Every fall is a new beginning for every team. There are preseason expectations to meet and a season to prepare for. Everyone from coaches to players to fans are filled with a certain sense of optimism. Everything can and will go right when your team is 0-0.
And perhaps the thing to be most excited about is watching which players will step up and which newcomers will show up.
There is nothing quite like the rush of watching Xavier Washington and Anthony Walker break out on the field at Beaver Stadium in a monumental win for Pat Fitzgerald and Northwestern over Penn State a few years ago. And that Joe Gaziano hit against Michigan State for a safety last year was a coming out party for one of Northwestern’s key players this year. John Moten III did that too with three 100-yard rushing games last year as Justin Jackson’s backup.
Northwestern is not a traditional team when it comes to its freshmen. Most of the team’s recruits end up redshirting. Fitzgerald tends to recruit players who fit the team’s culture and give them a year to get used to the speed and strength of the college game.
Some players do break through. Jackson is the most notable. Clayton Thorson started as a true freshman and has not let go of the starting quarterback spot, gaining some early NFL buzz as a junior.
Inevitably someone new and someone young will step into the fray for Northwestern.
The Wildcats had their first practice in pads on Friday and are taking a day off before shipping out to Camp Kenosha. There, the depth chart will further differentiate itself and the Northwestern Wildcats will begin shedding their cocoon and becoming this year’s version of the team.
Inevitably some of those newcomers will emerge. Some of them may even emerge to replace some of last year’s key performers.
As camp continues, players will emerge. And that will continue to happen in the run up to the season opener against Nevada.
But we are in the prediction business and keeping an eye on what is going on. There will be someone fresh that comes in and changes the game for the Wildcats.
Here are a few newcomers to keep an eye on as camp continues and ships out to Kenosha:
LB Paddy Fisher (R-Fr.)
Northwestern needs someone to replace Anthony Walker at middle linebacker. And Nathan Hall is going to take a lot of that responsibility early on. So too will Brett Walsh. But they play at outside linebacker.
Paddy Fisher, the redshirt freshman from Katy, Texas, is getting a serious look to fill that void left from Walker’s departure for the NFL. The battle to replace him is down it appears to Fisher and the more experienced Nathan Fox.
Fisher was a three-star prospect out of Texas and won a few practice player of the week awards last year on defense and special teams during his redshirt freshman year. He has the speed it would seem to fill the void.
What he lacks right now is experience, but it is only a matter of time it seems before Fisher takes over. All signs point to it coming sooner rather than later. Fisher is going to see the field at some point this year. And probably in every game this upcoming season.
Fisher is probably the newcomer who will make the biggest impact this upcoming season.
DE Tommy Carnifax (R-Fr.)
Tommy Carnifax was one of the top recruits Northwestern signed two years ago. And everyone has seemingly been waiting for him to get on the field. Northwestern gave him the usual year to get accustomed to the college game considering their depth at defensive end last year.
Now Ifeadi Odenigbo is gone. As is C.J. Robbins. And Xavier Washington is still suspended indefinitely. There is a hole at defensive end right now.
Joe Gaziano will get one of those spots. He shined last year — see: video from Michigan State game. But the other spot is completely open.
It looks like Carnifax will get his opportunity there. He enrolled early so he has been a part of the Northwestern program for some time now. He should know what he is doing.
And Carnifax has the talent to hold it down.
The bad news with Carnifax is that he suffered an early camp injury. So the competition at defensive end is going to remain fairly wide open. It is safe to assume Carnifax will get his opportunity at some point this season.
OL Gunnar Vogel (R-Fr.)
Northwestern’s offensive line is another position group that seems to be up in the air in camp this year. Outside of Brad North, no one seems to have a position locked up on the offensive line. This is the group that gave up the most sacks in the Big Ten (although they did enough blocking to help Justin Jackson become the leading rusher in the Big Ten).
There are some experienced players along the offensive line who should step in. But Fitzgerald has essentially called the offensive line — especially at tackle — an open competition. He will be trying several different combinations all along the line until the first game.
That includes at least one freshman in Gunnar Vogel.
Vogel, a 6-foot-6, 285-pound lineman from Columbus, Ohio, was a three-star prospect coming out of high school. He was one of the big gets for Northwestern a few years ago.
He impressed all throughout last year in practice, winning the team’s practice player of the week in the prep for the Indiana game. that is a good place to start for a player with no playing experience.
Northwestern needs a few good offensive linemen to make up for some of the struggles last year. Clayton Thorson should hold up his end by getting rid of the ball a little quicker. Watch out for Vogel to take over this year — or soon.
WR Jalen Brown (transfer from Oregon)
This one is a bit of a cheat, but Northwestern picked up a transfer from Oregon this summer. Brown is eligible to play immediately this year.
He saw the field last year for the Ducks, and for parts of the last three years on special teams at least. Brown did not put up overly impressive or gaudy numbers, but his production was still solid. Last year he had 19 catches for 318 yards and three touchdowns. That is not too bad.
He is lining up with the starters for now and will be part of Northwestern’s rotation at wide receiver at the very least — although it looks like Flynn Nagel and Macan Wilson will be the top two guys.
Northwestern has some obvious holes at wide receiver this year. Austin Carr, the Big Ten’s leading receiver graduated, and Solomon Vault is out for the year with a lower body injury. And so there are a couple of promising new players who the team will need to step into those roles.
Brown is one of them. He has two years of eligibility left and can play this year since he is pursuing his Master’s degree. It is not yet clear what role he will play, but his experience should give him a leg up in preparation for the season.
WR Riley Lees (RS-Fr.)
Carr was such a dominant force at wide receiver last year, that it seems like every position is open. Yes, there are players with more experience and on-field presence while at Northwestern. The previously mentioned Flynn Nagel and Macan Wilson chief among them. Superback Ben Skowronek and Garrett Dickerson also figure to play a big role in the passing game.
But Northwestern is usually a team with multiple strong receivers. The Wildcats typically like to spread the ball around.
That is why some focus has shifted to Riley Lees. The redshirt freshman from Libertyville, Ill., was a three-star recruit and an all-state player according to the Chicago Tribune. He redshirted last season.
Lees has been getting some reps with the starters in practice, and it looks like he will be part of the receiver rotation too.
At 6-foot tall, Lees seems to be the heir apparent to Northwestern’s great tradition of slot receivers. He is probably the guy who will take a lot of those snaps from the slot.
Lees could also be in the mix to return punts for Northwestern with Vault out for the year.
The speedy receiver is going to be up and down, he is a freshman after all. But he should develop into a solid contributor. Someone who could make a difference this year.