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Northwestern Football: 2018 Wildcats Preview and Prediction

Clayton Thorson, Northwestern Football

Clayton Thorson, Northwestern Football

Northwestern is coming off of a 10-win season but must replace the program's all-time leading rusher and hope its quarterback can come back quickly from a serious knee injury. The defense could take another step forward, especially if its star players can stay healthy. The Wildcats will be tested but if all of the pieces come together, Pat Fitzgerald's teams could be a surprise contender in the Big Ten West Division.

Previewing Northwestern Football's Offense for 2018

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Rutgers Football/Big Ten Magazine

Northwestern hopes a veteran-laden line and more competitive depth at the skill positions will offset the loss of a program great and the uncertainty surrounding quarterback Clayton Thorson's health. Coming off of an ACL tear in Northwestern's bowl game, Thorson hopes to return for the Aug. 30 opener at Purdue. But the team has been preparing three others to play: junior TJ Green, sophomore Aidan Smith and redshirt freshman Andrew Marty.

"We've thrown a lot at them, a ton at them, and we have not backed off of any of it," offensive coordinator Mick McCall says. "Are they still making mistakes? Absolutely. But it's not so much that we have to back off. We've got to go under the assumption that [Thorson doesn't play]. We think he's going to [play], but I don't know."

Pat Fitzgerald's team knows it will be without all-time leading rusher Justin Jackson. Jeremy Larkin averaged 6.0 yards per carry as Jackson's backup in 2017, and he brings a big-play threat to a backfield that has lacked it at times. Wide receiver is gradually becoming a solid group, as top targets Bennett Skowronek and Flynn Nagel both return.

Fitzgerald challenged an underperforming offensive line before and during the 2017 season, and after he got solid results down the stretch, expectations are high for a group that returns four starters, including promising sophomore tackle Rashawn Slater.

Previewing Northwestern Football's Defense for 2018

There's star power in this unit as Northwestern boasts All-Big Ten candidates at all three levels of the defense. Junior Joe Gaziano and sophomore Samdup Miller form one of the nation's best young pass-rushing tandems after combining for 14.5 sacks and 16 quarterback hurries last fall. Although space-eater Tyler Lancaster will be missed, senior Jordan Thompson leads a deep group of tackles hoping to maintain Northwestern's excellence against the run.

Depth at linebacker isn't ideal, but Paddy Fisher and Nate Hall both should be among the league's best. Fisher's four forced fumbles tied for the Big Ten lead, while Hall led Northwestern with 16.5 tackles for a loss to go with two interceptions and 5.0 sacks. Along with Blake Gallagher and Nathan Fox, Northwestern has four proven options but needs others to emerge.

Cornerback Montre Hartage enters his third season as a starter and is on the radar of NFL teams. He leads a secondary that must replace two talented safeties. The return of several players from injury (juniors Trae Williams, Alonzo Mayo and Roderick Campbell are healthy) can help.

Previewing Northwestern Football's Specialists for 2018

The Wildcats found their placekicker in sophomore Charlie Kuhbander, who now needs to extend his range (only two of his 13 field goals last fall were beyond 39 yards). A new punter is needed, but Northwestern gets a big boost with the return of kick returner Solomon Vault from injury. Vault has four career kick return touchdowns. WKU graduate transfer Jake Collins could be the answer at punter after joining the team following spring practice.

Final Analysis

With 27 wins in the last three seasons and a new lakefront facility, Northwestern clearly has momentum. Keeping it likely depends on Thorson, who, if healthy, can take the Wildcats a long way. But his uncertain status and key losses at running back, safety and defensive tackle increase the degree of difficulty. Northwestern needs line play to excel and for its star power on defense to shine again. Although the schedule is tough, Northwestern misses both Ohio State and Penn State and gets almost all of its marquee opponents at home.

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National Ranking: 46

Big Ten West Prediction: 4