The Northwestern Wildcats'2020 football season was certainly memorable. Their success on the field, despite the COVID-19 pandemic, may have changed the program's fortunes for the better. They completely surpassed the misfortunes of the 2019 season, claimed their second Big Ten West Division championship, made their second appearance in the Big Ten title game, won their fourth consecutive bowl game (a program first), posted one of the best records in program history, and finished 10th in the AP Top 25 (fourth highest ranking ever).
In the end, Pat Fitzgerald became the winningest coach in program history. And as a result, he was rewarded with a 10-year contract extension. But the program is undergoing some changes this offseason. And because of those changes, Fitzgerald will need to lean on some new talent to get his team back to Indianapolis. Here are some newcomers to Evanston to watch this coming season.
Defensive Coordinator Jim O'Neil
He replaces the retired Mike Hankwitz and brings quite the resume with him. He has 20 years of both NFL and collegiate experience under his belt. Among his more notable jobs; From 2009 to '12, he was a defensive assistant with the New York Jets who reached back-to-back AFC Championship Games ('09-'10). In the first of his two seasons as the defensive coordinator with the Cleveland Browns ('14), they were second in the league in interceptions (21). The following year, the Browns were 10th in the AFC in takeaways (21).
O'Neil spent the previous three seasons ('18-'20) with the Oakland/Las Vegas Raiders as a defensive assistant and later the defensive backs coach. The Cats will have some talent to replace on this side of the ball, but it'll be interesting to see what this unit will look like once O'Neil's scheme is implemented.
Ryan Hilinski, QB
The Wildcats' quarterback room is set to get more crowded. At first, it appeared as if Hunter Johnson and Andrew Marty were the front-runners to replace Peyton Ramsey in '21. But now, Hilinski will throw his name into the mix after transferring from South Carolina. In two seasons with the Gamecocks (13 games), Hilinski completed 58.3 percent of his throws for 2,391 yards and 11 touchdowns.
He only appeared in two games for South Carolina last season and decided to transfer following the firing of head coach Will Muschamp. Hilinski is looking for a fresh start in Evanston, where we could see yet another QB competition. He has a big arm, and he's looking to flourish under the watchful eye of offensive coordinator Mike Bajakian just as Ramsey did.
Jeremy Meiser, DL
This transfer comes to Evanston after not playing at Old Dominion last season. But during his first three seasons for the Monarchs, Meiser recorded 64 tackles, 11.5 TFLs, and 0.5 sacks. He'll bring much-needed depth to a defensive line that will be saying goodbye to Earnest Brown IV (18.5 career TFLs, 7 career sacks), Joe Spivak (23 tackles, also served as goal-line fullback), and Jake Saunders (30 career tackles). I wonder if Meiser would be willing to line up at fullback in those goal-line packages as Spivak did.
CJ Johnson II and Jordan Mosley, WRs
With Ramaud Chiaokhaio-Bowman, Riley Lees, and Kyric McGowan all departing the program, Fitzgerald and Bajakian will look for these pass catchers to step in right away. Mosley (four-star recruit) and Johnson (three-star) are both versatile athletes. Johnson was a quarterback, defensive back, and returner in addition to playing wide receiver for French Camp Academy in Mississippi. Meanwhile, Mosley ran track for McGill Toolen High School in Alabama when he wasn't on the football field. Both offer appealing skill sets that can potentially help add new elements to Northwestern's offense.
Mac Uihlein, LB
Fitzgerald stayed local in looking for his potential replacement for longtime stalwart Paddy Fisher. Uihlein went to nearby Lake Forest High School, and he turned down Iowa, Minnesota, and Nebraska in deciding to play for his hometown Wildcats. Uihlein is a four-star recruit — the 13th-highest-ranked signee in program history (per 247Sports), the 18th-ranked prospect in Illinois, and No. 29 nationally among inside linebackers. Uihlein has recorded 50 or more tackles in each of his last two seasons at Lake Forest and was an All-North Suburban Conference honoree.
— 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 can also be heard on WGN Radio. Follow him on Twitter @GabeSalgado82.