coordinator Mick McCall. Trevor Siemian put to rest any questions about a quarterback competition with an impressive spring. He boasts a plus arm and has been productive when healthy.
If protected, Siemian should capitalize on Northwestern’s depth at the wide receiver and superback (tight end/H-back) positions. Veterans Tony Jones and Christian Jones return at wideout, and Rutgers transfer Miles Shuler is a prototype slot receiver who can stretch defenses with his speed. Kyle Prater is finally healthy and provides size on the perimeter, and top superback Dan Vitale has star potential after recording 62 receptions in his first two seasons.
Although the offense should have a passing lean, it also looks strong at running back, especially with Venric Mark returning after an injury-plagued 2013 season. Mark eclipsed 1,300 rushing yards in 2012, and despite his size provides a between-the-tackles threat. Treyvon Green is a solid backup, and Warren Long and Stephen Buckley both will push for carries.
The depth at the skill positions won’t matter if the line doesn’t dramatically improve. Competition ramped up at several positions in the spring. Other than center Brandon Vitabile and tackle Paul Jorgensen, no spot is safe. Northwestern had its lowest third-down conversion percentage (39.9) since 2006 and must get back to moving the chains.
Previewing Northwestern’s Defense for 2014:
Seven starters return on a unit that repeatedly put Northwestern in position to win last season. “We were five plays away from winning five more games,” coordinator Mike Hankwitz says. “We’ve just got to make those plays.” Takeaways could be a hallmark for the defense, especially a secondary featuring more depth than any in coach Pat Fitzgerald’s tenure. Senior safety Ibraheim Campbell is the headliner of the secondary, but Northwestern will be able to go two or three deep at every position as several redshirt freshmen, including safeties Godwin Igwebuike and Kyle Queiro, enter the mix.
Two veteran playmakers return at linebacker in Chi Chi Ariguzo and Collin Ellis, who has moved from the strong side to the middle. They combined for seven interceptions and 184 tackles last season.
Offseason surgeries hit the defensive line hard, creating some question marks entering the fall. The pass rush should be strong with ends Dean Lowry, Deonte Gibson and Ifeadi Odenigbo. Defensive tackle was a weak point a year ago, and Northwestern needs Sean McEvilly to stay healthy and C.J. Robbins to build on his strong finish. Opponents ran at the middle of the Wildcats’ defense too easily in 2013.
Previewing Northwestern’s Specialists for 2014:
The Wildcats lose a huge piece in the kicking game in Jeff Budzien, the Big Ten’s top placekicker each of the past two years, but they also regain a weapon in Mark, an All-America punt returner in 2012. Northwestern needs Arthur Omilian or Hunter Niswander to show poise and Chris Gradone to stabilize a shaky punting situation.
The good vibes accompanying Northwestern for much of Fitzgerald’s tenure vanished after the program’s first bowl-less season since 2007, but Northwestern returns a roster strong enough to return to the postseason and play spoiler in a wide-open Big Ten West. The offense finally has a quarterback and an identity, but questions remain up front. The defense is still reliant on takeaways but boasts good depth throughout the unit.
Northwestern plays Notre Dame, Northern Illinois and Cal in non-league play but misses both Ohio State and Michigan State in the Big Ten. The Wildcats should return to the postseason in 2014.