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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.

Class of 2017 wide receiver Jace James commits to Northwestern

Pat Fitzgerald pulled in another recruit for the class of 2017 on Sunday, as local product Jace James committed to Northwestern.

James has played both as a wide receiver and in the secondary in high school, but will play on offense for the Wildcats. He had scholarship offers from several mid-major Division I teams, with NU’s offer being his first from a Power 5 school.

James’ commitment is the Cats’ first from a wideout out of 14 overall for 2017. He has decent size for the position, and his highlights show his ability to win one-on-one with fluid breaks and by catching with his hands.

James will play his senior season this fall at Glenbard North, the alma mater of current NU junior running back Justin Jackson.

Miles Shuler signs contract with Carolina Panthers

Another Wildcat has found an NFL home.

Wide receiver Miles Shuler signed a contract with the Carolina Panthers after participating in the team’s rookie minicamp on a tryout basis, the team announced today.

In Northwestern’s anemic passing offense last season, Shuler caught just 13 passes for 132 yards, but the Panthers saw something they liked in the tryout and inked him to a deal. His potential as a returner likely helped him — as the team’s primary punt returner last year, Shuler averaged 10 yards per return on 11 returns.

Shuler is one of four Cats who are currently on NFL rosters for next season, joining Green Bay draftee Dean Lowry, Tampa Bay draft pick Dan Vitale, and Lions undrafted free agent Deonte Gibson. Safety Traveon Henry signed with the Buccaneers as a free agent as well, but was reportedly cut recently.

Northwestern set to face Indiana for Homecoming game

Northwestern set to face Indiana for Homecoming game
(Daily file photo by Daniel Tian)

Northwestern fans can begin making Homecoming plans, as the Wildcats announced Wednesday the date and time of next season’s Homecoming game.

NU will take on Indiana on Saturday, Oct. 22, with the Homecoming game’s kickoff set for 11 a.m . It’ll be the first time the Cats have faced the Hoosiers since 2012.

Other Big Ten teams have announced their Homecoming game dates and times as well, bringing more clarity to NU’s schedule next season. The Cats are slated to face Iowa on Oct. 1 at 11 a.m. and Michigan State on Oct. 15 at 2:30 p.m. for both schools’ respective Homecomings.

NU supporters will hope for a better outcome than last season’s Homecoming game. That day, the Cats were run over by then-No. 17 Iowa, 40-10.

 

Dan Vitale’s new role with Buccaneers evokes throwback term

Dan Vitale’s new role with Buccaneers evokes throwback term
(Daily file photo by Jacob Swan)

When the Tampa Bay Buccaneers selected Dan Vitale in April’s NFL Draft, it guaranteed a shot at a professional career for the former Northwestern superback. But his role as a professional was still very much in the air. Vitale was best known for his pass-catching work throughout his career and was the Wildcats’ leading receiver last season, but he spent the pre-draft process highlighting his willingness to block out of the backfield as a fullback.

With a player so versatile, it’s impossible to know how the Buccaneers will use Vitale until the pads are on. But an article on the Buccaneers’ team website gave some insight into the possibilities, including dropping a term that will make fans of retro football proud.

You won’t hear the word “wingback” on many NFL broadcasts these days. Those familiar with football history are most likely to use it in order to evoke memories of players like Johnny Rodgers, the Heisman Trophy winner at Nebraska in 1972.

Though the term wingback originated out of arcane offensive formations like the single-wing, today it is used to describe a hybrid role like the one Vitale is projected to play for the Buccaneers.

The story goes on to explain that the modern “wingback” role will involve much greater responsibilities in the passing game than it would have back in the day, and Vitale is currently listed as a tight end on the Buccaneers roster. After serving as the archetype of one unique position at NU, it would only be fitting for Vitale to bring back another one in the pros.

Northwestern to play Ohio State in prime time

Northwestern to play Ohio State in prime time
(Daily file photo by Susan Du)

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.