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2016 Football Preview: “Sky Team” looks to build on 2015 successes

2016 Football Preview: “Sky Team” looks to build on 2015 successes
(Daily file photo by Jacob Swan)

Northwestern’s vaunted “Sky Team” secondary will have a bit of a different look in 2016.

Cornerback Nick VanHoose and safety Traveon Henry have graduated, leaving a Wildcats defense that allowed the fewest passing touchdowns in the country last season. To fill the void, NU will look to senior cornerback — and recently-named team captain — Matthew Harris to head up the defensive backs. A shutdown player, Harris led the team with four interceptions in 2015.

The Wildcats had originally planned for junior cornerback Keith Watkins II to start opposite Harris, but after a knee injury during training camp left him sidelined for the season, the only other cornerback on the roster, sophomore Montre Hartage, is expected to jump in. Hartage played in every game in 2015, though mostly on special teams, and had four tackles as a backup.

Meanwhile, the middle of the field will likely be filled by junior safeties Godwin Igwebuike and Kyle Queiro. Igwebuike burst onto the scene as a freshman after intercepting three passes in the Cats’ upset win over Wisconsin and improved last year as a sophomore, starting every game and finishing second on the team in tackles. Queiro has spent most of his career as a backup and missed eight games in 2015 due to injury, but that will change this season.

Behind the wall of Igwebuike and Queiro, there are only two other true safeties listed on the roster — a potential cause for concern if injuries start to mount. Sophomore Jared McGee looks to have a role as a backup after being listed on the opening two-deep, and sophomore defensive back Parrker Westphal, a former four-star recruit, made the two-deep for the first time in his career for the Cats’ opening matchup vs. Western Michigan. Junior Tommy Odell should factor in at some point as well.

Additionally, NU has eight players rostered simply as “defensive back” but most of them are freshmen or redshirt freshmen who don’t have any experience or a true position yet. That’s not to say they won’t see the field at some point this season. Redshirt freshmen Trae Williams and Alonzo Mayo will see some action and compete for playing time as reserves, with the winner to fill in at Queiro’s old role last year as a backup rotational player.

The bottom line is that the Cats’ secondary will be one of the best in the nation again in 2016. NU clearly has confidence in its defensive backs, so much so that the team released a Costacos Brothers themed poster earlier this offseason. All that stands in the unit’s way is another freak injury. Coach Pat Fitzgerald moved Marcus McShepard  and Steven Reese to wide receiver in February, a good move which shored up a paper-thin receiving core, but if another defensive back gets hurt, especially after Watkins II went down, secondary depth may soon become an issue.

2016 Football Preview: Led by Anthony Walker, linebackers expected to be elite group

2016 Football Preview: Led by Anthony Walker, linebackers expected to be elite group
(Daily file photo by Jacob Swan)

If Northwestern is to compete for a first place finish in the Big Ten West, it will need its linebacker unit to perform at an exceptional level.

The good news: the Wildcats’ linebackers are among the best in the conference, if not the nation.

Anchored by superstar Anthony Walker, NU’s linebackers were instrumental in leading a defense that allowed just 18.6 points per outing last fall. Walker, now a junior, finished the year with 122 tackles (20.5 for loss) and garnered All-America honors, while Drew Smith contributed double digit tackles for loss as well. Junior Jaylen Prater started nine before a season ending injury sidelined him for the Cats’ final four games. Sophomore Nate Hall filled in for Prater during that period and performed admirably as a redshirt freshman, making key plays in a critical win at Wisconsin and finishing the year with 56 tackles.

Smith graduated in the spring, and NU will miss his experience, but the nucleus of Walker, Prater and Hall should put the Cats in good stead going into this fall. The sensational Walker will prowl the middle of the field, while flanked by an experienced senior in Prater and a potential rising star in Hall.

The position features both star power in Walker — whom the program is promoting as “The Franchise” — and depth. Sophomore Cameron Queiro appeared in every game as a freshman, while another member of the unit, senior Joseph Jones, recorded 18 tackles and a pair for loss last fall. Jones has made 24 appearances in three seasons in Evanston, and earned the start at SAM linebacker for the Cats’ opening game against Western Michigan.

That said, it will be crucial for Prater, Hall and especially Walker to stay healthy. NU’s frontline in the middle could be a destructive and dominant force.

Walker has already proven himself as one of the Big Ten’s best defensive players, and a Bronko Nagurski-winning type of season from the junior, a la coach Pat Fitzgerald who twice won the award given to the nation’s best defensive player, could allow the program to rise to new heights following its 10-win 2015 season.

Fresh off a campaign in which the athletic Florida native wowed with a 19-tackle performance at Duke, a 14-tackle show against Purdue and a stellar performance against Illinois featuring 3.5 tackles for loss, a further improved Walker is a scary prospect for the rest of the Big Ten.

But Walker will not be expected to do it alone. Expectations are far from modest for Hall and Prater. And the emergence of other young members of the unit such as redshirt freshman Nathan Fox could boost an already strong unit.

Razor sharp performances from Walker and the whole unit will be a weekly must for a team with numerous offensive weaknesses, a reshuffled defensive secondary and a defensive line that may take some time to recover from the losses of Dean Lowry and Deonte Gibson.

Fortunately for NU, the unit appears to have the personnel to smooth over some of the squad’s other weak points.

2016 Football Preview: Wildcats’ defensive line hopes to counter departures with depth

2016 Football Preview: Wildcats’ defensive line hopes to counter departures with depth
(Daily file photo by Daniel Tian)

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.

2016 Football Preview: All eyes on Thorson as Northwestern heads into season

2016 Football Preview: All eyes on Thorson as Northwestern heads into season
(Daily file photo by Jacob Swan)

Clayton Thorson was a high four-star recruit when he signed with Northwestern in the class of 2014 — the kind of talent that could lead the Wildcats to new heights.

But in his first year at the helm in 2015, Thorson was an unquestioned liability for large chunks of the season as NU ground out 10 wins in spite of its signal-caller. Now, the progression of the sophomore quarterback in his second year as a starter is probably the most important storyline to monitor for the Cats this season.

Stats don’t paint a kind picture of Thorson’s work on the aggregate last season. He averaged a pitiful 5.2 passing yards per attempt, one of the worst marks in the country among qualified quarterbacks, completed a shade over 50 percent of his passes and led one of the worst passing offenses in the country by most measures last season.

While he struggled through the air, Thorson was a passable threat on the ground in 2015, averaging a solid 6.9 yards per carry on a good volume of attempts and making some big plays with his feet. But his athleticism didn’t translate to mobility in the pocket, as Thorson was sacked on roughly seven percent of his dropbacks, putting NU behind schedule offensively with regularity.

Anecdotally, Thorson’s raw talent shined through in some of the big plays of last season, from a game-breaking 42-yard touchdown run against Stanford to open the season to a perfectly-weighted 37-yard wheel-route touchdown throw to the now-graduated Dan Vitale at Nebraska. But in between the big plays were too many indecisive moments leading to sacks or broken-up plays and too many decisive throws telegraphed into the waiting arms of a defender.

Thorson’s limitations severely hindered any attempts by the Cats to be aggressive offensively last year. Coach Pat Fitzgerald and offensive coordinator Mick McCall were forced to call a predictable slate of run plays game after game to work around their erratic young quarterback, making things easy for opposing defenses and putting immense pressure on NU’s defense to be near-perfect on most days.

The talent to create big plays is there for Thorson, though, and there’s nowhere to go but up this season relative to the struggles of 2015. If he can show improvement and refinement in his pocket awareness, decision-making and command of the offense, and if more stability on the offensive line and new faces in the receiving corps can give a little help, Thorson could emerge as a reasonably effective quarterback in his second season at the helm.

If it doesn’t come together for Thorson, junior quarterback Matt Alviti is likely the first option to step in as a replacement. Alviti only has seven pass attempts to his name in his collegiate career, but his pedigree as a four-star dual-threat quarterback recruit should give him the first crack at the backup role.

Should disaster strike, the Cats have a total of six quarterbacks on the roster. Sophomore Daniel Kubiuk, redshirt-freshmen TJ Green and Lloyd Yates and freshman Aidan Smith are all battling for the third-string job.

But for better or for worse, Clayton Thorson is NU’s starter heading into the 2016 season. And with plenty of other questions on both sides of the ball, the Cats will be hoping Thorson becomes an answer this year.

2016 Football Preview: Five questions for Northwestern as season approaches

2016 Football Preview: Five questions for Northwestern as season approaches
(Daily file photo by Luke Vogelzang)

Coming off a 10-win season marked by low scores and close games — and maybe some luck in Northwestern’s favor, depending on one’s perspective — expectations for the Wildcats are all over the board. And with some key pieces missing from last season’s defense and major room for improvement offensively, questions abound for NU in 2016. The Cats’ answers to these five, in particular, will go a long way toward determining how this season plays out.

1. Can Clayton Thorson be something at quarterback?

Quarterback is the most important position in football, and as such, this question is the most important one for NU heading into this season.

As a redshirt-freshman, Thorson was largely ineffective last season as the starting quarterback. He missed throws long and short, gave the ball away frequently and rarely could bail out the Cats’ offense when it got behind schedule. Although there was plenty of blame to go around for the offense’s struggles in 2015, from shaky pass protection and receivers to a running game that wasn’t explosive enough and questionable play-calling, Thorson deserved some scrutiny for his play as well.

The bright side, then, is that there’s plenty of room for improvement in Thorson’s game, and with some regression to be expected in other areas, a step up from the young quarterback could be the key to keeping NU competitive this year. Even if he doesn’t break out to the point of elevating the rest of the players on the offense, just average quarterback play from Thorson would give the Cats a new look offensively.

2. Where will big offensive plays come from?

Although Thorson’s play will likely be the most important storyline to watch this season, the reality is no matter how much its quarterback improves, NU doesn’t look like a team that will go on long drives without eventually making a mistake.

To make up for that, the Cats need to find ways to generate big plays at a higher clip than they did last season — just 22 running plays went for 20 or more yards and 12 passing plays went for 25 or more yards in 2015. The speedy junior Solomon Vault, transitioning from running back to receiver this offseason, could prove to be a playmaker after the catch, and a better rotation in the backfield could help keep junior running back Justin Jackson fresh enough to break some big runs. A more comfortable Thorson could look to air it out more often, and more successfully, than he did last season.

The Cats won’t become an efficient offensive machine in one offseason, but there are reasonable ways they can create a few more big plays than they did a season ago.

3. Who will pressure opposing quarterbacks?

Arguably the biggest single loss to graduation from last season is defensive end Dean Lowry, who only notched three sacks last season but was a constant presence in the backfield. His line-mate Deonte Gibson, who led the team with nine sacks last season, has graduated as well, leaving behind questions about where the pass rush will come from this season.

Rotational players on the edge last season like senior Ifeadi Odenigbo and junior Xavier Washington will be counted on to perform in bigger roles in 2016, while interior players like junior Tyler Lancaster and sophomore Jordan Thompson could provide some pressure up the middle. NU’s pass rush wasn’t the most fearsome part of its defense last season, but the ability to create pressure without blitzes would be huge for a team looking to stay among the nation’s best on the defensive side.

4. Can the secondary keep it up with some new faces?

The Cats’ secondary was the most lauded unit on the team last season, and with good reason. The “Sky Team” put together a season for the ages, surrendering just five passing touchdowns and 5.5 yards per passing attempt.

Some major pieces in the secondary will be missing next season, as safety Traveon Henry and cornerback Nick VanHoose have graduated, while an expected starter at cornerback, junior Keith Watkins II, has been ruled out for the year with a knee injury. Senior cornerback Matt Harris and junior safety Godwin Igwebuike are top-flight players, but the players around them could be a concern heading into the year.

5. Will the Cats offer any resistance on the big stage?

NU had a memorable 2015 and won a lot of games — but when it lost, it lost big in some of its biggest games of the season.

In a highly anticipated matchup after starting 5-0, the Cats were annihilated at Michigan, 38-0. The next week, they were run over by Iowa in their homecoming game in a 40-10 defeat. And in the Outback Bowl, NU was trampled by Tennessee, 45-6, to end the season on a sour note.

The Cats demonstrated an ability to edge out teams of comparable quality in close games last season, but were exposed in major ways by teams with more talent. With games at Ohio State, Michigan State and Iowa this season, NU’s ability to keep those games competitive could go a long way to making the season feel successful even if the Cats can’t reach 2015’s heights.

2016 Football Preview: Jackson still lead dog as Wildcats will try to diversify rushing attack

2016 Football Preview: Jackson still lead dog as Wildcats will try to diversify rushing attack
(Daily file photo by Jacob Swan)

Northwestern running backs coach Matt MacPherson has said he’ll try to diversify the rushing attack more this season, but that doesn’t mean junior Justin Jackson won’t remain the centerpiece of the unit — and the entire offense.

Jackson was, indisputably, the most reliable and talented aspect of the Wildcats’ attack last season, but he was by no means explosive. Despite ranking third in the nation with 312 carries, he managed just 25 runs of longer than 10 yards, or about 1.9 such runs per game.

However, Jackson’s ability to pound the ball for medium-distance gains proved invaluable for the Cats’ conservative offense, and his durability and even improvement as the carries piled up was a major reason why the team ended the regular season with five straight close victories.

The “Ball Carrier” ran for at least 116 yards in each of the final four regular season games and tallied three of his five total touchdowns during that stretch, as well. As the days grew colder and Jackson’s workload increased from 14 carries per game in October to 31 carries per game in November, he actually said he felt better physically than he did earlier in the season.

MacPherson, coach Pat Fitzgerald and the rest of the coaching staff — as well as Jackson himself — certainly know that inexplicable trend isn’t sustainable, though, and will need to take greater action to preserve their best offensive player in 2016.

Other units should be able to help the cause. A more seasoned Clayton Thorson should be expected to throw the ball more. A speedier receiving group should be able to force opposing linebackers and defensive backs farther downfield from the line of scrimmage.

And a healthier offensive line should be able to closer emulate its performance against Stanford last year, when it steadily pushed back the Cardinal’s bigger defense, rather than its performance for the 2015 season as a whole: 89th in stuff rate (carries for zero or negative yards), 116th in sack rate.

Nevertheless, the most critical step will be to spread the carries around more liberally.

Senior Warren Long was a solid change-of-pace back in 2015, finding the endzone just as often as Jackson (five times) and actually averaging a full yard more per carry (5.5 vs. 4.5). Yet he touched the ball only 63 times to Jackson’s 333 — ideally, 60 to 80 more of those touches should be in Long’s hands in 2016.

Long, who is one inch taller and 17 pounds bigger than Jackson and hasn’t fumbled since 2013, could be used for the majority of up-the-middle runs — always a favorite of offensive coordinator Mick McCall.

A pair of speedsters, sophomore Auston Anderson and redshirt freshman John Moten IV, will also compete for occasional carries (and for heavy playing time late in routs).

MacPherson told the Daily in April the competition within the unit should motivate all of the backs to improve, but the team has struggled to get them all healthy and competing at the same time this offseason. Long missed spring camp recovering from surgery and Anderson has been absent for the team’s last two scrimmages this August.

Somehow, Jackson — throughout all of the bruising he’s taken over the past two seasons and even back in high school — has been the one staying injury-free, and that is a good sign. For all of the talk about balancing the workload, there’s no question that Jackson remains the most dangerous playmaker on NU’s roster.

Jackson has a tendency to find a rhythm when he’s heavily involved in the offense: in games where he’s carried 20 times or more, he’s averaged 5.0 yards per carry, versus 3.4 yards per carry in game with fewer than 20 carries.

With that in mind, the Cats could try to aim for that 20-carry marker while limiting or eliminating his 30-or-more-carry games (of which he had four last season).

One way or another, though, Jackson needs to be toting the rock frequently for the Cats.

2016 Football Preview: Receivers look for impact player after loss of Vitale

2016 Football Preview: Receivers look for impact player after loss of Vitale
(Daily file photo by Jacob Swan)

The Wildcats’ receiving corps has lost a vital component.

Former superback Dan Vitale graduated in the spring and joined the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, leaving a gap in the passcatchers’ lineup that will be difficult to fill. Northwestern’s receivers struggled last year, ranking 115th in receptions and 120th in receiving yards in the FBS, making his loss that much more crucial. Vitale led the team by comfortable margins in both those categories last season.

With Vitale out of the picture, senior Austin Carr, who had the second most receiving yards last season and the highest average yards per reception, is pretty much guaranteed the top spot on the depth chart. Carr started in four games last season and saw playing time in nearly every contest. He also has had time to develop a strong rapport with sophomore quarterback Clayton Thorson, which will squarely position him as the leader of the receiving pack this fall.

The ensemble cast, however, proves a bit trickier to trace, especially with the graduation of former starting receivers Christian Jones and Miles Shuler.

It seems likely that junior Garrett Dickerson will find a home at superback, a position devised by NU coaching that combines the roles of a fullback and tight end into one all-purpose offensive powerhouse. Dickerson is largely untested on the field, although he appeared in flashes in nearly every game last season and caught at least one pass in nine of those games. Senior Andrew Scanlan, who appeared in nine games last season, also seems a likely contender for one of the three starting wide receiver slots.

In February, Coach Pat Fitzgerald announced some position changes that brought in juniors Solomon Vault and Marcus McShepard, and redshirt-freshman Steven Reese, at the wide receiver position in attempt to shore up depth.

Vault, formerly a running back, has had some experience with Cats passing plays and could prove an interesting asset. His speed earned him two touchdowns on kickoff returns last season — the most return touchdowns any NU player has had in a single season. His three career touchdown returns also make him the all-time program leader in the category. Considering the talent he’s already displayed, and that Vault saw playing time at the wide receiver position during the Outback Bowl, it seems likely Vault will be tapped to start this fall. He’ll fit in well out of the slot as the Z-receiver as a speedy and evasive route-runner.

McShepard and Reese, formerly defensive players, face a steeper learning curve and are unlikely to make much of an impact, at least immediately, on the offense.

Without Vitale, and to a lesser extent Jones and Shuler, the Cats’ receiving corps is pretty thin. Look to Carr for reliability and a glimmer of receivers’ past, and watch Vault for an explosive play or two, but generally, Wildcats fans should expect to hear a lot of “Justin Jackson the ball carrier!” this fall.

2016 Football Preview: Offensive line eyes healthy, reliable season

2016 Football Preview: Offensive line eyes healthy, reliable season
(Daily file photo by Sophie Mann)

Despite Northwestern’s strong 10-win season in 2015, there’s still a great deal of improvement to be made at offensive line. The Wildcats were plagued by injuries and inconsistency last season. However,  if NU can solidify a starting five that works consistently and cooperatively all season, the Cats’ offense will take a massive step forward.

With a lineup composed largely of upperclassmen, NU’s offensive line struggled to develop any continuity, as 10 different Cats players started at line throughout last season. In addition, NU had significant trouble with pass protection. They ranked No. 101 out of 128 schools in adjusted sack rate, a metric that modifies sack rate based on strength of schedule.

In addition to the problems the offensive line had with protecting then-redshirt-freshman quarterback Clayton Thorson last season, statistics surprisingly show that the Cats’ run-blocking was also poor. Although running back Justin Jackson ran for more than 1,400 yards last season during his sophomore campaign, it was more a result of Jackson’s volume and talent than the line’s run-blocking.

NU ranked No. 110 in the country in power success rate, or the conversion rate of runs that are two yards or less. On top of this, the Cats found themselves at below-average in six other run-blocking statistics. The offensive line certainly has room to grow in 2016, but if the Cats can establish stability, their entire offense has potential to thrive.

Personnel:

The Cats’ offensive line is mostly veterans. Senior Eric Olson was a staple at right tackle for NU last year, and he should continue to do so in his final year. In addition, coach Pat Fitzgerald indicated that senior Connor Mahoney will start at left guard.

The youngest projected starter on the line is sophomore Blake Hance, who ended up starting eight games for the Cats as a redshirt freshman in 2015.

The position that remains up in the air for NU is center. Senior Ian Park and junior Brad North both spent time at center last season. In addition, whoever loses the position battle may be able to challenge 6th-year-senior Shane Mertz for his job at right guard.

The Cats also have young talent in sophomores Tommy Doles and J.B. Butler, as well as redshirt-freshmen Jared Thomas, Adam Lemke-Bell, and Andrew Otterman. However, unless the injury bug strikes NU’s starters again, these players likely won’t see much playing time this season.

2016 outlook:

NU needs a balanced offense this year, and that means an offensive line that gives Thorson more time to throw. With three to four seniors projected to start at offensive line for the Cats, they have the potential to use their experience to create a steady, high-chemistry offensive line that allows NU’s offense to take huge strides forward.

2016 Football Preview: Special Teams

2016 Football Preview: Special Teams
(Daily file photo by Jacob Swan)

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.