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You can read the entire Northwestern preview in Athlon Sports' 2012 Big Ten magazine, available for purchase now at the Athlon Sports store.
COLLEGE FOOTBALL PRESEASON TOP 25
Big Ten Legends PREDICTION
HEAD COACH: Pat Fitzgerald, 40-36 (6 years) | OFF. COORDINATOR: Mick McCall | DEF. COORDINATOR: Mike Hankwitz
The unit once again should be the team’s strength even though several familiar names are gone. Northwestern has recruited well at wide receiver and offensive line, and both groups will need to make progress for the team to win games in 2012. Quarterback Dan Persa’s presence will be missed, but Kain Colter earned valuable experience in 2011 and will be a full-time signal-caller this fall. Colter is the team’s best athlete and a potentially explosive threat in the spread system if he can show greater consistency as a passer and convert the high-percentage throws that drive the offense.
Northwestern is loaded at receiver and should go at least seven deep, providing Colter with a variety of weapons in the passing game. Senior Demetrius Fields and sophomore Christian Jones both move to the inside spots, and Northwestern likely will use more four- and five-wideout sets because of its depth.
The running back spot has declined during coach Pat Fitzgerald’s tenure, and Northwestern needs someone to emerge as a featured ball-carrier, possibly incoming freshman Malin Jones. Three starters return up front, but Northwestern needs to build more depth and do a better job of protecting the passer after surrendering 42 sacks in 2011.
After losing the best players from a lousy unit, Northwestern is pinning its hopes on a younger and potentially more talented crop that will need to blossom in a hurry. It starts up front with a line that recorded a league-low 17 sacks in 2011. Hopes are high for junior end Tyler Scott to anchor the pass rush, while tackle Brian Arnfelt and end Quentin Williams provide leadership.
All three starters return at linebacker, but Northwestern needs more playmaking from David Nwabuisi, Damien Proby and Collin Ellis, who showed flashes of promise when healthy in 2011. The coaches like the athleticism of younger linebackers like Chi Chi Ariguzo.
Safety Ibraheim Campbell is only a third-year sophomore, but he’ll be counted on to lead a secondary that struggled mightily in 2011 and loses three starters, including first-team All-Big Ten safety Brian Peters. Northwestern needs several mostly unproven defensive backs to emerge, including redshirt freshman cornerback Nick VanHoose. Opponents will go right after this group, and the Wildcats need to eliminate breakdowns.
Everyone is back, but Fitzgerald wants more consistency from the kicking game. Junior kicker Jeff Budzien should see increased opportunities after attempting only 10 field goals in 2011. Third-year starter Brandon Williams will handle the punting duties, and Northwestern expects bigger things from return specialist Venric Mark, who must make strides after a so-so sophomore season.
Northwestern has reached a team-record four consecutive bowl games but also has seen its win total drop in each of the past three seasons. Has the team lost momentum? Fitzgerald doesn’t believe so, but he’ll need a young and potentially more talented roster to grow up in a hurry this fall.
The offense has had a nice run of success and a potential superstar in Colter at quarterback. But Northwestern must rectify its issues at running back and see its strong recruiting at offensive line start paying off. The defense has been a major liability for the past year-and-a-half, and if young players don’t make strides and start making plays, it could be a rough season.
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