Northwestern finished tied for fourth in the Big Ten West last season, but the Wildcats could challenge for the top spot thanks to a mix of experience and depth. The offense will be led by one of the conference’s better backfields and a veteran offensive line, but some reliable targets will need to emerge. The defense has the potential to open some eyes, but that’s only if some dependable linebackers emerge to support a deep front and back end. Northwestern’s schedule isn’t that daunting, so this could be the season Pat Fitzgerald’s team takes a step or two forward in the division standings.
Previewing Northwestern Football’s Offense for 2017
Northwestern’s coaches are both bullish on why the offense can become more dynamic and blunt about why the unit could struggle. The skill position pieces appear to be in place, especially at running back, but if things don’t improve up front, it will be a slog. “We’ve got to be more consistent,” coach Pat Fitzgerald says. “We have to have competitive depth. Two years ago, we had that and we won 10 games. Last year, we didn’t have that, and it was painfully obvious at times.”
Guard Tommy Doles will lead the group, and Fitzgerald is hoping for steadier play from left tackle Blake Hance and center Brad North. The line can create rushing lanes — Northwestern rushed for 526 yards and eight touchdowns in its final two games of 2016 — but must improve substantially in protection after allowing 39 sacks last season and 102 over the past three seasons.
Northwestern features one of the nation’s more underrated backfields in Justin Jackson, who soon will become the school’s all-time leading rusher, and Clayton Thorson, 17–9 as the team’s starting quarterback. Wide receiver once again is a question after the departure of Biletnikoff Award finalist Austin Carr, but superback (Northwestern’s version of tight end) Garrett Dickerson should contend for All-Big Ten honors. Oregon transfer Jalen Brown could spark an offense that has produced only 85 completions of 20 yards or longer since 2014, third fewest among Power 5 teams.
Previewing Northwestern Football’s Defense for 2017
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Northwestern should remain a defense-driven team, as both the line and secondary are arguably the deepest in Fitzgerald’s tenure. A series of medical retirements at linebacker could result in Northwestern using a 4-2-5 base alignment, which it featured frequently in recent years.
“We’ve got a lot coming back,” Fitzgerald says. “We’ve got to identify our best 11 and then some.”
The line goes two and often three deep at every position. Veterans Tyler Lancaster and Jordan Thompson lead arguably the best group of tackles in Fitzgerald’s tenure. The coaches like the edge-rushing speed of Xavier Washington, Joe Gaziano and redshirt freshman Mark Gooden, who stood out in the spring.
Northwestern doesn’t lack playmakers in the back end. Cornerback Montre Hartage returns after recording five interceptions in 2016, and veteran safeties Godwin Igwebuike, Kyle Queiro and Jared McGee combined for seven interceptions last fall. The Wildcats also regain cornerback Keith Watkins II from injury. “He’s an All-Big Ten-level player,” Fitzgerald says.
Previewing Northwestern Football’s Specialists for 2017
Veteran punter Hunter Niswander returns after averaging 41.3 yards per punt last season. Dynamic kickoff returner Solomon Vault suffered a lower-body injury and was ruled out for the year in May. Fitzgerald lost confidence in the team’s placekicking last season — a league-low 12 field goal attempts — and needs new blood there, likely Mason Weissenhofer or incoming freshman Charlie Kuhbander.
After recording multiple 10-win seasons and multiple bowl wins since 2012, Northwestern now hopes to contend in the Big Ten West. The return of 15 starters and a fairly favorable schedule (no Ohio State nor Michigan) suggests that this is the season to make a move. But a larger indicator, according to Fitzgerald, is how many starters will be pushed or displaced by others. Northwestern must show it can handle inevitable injuries as well as underperforming play better than it did early last season.
Consecutive games against West Division winner Wisconsin (road) and league champion Penn State (home) on Sept. 30 and Oct. 7 should show whether Northwestern is for real or not.