Many Big Ten teams ended 2020 wanting to press delete and start over. Northwestern emerged from a delayed and difficult season feeling revitalized and emboldened. The Wildcats won their second division title in three years, made overdue changes to spark a dormant offense and wiped away a 3–9 clunker in 2019 — a clear outlier for a program with four Top 25 finishes since 2015. They finished No. 10 in both polls under Pat Fitzgerald, who again spurned NFL interest and signed a new 10-year contract with his alma mater.
"We're in an amazing place as a program," Fitzgerald says. "We just have to eliminate the step backward like we had in '19."
Northwestern is facing pressing personnel challenges after key departures. Arguably the best defense in team history (15.9 ppg allowed) must replace top players at all three levels, as well as coordinator Mike Hankwitz, who retired after 51 years in coaching. A new quarterback takes over after Peyton Ramsey stabilized the position last fall, and Northwestern seeks more explosive plays from a unit that couldn't deliver in the Big Ten Championship Game.
Previewing Northwestern's Offense for 2021
Play-caller Mike Bajakian brought new ideas in his first season, as well as improved red zone efficiency. He now must find the chunk plays that have eluded Northwestern for years, even last season, when the offense averaged just 4.79 yards per play (110th nationally). Running back Cam Porter's late-season emergence is a key building block, as he and third-year sophomore Evan Hull — who has averaged 7.0 yards per rush in his career — form a tandem that can threaten defenses.
The offensive line continues to ascend under coach Kurt Anderson, overcoming the opt-out of first-round NFL draft pick Rashawn Slater in 2020. Left tackle Peter Skoronski stepped in for Slater as a true freshman and projects as Northwestern's next great lineman. There's experience up front, with center Sam Gerak and guard Ethan Wiederkehr. A tight end position Bajakian loves to feature retains seniors Charlie Mangieri and Trey Pugh.
After Ramsey rescued what had been the nation's worst quarterback room, Northwestern again could turn to a transfer in Ryan Hilinski, who started for South Carolina as a true freshman in 2019 and boasts a big-time arm. Senior Andrew Marty and Hunter Johnson, the one-time Clemson quarterback and top QB prospect in 2017 per ESPN, provide other options for Bajakian. Wide receiver is the group that needs the biggest boost, especially after losing Ramaud Chiaokhiao-Bowman. Fitzgerald likes the field-stretching potential of his young wideouts, namely Bryce Kirtz and Berkeley Holman. Northwestern also regains JJ Jefferson, a 2020 opt-out, and adds Kansas transfer Stephon Robinson Jr. (75 career receptions, 14.6 ypr average).
Previewing Northwestern's Defense for 2021
Jim O'Neil was a somewhat surprising choice to replace Hankwitz, but Fitzgerald had targeted the longtime NFL coach (and former Northwestern graduate assistant) for years. O'Neil's task is to enhance an already-strong unit, which excelled in the red zone and with takeaways but could improve in blitzes and other areas. The defensive line once again projects well. Junior Adetomiwa Adebawore could be a breakout pass rusher, and veteran Samdup Miller (35 career starts) returns after opting out in 2020. Joe Spivak, Trevor Kent, Jordan Butler and others solidify the interior.
The secondary has benefited more from Northwestern's improved recruiting than any other area. Although shutdown cornerback Greg Newsome II will be missed, All-America safety Brandon Joseph (six interceptions in 2020) is back, and cornerback Cameron Mitchell might be the group's next superstar. The safety spot alongside Joseph is worth watching, but Northwestern is strong throughout the two-deep.
The Wildcats lose two talented and prolific linebackers in Paddy Fisher and Blake Gallagher, but Chris Bergin, the third member of the "Irish Law Firm," is back for a fifth year. Fitzgerald is encouraged by Peter McIntyre and Bryce Gallagher (Blake's younger brother).
Previewing Northwestern's Specialists for 2021
Fitzgerald prioritizes reliability in the kicking game and should get it with Charlie Kuhbander (37 career field goals) and punter Derek Adams (289 career punts, 42-yard average). Northwestern loses sure-handed kickoff returners Riley Lees and Kyric McGowan but could get a jolt with new options like Coco Azema and Robinson, both of whom have kickoff experience. Kirtz and Jefferson are among those who could factor as punt returners.
A return to Indianapolis seems unlikely with so much personnel turnover, but Northwestern always should be a factor in the Big Ten West. Recruiting is improving, and Northwestern is producing first-day draft picks for the first time in the Fitzgerald era. If the Wildcats find an answer at quarterback and develop a downfield passing game, they won't over-stress their defense. The transition from Hankwitz to O'Neil will be fascinating, as will a new-look LB corps. Northwestern misses Ohio State and Penn State on the schedule and should start strong before a defining midseason stretch of Michigan (road), Minnesota (home), Iowa (home) and Wisconsin (road).
National Ranking: 47
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(Brandon Joseph photo courtesy of nusports.com)