After winning the Big Ten West and appearing in the Big Ten Championship Game in 2018, the Northwestern Wildcats were expected to be contenders again in 2019. But an unfortunate slate of injuries, inconsistency and a slew of mistakes on the field prevented that from happening.
Northwestern ranked in the bottom half of most categories as they slogged through a 3-9 campaign. With spring football beginning this week, the Wildcats are rebuilding in the hopes of competing again in 2020. NU has plenty of work ahead of them and they have a lot of decisions to make.
5 Storylines to Watch During Northwestern's Spring Practice
1. Mike Bajakian takes over the play-calling duties
The former Boston College offensive coordinator now holds that same title at Northwestern. The previous offensive coordinator, Nick McCall, was fired in December after 12 seasons at the helm. In 2019, the Wildcats ranked 127th out of 130 FBS teams in both total offense (297.1 ypg) and scoring offense (16.3 ppg). In fact, the Wildcats finished in the bottom half of just about every offensive category during most of McCall's tenure.
Bajakian became available when Boston College fired Steve Addazio and his staff at the conclusion of last season. Not only does Bajakian have more Power 5 school experience than McCall, but he also has a more proven track record. Boston College led the ACC in rushing offense last season (267.8 ypg), good for sixth in the nation. Bajakian also won two MAC titles at Central Michigan (2007, '09) and two Big East championships at Cincinnati (2011-12). He's also worked extensively with quarterbacks. Bajakian will be tasked with delivering results right away.
2. It's a crowded quarterback room
Speaking of quarterbacks, Bajakian will have quite a few to work with this spring. The Wildcats will also have a tough decision to make at this position after they used four different signal-callers in 2019: TJ Green, Hunter Johnson, Aidan Smith, and Andrew Marty. Green suffered a season-ending foot injury in the season-opening loss at Stanford, Johnson — the famed Clemson transfer — missed six games due to a variety of bumps and bruises, and when all was said done, Smith and Marty were the only quarterbacks left standing.
Every team's offense starts and ends with the quarterback position, and Northwestern didn't get much offense out of their quarterbacks in 2019. In the end, these four players combined to complete just 156-of-312 attempts for 1,404 yards, six touchdowns, and 15 interceptions. NU signal-callers combined for an 84.5 quarterback rating, and they took 23 combined sacks. Not only are these four players back for 2020, they also have freshmen Zac Krause and Jason Whittaker on board as well. Quarterback is the biggest question mark for Northwestern this year.
3. Health and depth at running back
Drake Anderson (638 rushing yards, 3 touchdowns), Evan Hull (286, 4), Isaiah Bowser (204 yds., 3.5 ypc), and Jesse Brown (127 yards) all dealt with the injury bug last season. They're back for this year, but staying healthy will be key as running backs are very important in Bajakian's offense. John Moten IV (628 career rushing yards, 6 TDs) has graduated, but freshmen Marcus Cisco and Connor Newhouse add depth at the back end of this position. Bowser was expected to take the reigns after a spectacular 2018 campaign (866 rushing yards, 77 receiving yards, 6 total touchdowns), but his injury issues from 2019 will force him to compete for the job this year.
4. Who replaces Bennett Skowronek?
Injuries limited Skowronek to just 12 receptions for 141 yards in three games last season and effectively ended his tenure at Northwestern. He transferred to Notre Dame during the offseason, and now the Wildcats must replace his production (1,347 career receiving yards, 8 TDs). Riley Lees (91, 879, 7) is the most experienced receiver on the current roster. But the Wildcats will need to see bigger efforts from JJ Jefferson, Ramaud Chiaokhiao-Bowman, Berkeley Holman, Kyric McGowan, Jace James, and Malik Washington. Those six combined for 686 receiving yards and four TD catches last season.
5. The new recruits
During the early signing period in December, Northwestern signed what's being labeled as their best recruiting class in school history. All 16 players were ranked as three-star prospects or higher, with 10 coming on the defensive side of the ball. The Wildcats' defense can certainly use a boost. NU's defense ranked eighth in the Big Ten both in points (23.6), and yards (335.7) allowed per game in 2019. The defense spent a lot of time on the field due to the offensive struggles.
— 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.