The Northwestern Wildcats made one of the biggest changes with their program in quite some time shortly after their season ended. On Sunday, Dec. 1 it was announced that Nick McCall would not return as offensive coordinator. This ends McCall's tenure after 12 seasons, one that has seen both success and rough patches. McCall was first hired in 2008 to continue the Wildcats' use of the spread offense under head coach Pat Fitzgerald, who has been at the helm since 2006. And there is no doubt that Northwestern has seen some of its best football during that stretch.
The Wildcats went 89-67 with McCall running the offense. There were only four losing campaigns during this span (2011, '13, '14, '19), and the team posted three 10-win seasons (2012, '15, '17) and last year when they won the Big Ten West Divison title for the first time in school history. Northwestern also made nine bowl game appearances (4-5 record in those games) and won three straight bowl games from 2016-18.
But the Wildcats struggled mightily on offense this season, as the team finished 3-9, its worst record during Fitzgerald's 14-year tenure. Northwestern finished the regular season ranked 126th out of 130 FBS teams in total offense (297.1 ypg) and 127th in scoring offense (16.3 ppg). At second to last in the scoring offense in the Big Ten, it was the worst showing for a Wildcats offense since landing dead last (14th) in 2015, albeit at 19.5 points per game. And that season, Northwestern finished higher on the FBS leaderboard (114th) compared to 2019 as well.
McCall's version of the spread offense was based more on possession and sustained drives compared to quick-strike plays and temp. After falling flat in defense of their Big Ten West title, it makes sense for Fitzgerald to shake things up with his coaching staff as the Wildcats start the process of moving on from a disappointing season.
Whoever Fitzgerald brings in, he'll have plenty of work ahead of him. One of the first steps will probably be to assess current personnel. It didn't help Northwestern's efforts that the Wildcats were forced to deal with a merry-go-round at quarterback, a revolving door at running back, and a lack of production from the wide receivers. Players who were being counted on entering the season were either injured, largely ineffective, or a combination of the two. There were some pleasant surprises along the way from those farther down the depth chart, but those types of performances were few and far between.
In many respects, Northwestern is starting over on offense and will do so with a new offensive coordinator. Here are four specific qualities that Fitzgerald must look for in identifying McCall's successor.
1. Someone with a proven track record
While McCall wasn't a total stranger to college football, his only Power 5 experience prior to Northwestern was at Oregon State. His other stops were at Bowling Green, Wyoming, and FCS Idaho State. If the Wildcats want to truly reach the championship level that they aspire to reach, they need to jumpstart this offense. Perhaps they should look at someone with experience within the Power 5. Considering the type of defenses that Northwestern plays on a regular basis, they need a play-caller that's coached against these same defenses.
2. Someone with a more efficient scheme
Being able to crack the nation's top 40 in scoring will go a long way in getting the Wildcats to the next level. In order to do that their next coordinator should employ an offense that moves the ball quickly, averages more than the 3.9 yards per play produced in 2019, scores points regularly, and maximizes the abilities of the players within said system. Northwestern's offense has been predictable at times, their next offense should have a degree of unpredictability.
3. Someone that can help recruit players to better fit the new offensive system
Before Pat Fitzgerald, three-star recruits at Northwestern were few and far between. Under Fitzgerald, three-star players are becoming commonplace. Being able to land four- and five-star athletes, however, is a must for this program moving forward. So not only does the next coordinator need to have that edge to recruit, they must also make sure that the players will fit the system. There have been questions from time to time as to whether or not the players under Fitzgerald fit the spread system that McCall was running.
4. Spread or no spread?
This will be the first question that Fitzgerald must answer before he begins his search. Does he want to continue employing some of the spread or does he want to shake things up? I'd personally like to see a playbook with more pro-style elements to it. Maybe even a hybrid package would serve the Wildcats better.
— Gabe Salgado is part of the Athlon Contributor Network. He's also written for NBC, Fox, The Sporting News, The Sports Journal, The Undefeated and Complex. He's a co-host of The Rewind Sports: 60. Follow him on Twitter @GabeSalgado82.