It is safe to say there are big things expected of the Northwestern Wildcats this year.
The jubilation of a bowl win covered up the messiness of a 7-6 season. The Wildcats were both one of the most dangerous teams in the Big Ten West and also one of the most puzzling. How could a team that lost at home to Illinois State on a banked-in field goal be the same team that nearly upset Ohio State at the Horseshoe?
Such is life as Northwestern football. Disaster is always around the corner.
But optimism is too. After the Wildcats impressed in their Pinstripe Bowl victory, the offseason has felt like a long wait for a special kind of season. Northwestern kept all of its key skill players and most of its defense following that bowl win. Optimism abounds.
The Wildcats may very well be the dark horse to win the Big Ten West. Wisconsin is replacing some key players as the favorite and everyone else seems to be bundled in the same group.
It seems like everything is up for grabs. And Northwestern has the pieces it needs to get there. There are raised expectations for Northwestern this time of year — less than a month before Camp Kenosha! — and the team has the players to get there.
As the Wildcats get ready for Big Ten Media Days on July 24 and 25, they are getting their just due from the preseason award watch lists.
Star safety Godwin Igwebuike was named to the Jim Thorpe Award and Nagurski Trophy watch lists as one of the nation’s best defenders.
With the Wildcats defense looking to replace Anthony Walker, the team will rely on the senior Igwebuike to lead the defense. Igwebuike is good at helping in run defense from safety but is solid in pass coverage too. He nearly joined Walker in the NFL Draft, before withdrawing his name before the final deadline.
Like Walker last year, all of Northwestern’s defensive attention and weight will be on his shoulders.
Northwestern’s offensive line has come under some question. The unit returns four starters from last year, but the unit was far from perfect. Especially in pass protection. Justin Jackson just invents holes.
But Brand North is an anchor for the unit. He was named to the Rimington Trophy watch list as the nation’s top center. North will play a key role in Northwestern’s zone blocking scheme to set Northwestern up.
All veteran running back Justin Jackson needs is a sliver of space. And give junior quarterback Clayton Thorson time and he can make the throws. He will need that time with an almost new and unproven receiving corps.
Jackson and Thorson were named to the Maxwell Award watch list for the top player in the nation. And Igwebuike added one more watch list to his name as a candidate for the Bednarik Award, the nation’s top defensive player.
These watch lists are not the be-all, end-all for postseason awards. It is merely a large listing of the best players in the nation. It would be news for these players and leaders for Northwestern not to be on these watch lists.
The Wildcats are expecting big things this year. Their stars are carrying the load for sure. But they seem ready to do so.
The team is hoping for a big year in 2017.