Every year Northwestern awards the No. 1 jersey to a unique player.
It goes tot he hardest worker on the team. The player who best emobides the “Wildcat Way” and is the example for everyone else on the team. A leader, if not by captain, than in deed.
It has typically gone to a workhorse former walk on. Someone who rarely sees the field except for special teams.
Except last year. The 2016 season saw the No. 1 jersey go to Anthony Walker, the heart and soul of Northwestern’s defense and a future NFL Draft pick.
Who will wear the No. 1 jersey this year is not clear. In all likelihood it will go back to a workhorse player — although Justin Jackson and Godwin Igwebuike will get due consideration. That symbolic measure was a statement of who is the heart for the team.
Northwestern has to replace its heart this coming season. The Wildcats will need to find a player who can fill those large shoes from Anthony Walker.
But this is still a talented team with plenty players who are ready to step up to the plate. With key players back at several skill positions, the Wildcats believe this can be a very special season.
Here are five players that will be critical to Northwestern making this a successful year.
Justin Jackson, Sr., RB
Everything for Northwestern’s offense begins and ends with Justin Jackson. The “bell-cow” back Pat Fitzgerald has always sought, Jackson has been a workhorse for three years for the Wildcats. He rushed for 1,524 yards and 15 touchdowns on 298 carries. Northwestern gave him the ball first, second and, most of the time, third.
Northwestern has long sought to find a running back to spell him so the team can limit his carries and touches. The Wildcats consistently cannot find it. And Jackson does not care. He seemes to get strong the more carries he gets and the deeper into the game he goes.
He has increased his rushing yards in each season of his career. His senior year might become his magnum opus. Every team knows he is getting the ball. No one has been able to stop him in three years.
Godwin Igwebuike, Sr., S
If Anthony Walker was the heart of Northwestern’s defense, Godwin Igwebuike was some other important organ. With Walker gone, Igwebuike will step into that leadership role on the defensive side. And Igwebuike has the production and skill to match.
He tallied a team-high 108 tackles, playing a linebacker style at safety. He could fly into the backfield and cover passes. As part of Northwestern’s sure tackling scheme, Igwebuike is about as sure as they come.
There is no more important player for the Wildcats on defense. It would not be surprising to see him creep into the box more to try to replicate some of what Walker did because Igwebuike is a skilled tackler. But the Wildcats will not want to lose his stellar pass defense. He tracks the ball well. He very much would be a strong spiritual successor, even as a safety.
Clayton Thorson, Jr., QB
Every team needs a good quarterback if they are going to be serious as a contender. And the growth Clayton Thorson showed last year was very promising.
After spending most of his freshman year with handcuffs on him — the team played a super conservative style and kept his throws very simple — Thorson slowly began to emerge as a sophomore. He nearly doubled his passing production, throwing for 3,182 yards and 22 touchdowns against nine interceptions. It was a strong year.
And Thorson looked like he could make all the throws, including some very difficult ones. It is no wonder Thorson is getting some early NFL buzz. The Wildcats need and expect Thorson to continue making progress and improve his game as he takes some leadership reign over this offense. The whole playbook should be open.
Nate Hall, Sr., LB
Godwin Igwebuike will take on a lot of the leadership role, but Northwestern will still need sure tackling at linebacker. That will fall to senior linebacker Nate Hall. Hall will likely fill in that middle linebacker role left open by Anthony Walker’s departure.
Hall recorded 73 tackles and 6.0 tackles for a loss, matching Iwebuike in that category. Hall does not have the ball hawking skills or range Walker does, but he is a sure tackler and capable of making plays.
For sure, Northwestern has a lot of questions in its front seven with the departure of two stellar players in Walker and Ifeadi Odenigbo. Hall will not bring the pass rushing element, but he should be able to anchor the defense fine.
Kyle Queiro, Sr., CB
Northwestern has very quietly built a solid group of cornerbacks, adding tons of depth and (accidentally) some experience. The Wildcats faced some injuries last year to experienced veterans and the secondary was stretched thin. This year, it should be a strength.
It starts with the experience Kyle Queiro gained last year. He recorded 53 tackles, two interceptions and six pass breakups. That included the sick falling back one-handed pick against Indiana.
Queiro is more than just those flashy plays. And he will need to be. Northwestern has relied on stellar cornerback play the last few years as a big part of the defense. The Wildcats will rely on an experienced and talented secondary again this year.