The pandemic-shortened 2020college football season was one of the most memorable years in Northwestern Wildcats history. While it was a fun ride, it's now time to move ahead to 2021. NU has plenty of potential and promise heading into this season, but the 'Cats will have to adjust to changes for both the coaching staff and the roster. Northwestern is projected to contend in the Big Ten again, but the regular season is still six months away.
Before they can even think about another possible trip to Indianapolis, spring workouts come first. Northwestern began its spring practices in Evanston this week, and the hope is they'll be able to complete this year's spring session. Last year's workouts were cut short, as the COVID-19 pandemic was in it's early days. But thanks to advances in both testing and contact tracing, NU should be able to get their practices in unless there's an outbreak within the program. They did a pretty good job of avoiding COVID issues last season.
This team does have some adjustments to make, and the spring session will give them ample opportunities to do that. Here is what the program will most likely be focusing on over these next few weeks.
5 Storylines to Watch During Northwestern's Spring Practices
1. Year two of the Mike Bajakian offense
There's no question that Northwestern's new play-caller made a significant difference for this team. Bajakian's pro-style/spread hybrid scheme gave the Wildcats a sense of unpredictability, which made it difficult for opposing defenses to game plan for. Through the use of Bajakian's playbook, the Wildcats offense ranked in the Big Ten's top 10 in total offense, passing offense, and scoring offense. This happened despite the fact that the team had limited time to learn the playbook and a year after finishing among the two worst teams in the conference in all three categories.
This time, however, the Wildcats will have the time they need to fully learn the X's and O's of Bajakian's scheme. This will be especially helpful for the new players that will be joining the team. I think it's safe to say that you can expect to see even more improvement from Northwestern's offense this fall.
2. Year one of the Jim O'Neil defense
This will actually be the second go-round for O'Neil in Evanston, but this time he takes over as defensive coordinator. He replaces the retired Mike Hankwitz. O'Neil has 20 years of coaching experience at both the collegiate NFL levels, including as a graduate assistant for Northwestern under Randy Walker (2003-04). This will be O'Neil's third defensive coordinator position, but this will be his first time coordinating a college defense. His credentials, however, speak for themselves.
The Wildcats defense will be undergoing a scheme change for the first time since 2008. And O'Neil will have a tough act to follow seeing as how the Wildcats in Hankwitz's final year finished as the nation's fifth-best scoring defense (15.9 ppg), the Big Ten's top pass defense (195.3 ypg), and the conference's fourth-best total defense (341.2 ypg). The 'Cats were also second in the league in interceptions (14), fifth in sacks (14), and third in forced fumbles (9). O'Neil will have the added challenge of breaking in some new players at a handful of positions.
3. Another quarterback carousel
With Peyton Ramsey gone, the Wildcats will be looking for yet another starting quarterback. Initially, Hunter Johnson and Andrew Marty were believed to be the front runners for the job. But now South Carolina transfer Ryan Hilinski is in the mix, so it looks like we'll have another position battle on our hands. All three men hope to thrive under Bajakian's coaching just as Ramsey did last season.
4. Looking for the next go-to wide receiver
With Ramaud Chiaokhaio-Bowman, Riley Lees, and Kyric McGowan all moving onto the next phase of their lives, Northwestern will be losing three of their top four receivers from last season. To give you an idea of how significant these losses are, all three men accounted for 1,088 of Ramsey's 1,733 passing yards and seven of Ramsey's 12 touchdown passes. The team has high hopes for a pair of new recruits in CJ Johnson II and Jordan Mosley, but other players also need to step up in the passing game. Look for someone to potentially emerge as the next great NU receiver during spring workouts.
5. Changes at linebacker
Blake Gallagher and Paddy Fisher will be the biggest losses on the defensive side. Replacing their production (a combined 733 tackles, 46 TFLs, 4.0 sacks, 9 interceptions) will be a whole lot easier said than done. Chris Bergin finished third on the team in tackles last season and decided to return as a "super senior," taking advantage of the extra year of eligibility due to the COVID-19 pandemic. He will likely anchor the unit with Bryce Gallagher, Blake's younger brother, also expected to take on a bigger role. The coaching staff also is very high on Mac Uihlein, one of the highest-ranked signees in program history. The linebacker position is the heart and soul of this Wildcat defense, and if they can find the right group to start in 2021, NU's defense will be a force to be reckoned with again.
— 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.
(Top photo courtesy of nusports.com)