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Northwestern Wildcats Football Preview: A look at the 2016 Offense

Northwestern was a study in how not to play offense during the 2015 season, yet the horrific stats and lack of point production didn’t hurt much as the team still won 10 games. With some of the parts changing on both sides of the ball, the hope has to be for more balance.

Can the changes on offense help make that happen? With a schedule featuring games against Michigan State and Ohio State as two of the three cross-over games, Northwestern is going to have to find some balance or find themselves in deeper trouble than they did last season.

Let’s take a look at what this offense looks like and if it could give the balance needed for the 2016 season.

 

Quarterback

One thing is clear for the 2016 season at Northwestern — sophomore quarterback Clayton Thorson has to show he can complete passes down the field or this team is in deep trouble.

Some will argue that the coaching staff had the handcuffs on Thorson, hoping to simplify the offense and limit the potential for mistakes last season, and that may well be true. But, if that was the case then this team is in some serious trouble, because Thorson couldn’t even handle the basics effectively last season.

He finished the year completing barely 50 percent of his passes and threw for more interceptions (9) than touchdowns (7). As a result the offense ranked 124th nationally in offensive efficiency.

The good news is that it seems the handcuffs are off and Thorson has become more than a glorified running back with an ability to throw the football at times. If the improvement that coaches say has happened in practice translates to on the field production, look for Northwestern to improve dramatically on the stat sheet.

Should Thorson not make it through the season healthy or is continually ineffective, look for the keys to the offense to be turned over to junior Matt Alviti, whom Thorson beat out for the starting job last season.

Running Back

Just how far has Northwestern gone in closing the talent gap on the rest of the Big Ten? Try having arguably the best running back in the conference at your disposal.

The Wildcats will have Justin Jackson back for a third season, and the good news is that there really wasn’t a sophomore slump last year. Jackson rushed for 1,418 yards and leads all returning running backs in yards and yards per game heading in to the 2016 season.

However, Jackson and the offense as whole had issues putting the ball in the end zone, as he put up just five rushing touchdowns on the season. Expect that to change this year, with more balance up front and hopefully an expanded passing game to keep defenses honest.

What will be interesting if if this team can stop relying so heavily on Jackson, who averaged 24 carries a game last season. More is needed from senior backup Warren Long, while there is an intriguing sophomore named Auston Anderson to help provide depth.

The staff likes the depth at running back so much that Solomon Vault is moving to wide receiver this season.

Wide Receiver/Superback

While a lot of people focus on the bad numbers from Thorson at quarterback last season, a closer look suggests he didn’t get a whole lot of help from the wide receiver group in 2015 either. The good news is that this group has been cleaned out due to graduation and has some big parts returning after missing action last year.

The name most will be watching is junior Marcus McShepard, as he transitions from the defensive backfield to the offensive side of the ball. His speed and size is something intriguing to the coaching staff and may be the answer to the badly needed deep threat on offense.

Also making a switch to help increase the athleticism of this offense is former running back Solomon Vault, who fits in well as the expected slot receiver. There’s also the returning Flynn Nagel, who missed almost all of last season and could form a dangerous 1-2 punch with Vault if they can get on the field at the same time.

Senior Austin Carr leads all returning receivers, but had just 16 catches for 302 yards and two touchdowns last season and will need to show way more this season to retain that lead.

The worry comes at the “Superback” position, with veteran Dan Vitale graduated and leaving a big hole to fill. Junior Garrett Dickerson has been an intriguing athlete at the position and it could be his time to shine.

Offensive Line

If there isn’t a position of worry for the Wildcats, it has to be the offensive line. Four returning starters will do that for you. With a rushing attack that saw Justin Jackson nearly reach the pinnacle of the Big Ten rushing stats last season it is clear that run blocking is this group’s strength.

However, this group didn’t impress greatly at pass protection, and the inconsistency there led to NU ranking 11th in the Big Ten with 29 sacks given up. The hope is that the experience gained last season by a group that has six players returning with starts translates to improved production.

Leading the way for this group is right tackle Eric Olson, who has 22 career starts to lead all returning players. Joining him on the right side of the line is likely senior Ian Park, who split time as a starter last season with Shane Mertz, but appears to have won the job outright in the offseason.

Sophomore Blake Hance will anchor the backside of the line at left tackle after making eight starts along the line last season. Next to him will be senior Connor Mahoney, who made six starts last year.

Center will be occupied by junior Brad North, who made five starts last season and could be the best offensive lineman the Wildcats have. If a change is going to happen with the stats for this group, look for a healthy North to be the catalyst for that change up front.

 

Our Projected Depth Chart:

WR: Marcus McShepard, Jr.
WR: Austin Carr, Sr.
WR: Solomon Vault, Jr.
SB: Garrett Dickerson, Jr.
LT: Blake Hanse, So.
LG: Connor Mahoney, Sr.
C: Brad North, Jr.
RG: Ian Park, Sr.
RT: Eric Olson, Sr.
RB: Justin Jackson, Jr.
QB: Clayton Thorson, So.

Andy Coppens is the Founder and Publisher of Talking10. He’s a member of the Football Writers Association of America (FWAA) and has been covering college sports in some capacity since 2008. You can follow him on Twitter @AndyOnFootball

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