It may be hard to believe, but Pat Fitzgerald officially begins Year 12 in charge of Northwestern’s football program Tuesday, as the Wildcats commence spring practice. And when better to start camp than on Feb. 21, when Chicago-area temperatures are in the 60s? (Seriously.)
The Wildcats hope to carry some momentum from their Pinstripe Bowl upset over Pitt in December, which lifted them to a 7-6 campaign. That came after a 10-win 2015 season, meaning the ‘Cats have reached postseason play in seven of the past nine years.
There is no shortage of questions this time of the year, especially for a team losing its best player on each side of the ball. So let’s look at the top questions facing Northwestern this spring.
5 Storylines to Watch in Northwestern’s Spring Practice
1. Who steps up in the middle of the defense with Anthony Walker gone?
Walker was a generational player for the Wildcats, as he became the first Northwestern player in 20 years to leave early for the draft after a 105-tackle season in 2016. The middle linebacker also fought through injury to force four fumbles, notch one interception, tally six quarterback hurries and record two sacks among his 10 tackles for a loss. Nate Hall figures to be the first guy to get a chance to fill Walker’s shoes in the middle, as the outside linebacker is coming off a 2016 that saw him tally 73 tackles — six for a loss — to go with a pair of QB hurries.
2. Where does the receiving production come from?
Austin Carr set Northwestern’s single-season receiving yards (1,247) record in 2016, and he tied for the single-season school record with receiving touchdowns (12). His 90 catches were the third-highest single-season mark in program history. Flynn Nagel, the team’s second-leading receiver in 2016, is back after a 40-catch, 447-yard, two-touchdown campaign. But the biggest addition to the receiving corps won’t be on campus until this summer, when Oregon graduate transfer Jalen Brown arrives after a 19-catch, 318-yard, three-TD season for the Ducks. Best of all, Brown has two years of eligibility remaining.
3. Clayton Thorson’s growth
Thorson is on pace to be the rarest of breeds in college football: A four-year starting quarterback. As a redshirt sophomore in 2016, Thorson became the fourth player in school history to throw for 3,000 yards in a season (3,182) and set a school single-season record with 22 TD passes. He already has a lot of football under his belt, and having a stabilizing presence under center is a luxury. Northwestern was an impressive fourth in the Big Ten last season in passing offense.
4. What does Justin Jackson do for an encore?
Jackson may be the king at making something out of nothing, and his 224 rushing yards in a Pinstripe Bowl MVP performance left viewers wondering if he might leap to the NFL early — something Jackson and Fitzgerald playfully discarded at the postgame press conference. Still, with Carr gone, other playmakers need to step up, or else the Wildcats risk relying too heavily on Jackson, who has three straight 1,000-yard rushing seasons.
5. Can the ‘Cats’ secondary capitalize once again?
Northwestern picked off 16 passes in 2016, tied for third in the Big Ten. And players accounting for 15 of those picks return in 2017, meaning this could be an opportunistic unit once again. Of course, so much goes into forcing turnovers, so it’s hard to predict these types of seasons. But with junior corner Montre Hartage (five picks in 2016), redshirt junior safety Jared McGee (three) and senior safety Godwin Igwebuike (two) all back, this secondary could be very, very difficult to make plays against. Igwebuike in particular is a star coming off a season that saw him lead the team in tackles (108) and break up seven passes — while also showing the ability to blow up plays in the backfield, with six TFLs.
Northwestern's Pre-Spring Outlook in the Big Ten
The Big Ten West is usually a crapshoot. You can typically pencil in Wisconsin as a reliable annual contender, and in any given year, Northwestern, Iowa or Nebraska is capable of making a run at the division crown, too — albeit rarely all in the same year. There’s no reason to think that the Wildcats can’t make a run in 2017, as they return a seasoned QB and a very talented defense. The biggest questions will be if the offensive line matures and if enough playmakers step up to take a load off of running back Justin Jackson. But with Purdue and Minnesota breaking in new head coaches and with Illinois very young, the Cats have to feel good about their place in the division pecking order — amid a crowded but vulnerable top half, all with a chance of breaking through and stealing the crown that has belonged to the Badgers in two of the past three years.
— Written by Matt Fortuna, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network and spent six seasons covering college football for ESPN.com. Fortuna’s work has been honored by the Football Writers Association of America (FWAA) and U.S. Basketball Writers Association (USBWA) seven times. Follow him on Twitter @Matt_Fortuna and like his Facebook page.