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Northwestern Wildcats Spring Football 2017 Preview: Building the base

Clayton Thorson, Northwestern Wildcats, Western Michigan Broncos

The Northwestern Wildcats enter the 2017 season with a lot of expectation to match last year’s bowl win and establish a firmer base to grow and compete.

Northwestern football treasures its successes.

Fans speak reverently of the 1995 Rose Bowl team and the 1996 Citrus Bowl team that followed. And of course, they speak reverently of the team’s current coach and star linebacker of those teams in Pat Fitzgerald.

Fitzgerald has cemented his legacy, not only as Northwestern’s greatest linebacker perhaps but also as the team’s all-time winningest coach. He has brought Northwestern to unforeseen levels. The school is nearly finished with its on-campus practice facility. Things are looking up for Northwestern.

The question with the Wildcats is always going from one success to the next.

When Northwestern won the Gator Bowl in 2012 and had many of their key players returning with the attendant hype, the team fell flat. The Wildcats lost that big game against the Buckeyes and could not recover, winning just twice in the Big Ten, missing out on a bowl game altogether. After winning 10 games in 2015, the Wildcats lost their first two games to Western Michigan and Illinois State, struggling to get to six wins and bowl eligibility.

That proved worth it as the Wildcats defeated Pitt in the Pinstripe Bowl. That provided a ton of optimism for what will come in 2017. But the Wildcats still have to match their success. And that has been the problem.

Will Northwestern build some momentum from last season’s bowl win into a stronger season this year? Can the Wildcats compete for a Big Ten West title and take a step forward to consistency?

By all accounts, Northwestern will have the skill players to do it. Clayton Thorson had a breakout sophomore season, turning former walk-on Austin Carr into a star. Justin Jackson is back after three consecutive 1,000-yard rushing seasons. And the defense is still loaded with talent despite losing Anthony Walker to the draft, the first Northwestern underclassmen to declare for the draft since 1996.

There is a lot to get excited about when it comes to Northwestern. And a lot of hope the team can build on its foundation from last year.

The question is whether Northwestern can finally string successful seasons together again.

Spring Football Starting Date: Feb. 21
Spring Football “Game”: April 2 (it is an open practice and not a formal game)

Key Returning Players: QB Clayton Thorson; RB Justin Jackson; WR Solomon Vault; S Godwin Igwebuike; LB Nate Hall; S Kyle Queiro
Key Losses: LB Anthony Walker, Jr.; DE Ifeadi Odenigbo; CB Matthew Harris; WR Austin Carr; WR Andrew Scanlan; G Conner Mahoney

Offensive To-Do List

Sort out the wide receivers: Clayton Thorson was a bit of an offensive revelation last year, suddenly becoming one of the Big Ten’s top passers. A lot of those yards went to Biletnikoff Award Finalist Austin Carr and to bruising wide receiver Andrew Scanlan. Both seniors are now gone and the Wildcats have to find someone to step up in the receiving corps. Converted running back Solomon Vault will play a role. As will the speedy Flynn Nagel. But Northwestern’s offense needs that grinder in the slot to keep possession over the middle. The Wildcats have to find someone to step into that role, whether it is superback Garrett Dickerson or someone else.

Shore up the offensive line: While Northwestern did a good job running the ball and passing it at times, the offensive line had its share of struggles. The offensive line did not perform well, according to Football Outsiders, ranking 68th in adjusted Line Yards (essentially a measure of whether the offensive line controls the three yards from the line of scrimmage) and 102nd in standard down yard lines (essentially how well the offensive line kept teams ahead of the chains). Northwestern had to dig itself out of some holes. And when the Wildcats struggled, they struggled because the offensive line did not give Thorson time to throw.

–Get Justin Jackson some rest: Justin Jackson is a workhorse. He averaged 22.9 carries per game for the Wildcats last year. It is not that Jackson cannot carry that load. He is more than capable of doing so. But there is always the injury risk that seems around the corner. Northwestern would like to lighten his load so he can bruise defenses later in games. The Wildcats thought they had a solid cadre of backs last year until Warren Long broke his hand in the second game of the season. Long is now converted to linebacker thanks to the emergence of youngster John Moten IV. Another running back, Solomon Vault, is now a wide receiver. That leaves Auston Anderson and Moten to take the mantle behind Jackson. Both had flashes of brilliance last year, but someone needs to help lighten Jackson’s load.

Defensive To-Do List

–Find a leader: Northwestern honors its hardest working player with the No. 1 jersey every year. It usually goes to a walk on or hard-working scraper who plays only special teams. Last year it went to Northwestern’s best player — Anthony Walker. That was a deeply symbolic gesture and showed just how much Walker’s presence meant to the team. He did save several plays and games by his sheer effort. That is going to be tough to replace. Northwestern will need to find leadership on defense to replace that hole, specifically at linebacker. The Wildcats should turn to Godwin Igwebuike in the secondary.

–Replace the pass rush: Northwestern got a surprise boost on its pass rush from Ifeadi Odenigbo’s sudden emergence as a sack-producing fiend. The Wildcats always knew he had that kind of potential, it just never materialized. His three-game run to start Big Ten season was as strong as anything Northwestern has seen. But the Wildcats’ pass rush generally struggled out side of that. Northwestern’s pressure was inconsistent. And the Wildcats will need to get a better pass rush this year. Look for Xavier Washington to step into that role. He has been quiet since a breakout performance against Penn State two years ago.

–Stay healthy in the secondary: More than anything else, Northwestern has struggled to stay healthy on defense. The team has a ton of talent, but something always hits it hard. And the Wildcats are not exactly the deepest team in the country. Last year, injuries hit the team hard. Getting a healthy spring would be a good start to building cohesion to have another stellar defensive season. Last year, Keith Watkins, Kyle Queiro and Matthew Harris all missed time. That gave a lot of players in the secondary some valuable experience like Trae Williams and Montrage Hartage. If everyone stays healthy, this secondary could be a special group.

Philip Rossman-Reich is a Northwestern alumnus and former contributor Lake The Posts. He also writes for Orlando Magic Daily and The Step Back.

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