If you spend time listening to Northwestern head coach Pat Fitzgerald, he'll often come back to the intangible of 'attitude.' "Sometimes you have to embrace the suck," he said after a particularly poor performance against Iowa, a 48-7 demolition this past November. And, two weeks later, Northwestern was punching well above its weight by giving Notre Dame a kick in the rear on its way out of the Big Ten schedules. It was a great game, one that reminded fans why they had placed hope in Fitzgerald in the first place. Two weeks after that, though, the Wildcats were getting deconstructed by in-state rival Illinois, and failed to earn a bowl game.
Obviously, Northwestern's ceiling is higher with Pat Fitzgerald than it was before he originally made it to Evanston as a player. But the issue with Fitz's teams has been consistency, something he always seems to preach in lunch-pail fashion. But for a man who preaches it so heavily, consistency has not been a calling card of Fitz's regime.
Perhaps it's the lens through which he sees the game: as a game of one-on-one matchups. In a way, it's a forward-thinking approach, and Fitz's offense has gotten a lot of mileage out of putting the ball in an athlete's hands and asking him to beat the first defender. But something has been missing. The Wildcats have been haunted by two ghosts: a group of linemen that has failed at carrying the load, and a roster that lacks the depth they need. Those two shortfalls have led to the team's inconsistency; they have hovered in the background at least as much as unionization, and been much more deadly.
The good news is that, going forward, one of Northwestern's demons is looking like it's fading away. The other ... well, not so much.
According to Pat Fitzgerald, the quarterback race is wide open, but that may just be his attempt at motivating his players. Clayton Thorson, a redshirt freshman, will compete against Zack Oliver (who started in Trevor Siemian's absence last year) and Matt Alviti - but make no mistake, this is Thorson's battle to lose. Alviti has thrown four passes in his career for no yards, and run the ball nine times for one yard. Oliver, meanwhile, started and also underwhelmed against Purdue last year, and he has not shown the leadership that Fitzgerald wants from his quarterback. Both Thorson and Alviti have been elected as team leaders for 2015, but Oliver was not.
Even without any college experience, Thorson brings a lot to the table: good athleticism for a 6'4", 210-pound quarterback, plus he throws very well on the run. In his high school film, he's at his best when his first read is open. if there are tight windows, or Thorson is throwing the ball far downfield, bad things can happen. That will only escalate when Thorson debuts against Big Ten competition, though hopefully the redshirt year has helped to slow down the game for him. Fitz will probably try to keep the offense on the simpler side, rolling Thorson one way or the other and running him up the middle to challenge every part of the defense. Against disciplined and athletic defenses, though, Northwestern will struggle.
Justin Jackson is a terrific player, a small scrappy engine who gets yards after contact and moves the chains. If the spirit of Ameer Abdullah is still in the Big Ten, Jackson has it.
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After Jackson, though, experience is minimal. Warren Long is a better back than his 4.1-yard average would indicate, but he is mistyped in this offense. Long will need to weave through a lot of backfield traffic, and he takes too long to get up to speed. He can lower his shoulder and drive the pile, and he can outrun some people, but the immediate stop-start isn't there.
More likely to stand out is redshirt freshman Auston Anderson, who has more of the stop-and-start that will get him out of bad plays and into positive gains. He's an explosive athlete who gives Northwestern some valuable depth and upside.
Last year, this was an underrated unit with Kyle Prater leading the way. Now, both Prater and Tony Jones are gone, and the best hope for a game-breaker comes with a healthy return by Christian Jones. Jones, you might remember, tore his ACL right before the 2014 season started, and he's since had injury complications to his knee. Jones caught 54 passes for 668 yards two seasons ago, and he's now a senior hoping for an NFL shot. The 6'3", 225-pound player is a genuine candidate to be drafted - if he can regain his explosiveness.
After that, explosiveness will be hard to come by with this group. Miles Shuler is a genuine game-breaker who hasn't really been used yet, a former four-star with a great catch rate. However, he has just 261 career receiving yards as a senior for some reason. Dan Vitale is a reliable target at superback (which is basically a tight end in Northwestern's system), and he has a good backup in Jayme Taylor. Mike McHugh and Cameron Dickerson made it onto the field last year, but for them to really make a difference, they'll need some real improvement. A couple of young guys - Solomon Vault or Pierre Youngblood-Ary - might steal some reps and give this unit some dimension.
As it stands, though, this group is at least a bigger, more physical unit than most teams in the Big Ten. Between Jones, Vitale, Cam Dickerson, Taylor, and McHugh, Pat Fitzgerald has five guys who will likely play heavy minutes and average 6'3", 220. With screens, sweeps, and outside zone runs, Northwestern should be able to mitigate their offensive line weaknesses and use outside blocks to spring big gains.
I'll keep this part anonymous because there isn't a lot of positive stuff to say. Plus, the line's problems are pretty universal. This is one of the most bland units in the conference. Three regulars have graduated, but none of them were particularly good. The ones who return, also, were average at best. And with the prototypes that Fitz has filled his line with, I'm not sure whether there's a much higher ceiling in 2015.
Fitz likes his linemen to be mobile, with the idea that a mobile unit can attack any part of a defense with numbers at any time. That way, he can also get away with recruiting undersized linemen. The problem is, these guys might be 'mobile,' but they're not athletic or strong. They'll struggle to make a key block in the open field. They don't have the flexibility to use low pad level, so even one-on-one matchups with linebackers are not necessarily a win for the line. It's also easy for defenders to keep the second level clean, so the line rarely springs a big hole for the running back. The biggest weakness, by far, is a lack of strength. Even smaller linemen can carry a big pop, but these guys don't.
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Can they get better? Some more time in the weight room is a must, but they'll also need some time in a yoga room. This is a deeper issue than experience or technique, and it's likely that this will be the weakest link of the team going forward. I like some of their younger prospects, but we'll see how they develop over the next few years.
The defense was strong in 2014, and it should be again. The defensive line is a pretty anonymous bunch that goes two or three deep throughout the game. This is a standard Big Ten unit - strong against the run, not great at rushing the passer, with heavier than normal defensive ends they can throw at the run game. The exception is Ifeadi Odenigbo, a former four-star, 240-pound defensive end who can pin his ears back and pile up sacks. He got 3 sacks as a sophomore reserve last year, ceding a majority of the snaps to Max Chapman and Dean Lowry. But if there's one real candidate to be the Big Ten's next Randy Gregory - who went from anonymous one year to superstar the next - Odenigbo is a good pick.
Greg Kuhar is another potential star, simply one of the better nose tackles the league has to offer. He has ceded a lot of snaps to Xavier Washington, Deonte Gibson, and C.J. Robbins, but Kuhar is one of the more nimble 310-pounders you'll find. He has the strength to bull rush, but also has the technique to shed his man and make a tackle on a passing running back. Both of these guys have gotten lost in a deep rotation, but they have pedigree (both blue-chips) and good play-making.
There may be other reasons why they didn't play more in 2015, but I think it was an emphasis on gap integrity rather than disruption at the line. Fitz and Hankwitz tried to use their defensive line as a way to keep their linebackers free and let others make plays, but I think they should protect the defensive line with more speed (I'll get to that in a minute) and let Kuhar and Odenigbo run free.
Most of last year's snaps are now gone, with Collis Ellis, Chi Chi Ariguzo, and Jimmy Hall moving on. Anthony Walker is back, and he's another on this defense who should soon be a star. But who else will step up? Drew Smith is a speedy, 220-pound SAM in the same mold as Jimmy Hall. But after that, it's a whole bunch of questions.
Joseph Jones had 4.5 tackles last year, mostly on special teams. Jaylen Prater had three. Brett Walsh had two. There's a slew of freshmen, one of whom might step up (Nathan Fox, perhaps?). Still, Fitzgerald and defensive coordinator Mike Hankwitz might want to think pretty hard about playing a whole lot of nickel formations. In fact, given what they have in the backfield, that would have been a good idea even if they had better depth at linebacker.
I like this unit, and they have the potential to be better. Matthew Harris and Nick VanHoose are fast and competitive at cornerback, and Godwin Igwebuike and Traveon Henry are a good duo at safety. Quietly, this is one of the more athletic backfields in the Big Ten, particularly the trio of Harris, VanHoose, and Igwebuike. They're not quite tall enough, not quite as much speed as you'd see in elite backfields, but if there was sounder play from the linebackers, these guys would have made a lot of plays last year.
There's also some athleticism on its way up. Parrker Westphal is a former four-star recruit, and both Kyle Queiro and Keith Watkins II were high-three-stars. Northwestern likes speed, and they'll have plenty of it this year and in the future.
And, that future should come sooner rather than later. There were times last year when an offense would use the secondary's aggression against them - flooding one side with passing routes, then slipping a player into the other side for a big gain. Again, these guys don't have elite speed. They're aggressive, ballsy defenders who weren't protected or helped by the front seven. And it was too easy for offenses to use that aggressiveness against them.
Looking ahead to 2015, I think Pat Fitzgerald and Mike Hankwitz should consider moving Traveon Henry up into the box and playing a five-man defensive backfield. This defense has a chance to be more disruptive and more disciplined, and I think they can get that by having speed in the box. Run defense will be a problem for a smaller defense, but their athletes at linebacker were a bit susceptible to overplaying one side or getting stuck in the wash, anyway. Now, with a veteran cast of linebackers moving on, the question becomes: if you're going to be aggressive, why not do it with the four-star speed you're collecting in the backfield, rather than the two-star and three-star linebackers with even less experience? It will protect the depth at linebacker and give the staff more time to train their young guys.
This summer will be a chance for Fitzgerald and Hankwitz to see how the young guys develop, and also determine how good their linebacking corps can be. Any changes they make would, of course, hinge on those assessments. But I wouldn't be surprised if they opted for more nickel packages, letting the speed in the back seven protect the play-making of Odenigbo and Kuhar up front.
Of course, then again this staff might not do that. Fitzgerald has been averse to changes before, and Kuhar and Odenigbo didn't get a lot of playing time last year because they didn't fit what he was looking for. How flexible can Fitz be? What will this defense try to do? It's something to watch.
Overall, this is a team with better depth and growing athleticism, and that spells a rebound in 2015. There are still flaws, particularly at linebacker and the offensive line, and those will hold Northwestern back. But 2015 has a chance to be a very good season, and also a chance to regain momentum. After a nightmarish ride the last two years, the Wildcats definitely need it.