With a bowl victory in hand, some Northwestern players are looking into the next step of their football careers.
Senior receiver Austin Carr finished his year with a program single season record 1247 yards receiving and will begin his preparation for the pros right away, he said. Carr has already accepted an invitation to the East-West Shrine Game, a postseason showcase to be played Jan. 21.
“The NFL has always been a dream of mine,” Carr said. “Hopefully I’m going to be drafted, God willing.”
Juniors Godwin Igwebuike and Anthony Walker have a year of college eligibility remaining and face the decision of whether to leave school early. Each will receive feedback about their pro prospects from the NFL draft advisory board, according to a report by the Chicago Tribune, though neither has made a final decision.
“I’m still thinking it over,” Walker said. “It’s not going to be a decision that’s made today or tomorrow, so I’m going to take some time, sit down and get all the information that I need.”
Despite an excellent season of his own, junior running back Justin Jackson denied rumors he would be leaving school early, saying he intends to finish his degree. Jackson has never redshirted and has been at NU for just three years; Igwebuike and Walker each redshirted their first season and have been at NU four years.
The deadline to declare for the 2017 NFL draft is Jan. 16.
Northwestern’s kick return unit electrified fans in 2015, with then-sophomore Solomon Vault taking twokicks to the house in two especially high-leverage moments.
But the Wildcats punt return unit failed to offer any kind of balance. The combination of then-freshman Flynn Nagel and then-senior Miles Shuler ran back just 13 punts all year, ranking 10th out of 14 teams in the Big Ten. All too often NU’s punt returners wouldn’t even field the ball, letting it bounce for a few extra yards instead calling for a fair catch.
Nagel changed that Saturday against Duke by running back five punts, the most in a game for the Cats over at least the past nine seasons. He didn’t bust a long one, but Nagel’s returns were consistently positive. That he was trying to return them at all was a welcome sight to many fans.
“Our guys always have a green light,” coach Pat Fitzgerald said. “I can’t jump in their heads and say, ‘catch it and run.’ … But we tell the guys to be aggressive, we tell them to err on the side of being aggressive and catching them.”
Nagel has clearly taken that to heart, and his assertiveness in fielding punts Saturday brought back memories of NU’s best punt returner in recent memory: Venric Mark.
A dynamic running back in his own right, Mark truly shined when he dropped back deep to field a punt. After his junior season in 2012, Mark received first-team All-America honors as a return specialist thanks to the two punts he returned for scores that year.
When Mark got ready to field a punt, everybody in the stadium held their breath in anticipation. Nagel has yet to bust a long return and doesn’t inspire the same kind of fear, but that he tries at least offers some hope.
“This week, I think we just had a lot of guys doing a good job blocking their guy, so it gave me a little bit of time back there,” Nagel said of his performance. “As long as everybody keeps doing their job I’m going to try to keep being aggressive.”
That aggressiveness, Fitzgerald said, is key to being a “dude” — somebody like Mark who can make defenders miss and turn nothing into something on a punt return. Nagel obviously isn’t at that level yet, but Fitzgerald seems encouraged by the early returns.
“He was pretty fearless on Saturday,” Fitzgerald said. “It was pretty cool.”
Northwestern’s once-vaunted defense struggled for the second consecutive week in a loss Saturday against Illinois State, and the Wildcats’ Week 3 depth chart for their upcoming contest against Duke reflects some changes coaches hope will jumpstart the lagging unit.
The most dramatic move comes on the defensive line. Senior CJ Robbins moves from defensive tackle to left defensive end after a strong showing in that role against the Redbirds, replacing incumbent senior Ifeadi Odenigbo in the starting lineup. Junior Xavier Washington will switch sides from left to right defensive end in order to accommodate the move, and sophomore Fred Wyatt will step up to fill Robbins’ former spot at defensive tackle.
Robbins shifted out to defensive end fairly early against Illinois State and didn’t look back, recording two tackles for loss and five tackles total. The 305-pounder doesn’t look like a traditional defensive end, but his move outside will bulk up a group which has struggled so far in short-yardage situations.
The defense has also adjusted for injuries at cornerback to senior starter Matthew Harris and backup redshirt freshman Alonzo Mayo. Redshirt freshman Trae Williams will replace Harris, and true freshman Roderick Campbell and Brian Bullock are now listed as the backups. Bullock has yet to appear in a game this season, reflecting the depletion of depth NU faces at the position.
Another true freshman will be stepping in at wide receiver. Ben Skowronek logged his first career catch against Illinois State, and has supplanted junior Marcus McShepard as a backup receiver. Listed at 6-foot-4, Skowronek is tied for being the tallest wideout on the roster and adds size to an otherwise small unit.
Long, a senior, injured his hand during his only carry against Western Michigan and has been ruled out for at least four weeks, coach Pat Fitzgerald said. Stepping up in Long’s place will be redshirt freshman John Moten IV, who made his college debut in the latter part of Saturday’s game but did not receive any touches.
Coming into the season, Long projected as a reliable backup who would lighten junior starter Justin Jackson’s workload. With Long out, Jackson will receive most, if not all, of the Wildcats’ carries. Moten, an unproven commodity, likely hasn’t gained the trust of the coaching staff and will probably come in only to spell Jackson on the occasional pass blocking assignment.
But don’t expect that to change the play calling of NU’s offense. This is still a run-first team — Jackson will just be getting a few more carries than he otherwise would with Long still healthy. Based on Jackson’s 312-carry 2015 campaign, that shouldn’t be much of a problem for him.
Thompson is day-to-day, Fitzgerald said, so there’s a chance he could play Saturday against Illinois State. Even if he doesn’t, the defense will still be in good shape. The Cats’ defensive line relies on a constant rotation of players. Losing Thompson’s talent hurts but the players stepping in for him have game experience and should be more than up to the task.
Sophomore Clayton Thorson is still the quarterback, junior running back Justin Jackson will still be taking handoffs from him and junior linebacker Anthony Walker will still be terrorizing opposing offenses. To the casual observer, not much has changed about Northwestern football from last year.
But the Wildcats’ release Monday of their depth chart for their Week 1 matchup against Western Michigan nonetheless held some surprises, clarifying starters at several key positions and crystallizing the 22 players who will lead NU in its attempt to repeat a 10-win season.
Wide receiver play was a major point for the Cats’ offense in 2015, and the position group received a complete overhaul over the offseason. Then-seniors Miles Shuler, Cameron Dickerson and Christian Jones all occupied the starting slots a year ago; taking the reins this year will be senior Austin Carr, junior Solomon Vault and sophomore Flynn Nagel.
Carr, a former walk-on, put on a breakout performance last season and enters the year as NU’s leading returning receiver. Nagel likewise cracked the lineup a year ago and was one of a handful of true freshman to see playing time. He got off to a promising start before injury limited him to just five games.
Rounding out the group is Vault, a converted running back. The junior had an offseason to practice at his new position and has already flashed some potential as a pass-catcher. His addition will help flip a position of weakness into an area of strength for the Cats.
The effort to improve the passing attack will also be aided by redshirt freshman Cameron Green, who moved from receiver to superback over the offseason and is now slotted as the backup behind junior Garrett Dickerson. The 6-foot-3 target should be a good balance to NU’s otherwise short receiving corps.
The defensive line also has a fresh look. With former defensive ends Dean Lowry and Deonte Gibson off to the NFL, former reserves senior Ifeadi Odenigbo and junior Xavier Washington will be stepping in to fill the void.
Elsewhere on the defense, former four-star recruit Parrker Westphal made it on to the depth chart for the first time in his career, slotting into a reserve safety role. Westphal battled through injuries his first two years at NU, so seeing him ready to take the field is a welcome sight. His presence adds needed depth to the secondary in the wake of a season-ending injury to junior cornerback Keith Watkins II.
And somewhat surprisingly, senior Jaylen Prater beat out sophomore Nate Hall for the starting job at linebacker. Hall impressed toward the end of last year, but it looks like Prater’s greater experience won out.
Anytime an opposing ball carrier got dragged down in his own backfield during the 2015 season, there was a 30 percent chance Dean Lowry or Deonte Gibson made the tackle.
That’s how dominant Northwestern’s defensive end pairing was last year. With the duo off to the NFL — Lowry was drafted by the Green Bay Packers and Gibson signed with the Detroit Lions — the Wildcats face an uphill challenge in replacing the production that powered a stout defense. NU’s solution for the 2016 campaign rests on spreading the workload as much as possible.
“I have full confidence in anybody who enters the game,” junior defensive end Xavier Washington said when asked about the position group’s depth. “We have enough people who know what they’re doing and are prepared to go in at any moment and change the game.”
Washington and senior defensive end Ifeadi Odenigbo are the nominal stars of the unit. Odenigbo, a former four-star recruit, has toiled as a reserve and situational substitute the past three seasons, racking up 14.5 tackles for loss over his career. Now thrust into the starting role, Odenigbo — listed at 6-foot-3, 265 pounds, the same as Gibson — must prove he can be more than a pass rusher and also stand up to the Big Ten’s punishing running attacks.
The same goes for Washington, who has spent the last two seasons as a rotational player but now will be called upon more than ever. And listed at a scant 243 pounds, he’s out to prove he can battle, play after play, with offensive linemen who may have as many as 80 pounds on him.
“I would define my game as ‘surprising,'” Washington said, shedding the undersized pass rusher stereotype. “A lot of people do look at my size and think, ‘Oh, he’s just a pass rusher,’ and I believe that’s what helps me in the end because if you’re not ready for me in the run game, if you’re thinking I’m going to be light, then that just gives me an element of surprise.”
Countering the Cats’ slight composure on the edges is some serious bulk and talent in the middle. Junior defensive tackle Tyler Lancaster might be the lynchpin of the entire unit, and is looking to improve upon a breakout 2015 campaign. The 310-pound Lancaster is joined by 305-pound senior C.J. Robbins, a veteran in his sixth year with the program thanks to two medical redshirts, and burly reserve senior Greg Kuhar, listed at 309 pounds.
A key player at both the tackle and end positions figures to be sophomore Jordan Thompson. One of a handful of true freshman to play last year,Thompson notched 15 tackles while appearing in every game as a rotation player along the line. His ability and willingness to play any position will be critical for the defense’s ability to handle varied offensive looks.
“I played outside in high school, and I played inside when I’m here,” Thompson said. “Every D-lineman needs to know inside and out. … Inside’s fun, outside’s fun, just being on the field is fun.”
Versatile players like Thompson are what will facilitate NU’s strategy for replacing the production of Lowry and Gibson — rotating the defensive line as much as possible. Washington said the plan is more about getting fresh legs onto the field rather than leveraging specific skill sets, and with the Cats’ bench as deep as it is that plan seems poised for success.
NU has six capable veterans jockeying for playing time, and joining the mix are redshirt freshmen Trent Goens and Joe Gaziano and sophomore Fred Wyatt.
Everyone among those nine is in line to receive at least a little bit of playing time. Given that formula — even with the impressive individual talents present — the output of the defensive line figures to be greater than the sum of its parts.
During a 2015 season defined by close wins, Northwestern’s performance often came down to the play of the special teams units.
The Wildcats’ conservative ground-and-pound offense led to an abundance of three things: punts, field goals and a desperate need to squeeze points out of the return game. Despite a 10-3 record last year, NU has plenty of room to improve on all three fronts coming into this season.
The biggest bright spot, of course, was the play of then-sophomore running back Solomon Vault. The speedster returned two kickoffs for touchdowns in 2015, and saved each for a big moment.
The first came against Duke, when Vault ran back the opening kick of the second half to flip a 7-3 deficit into a 9-7 lead. The Cats didn’t trail for the remainder of the game. The second came against Penn State, when NU needed every point it could get after starting quarterback Clayton Thorson left the game with an injury. The Cats went on to win on a last second field goal.
Vault, now a wide receiver, will still be the guy on kickoff returns, and there’s every reason to believe he can muster a repeat performance. Fans should hope that he does, because the rest of the special teams lineup doesn’t inspire much confidence.
The speedy Vault will not be returning punts, leaving a position of glaring need wide-open heading into NU’s opening week contest against Western Michigan. Then-senior receiver Miles Shuler fulfilled the role for much of last season, but chose to run back only 11 punts in 12 games.
Sophomore receiver Flynn Nagel is the presumptive favorite to win the job, having returned two punts in 2015 before suffering an injury. Diminutive sophomore wideout Jelani Roberts would also be a good option. As long as the Cats put somebody back deep who actually tries to catch the ball, they should see improvement.
In the kicking game, senior kicker Jack Mitchell and junior punter Hunter Niswander both return to their respective roles this season. Though Mitchell earned a reputation for being clutch after his game-winning boot against Penn State, his overall performance ranked among the worst in the Big Ten.
He attempted 27 kicks, tied for second in the conference, but finished tied for ninth among 12 qualifying kickers with a 67 percent success rate. Even more frustratingly, he missed three of his 28 point-after attempts.
The dismal offense that may have hindered Mitchell should have helped Niswander, who instead turned in the worst punting performance in the Big Ten. Niswander led the conference with 85 punts — 11 more than any other punter — and finished dead last among qualifying players with an average of 38 yards per punt.
NU will still be a team reliant on a steady run game and a dominant defense, meaning Niswander will have to be better.
At the very least he’ll have the consistency of senior long snapper Chris Fitzpatrick in front of him. Fitzpatrick, entering his third season as the starter, is remarkably unremarkable – a perfect quality for a long snapper.
Defensive end Dean Lowry and superback Dan Vitale on Saturday became the latest Northwestern football players to be drafted, and joining them in the pro ranks as undrafted free agents are defensive end Deonte Gibson and safety Traveon Henry.
With the dust settled on the NFL’s rookie class, we can take a closer look at which Wildcats have a chance to be contributing performers for their new teams.
Lowry, selected in the fourth round by the Green Bay Packers, seems to have landed in an ideal situation. The Packers are a stable organization, and as a fourth round pick Lowry is very likely to make the cut for the 53-man roster. Green Bay also only has two true defensive ends currently on the team, meaning Lowry should have an early chance at cracking the defensive line rotation and seeing some playing time outside of special teams.
Vitale, drafted in the sixth round by the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, is much more likely to make an impact on special teams than he is on the offensive side of the ball. The Buccaneers list him at fullback, and being able to play special teams is a big part of the job description for the few fullbacks left in the NFL. Special teams play was also a big part of Vitale’s pitch to teams during the pre-draft process. If he does see the field on offense, it will most likely be whenever Tampa Bay decides it needs an extra blocker out of the backfield.
Gibson and Henry have much more tenuous futures in the NFL as undrafted free agents, as making the 53-man cut is far from guaranteed.
The Detroit Lions, who signed Gibson, drafted two other defensive linemen this year and currently list another 11 on their roster. It simply isn’t likely there will be a spot left for Gibson come the end of August. The same goes for Henry, who will have to climb past four safeties and eight cornerbacks on the Buccaneers’ roster.
It’s possible, but Gibson and Henry will each need a very impressive training camp — along the willingness to play special teams — in order to stick around.
Northwestern’s game at Ohio State on October 29 will be played at 5:30 p.m. eastern time and will be broadcast nationally on ABC, ESPN or ESPN2, the Big Ten and ESPN announced Monday.
The Wildcats and Buckeyes last met on October 5, 2013 in Evanston, when ESPN’s College GameDay show visited campus for the first time since 1995. NU narrowly lost that game, 40-30, and went on to lose another six straight and finish the season 5-7.