Football writers Max Gelman, Tim Balk and Max Schuman discuss Northwestern’s disappointing loss to Illinois State and what the team needs to do to improve against a struggling Duke team. Click below to listen.
Each week, two Daily writers will debate the upcoming football matchup. One will take a glass half-full view and other glass half-empty. Here is the Half-N-Half for Northwestern’s contest against the Illinois State Redbirds.
1. Will Anthony Walker double his tackle output from Week 1?
Half-full (Max Gelman): After Saturday’s loss, both Walker and coach Pat Fitzgerald acknowledged that the All-American may have been trying to do too much on the field. Against an FCS team though, Walker will be sure to rebound from the paltry seven-tackle performance from Week One. This is Anthony Walker we’re talking about after all — the Anthony Walker who finished fourth in the nation last season and led the Big Ten with 20.5 tackles for loss. The Anthony Walker who led the Wildcats in tackles by more than 30. The Anthony Walker who may very well end up in the NFL next season. He will be sure to regain his elite form when he faces Illinois State.
Half-empty (Tim Balk): Anthony Walker and the linebacker corps came into the year with sky-high expectations, and mostly disappointed in the opening showdown against Western Michigan. Walker was oddly quiet, recording just seven tackles. The Franchise will respond — we haven’t seen many underwhelming performances from the junior in his time in Evanston — but a huge performance might not be in the cards against Illinois State. Walker only hit the 14 tackle mark three times last year, and he was particularly quiet in NU’s battle with FCS Eastern Illinois. Walker won’t disappear like he did in the second half against Western Michigan, but he also won’t have a repeat of the Duke game last September. Take the under on 14 tackles.
2. Will NU be able to keep Justin Jackson’s carry total under 30?
Half-empty (TB): With Warren Long sidelined by a broken hand, it’s going to be the Justin Jackson show for the next few weeks. Even more so than usual. The Cats’ passing game was quieted against Western Michigan, mainly because the offense was off the field for so much of the game, and Clayton Thorson should have more opportunities to throw the ball around this week. But NU will still call Jackson’s number plenty. If the Cats can get the no huddle offense going the way the want to, it’ll mean more plays, and, of course more touches for The Ball Carrier. So a big carry number might not be a totally bad sign. But don’t expect Jackson to get much rest.
Half-full (MG): The Cats’ offensive gameplan over the past few seasons with Jackson as starter has revolved around shoving him down opponents’ throats. Jackson finished third in the country in 2015 with 312 carries as NU eased then-redshirt freshman quarterback Thorson into a starting role. However, in last year’s sole matchup against an FCS opponent — Eastern Illinois — Jackson only ran the ball 22 times out of a total 69 rushing attempts, good for about 32 percent of the team’s total carries. Seven other Wildcats ran the ball against the Panthers last year, including walk-on Navy SEAL Tom Hruby who rushed eight times. NU will find plenty of opportunities to spread the work among the other running backs and give Jackson some rest.
3. How many turnovers will NU be able to force after failing to force any last week?
Half-full (MG): The Redbirds came into 2016 without their biggest playmakers from a year ago, quarterback Tre Roberson and running back Marshaun Coprich. This year, sophomore quarterback Jake Kolbe is leading Illinois State in his first year as a starter, and his inexperience may very well lead to multiple miscues on offense. Additionally, even though Illinois State loves to run the ball, as seven Redbirds combined for 313 rushing yards in its opening week 50-13 trouncing over Valparaiso, only two of their eight rostered running backs are upperclassmen. For NU, senior cornerback and team captain Matthew Harris performed well against Western Michigan receiver Corey Davis last week, and Harris led the Cats with four interceptions in 2015. Harris’ dominance, coupled with the relative inexperience of Illinois State’s new playmakers, will likely lead to at least two takeaways on Saturday.
Half-empty (TB): If there was one big takeaway from NU’s opener, it’s that the defensive line wasn’t quite ready for showtime. The exits of Dean Lowry and Deonte Gibson represented significant losses, as the two disruptive defensive ends spearheaded a mighty defense with a knack for picking up sacks and forcing turnovers. Against Western Michigan, the defensive pressure was lackluster, and Western Michigan looked comfortable in racking up 416 yards without a single turnover. Junior defensive end Xavier Washington and senior defensive end Ifeadi Odenigbo are by no means slouches, but NU’s opening week performance suggests it may take some time for the two, and whole defensive front, to get going. NU has big playmakers like Walker and Harris, but the Cats will likely need to get more pressure to start turning teams over. Meanwhile, Illinois State is a ground and pound team that ran for more than 3,000 yards last year. Look for the Redbirds keep it on the ground, limiting the chances for NU to get takeaways on Saturday. NU still has the potential to be a big takeaway team. But this might not be the week for such things.
Football writers Max Gelman and Tim Balk discuss Northwestern’s season opening loss to Western Michigan and Monday’s press conference. Click below to listen.
Each week, two Daily writers will debate the upcoming football matchup. One will take a glass half-full view and other glass half-empty. Here is the Half-N-Half for Northwestern’s contest against the Western Michigan Broncos.
1. Clayton Thorson’s rushing touchdown in last year’s season opener against Stanford put him on the map. How will he perform in this year’s season opener?
Half-full (Tim Balk): If Trevor Siemian’s meteoric rise to starting QB of the Denver Broncos means Wildcats fans might have underappreciated Touchdown Trevor in his time in Evanston, Clayton Thorson certainly went undervalued as a redshirt freshman last fall. Sure, Thorson’s passing numbers were spotty, but with a weak receiving corps and a perpetually banged up offensive line, it’s hard to fault Thorson for NU’s oft-anemic pass offense. The fact remains, Thorson was a FRESHMAN, and he still led NU to 10 wins while showing flashes of brilliance on the ground and through the air. Expect a big leap from Thorson this year — the experience will pay dividends and an improved, healthy front will allow Thorson more time in the pocket. Expect it to start against Western Michigan, a team which gave up 250 or more passing yards nine times last year.
Half-empty (Max Gelman): Thorson was not a great quarterback last season, there’s no way around it. He completed just over 50 percent of his passes, and while he was a redshirt freshman, he would need to improve a lot in order to be considered good. His receivers, aside from Dan Vitale, did him almost no favors and this year the Cats’ No. 1 receiver — senior Austin Carr — is basically at the top of the depth chart by default. I also don’t totally buy the “10 wins” argument because the Cats only outscored their opponents by 12 points all season. In its three losses, NU was outscored 123-16 — that’s over 100 points! Western Michigan’s run defense isn’t very good, so if Thorson can make plays with his legs I think he’ll be OK in the opener, but regardless I don’t think he’ll throw for more than 150 yards through the air.
2. Will the Wildcats play well enough against a non-conference opponent that they can rest their starters in the fourth quarter?
Half-empty (MG): The formula for the Cats in 2015 was to win low-scoring games with their defense. Last year, NU scored more than 30 just once — an easy, 41-0 blowout of Eastern Illinois. Other than that, the Cats never really got a chance to rest their starters. Even late in the season when his team went up 21-7 against Illinois in the second quarter, coach Pat Fitzgerald took his foot off the gas pedal after halftime. Justin Jackson was still toting the rock, Thorson was still throwing the ball and NU only won the game 24-14. Western Michigan is also too good of a team for the Cats’ offense to run up the score, so I think we’ll still see all the starters right until the clock reaches zero.
Half-full (TB): NU is going to put up some points on the Broncos. Western Michigan’s spotty defensive front will receive a gnashing early from Jackson, and Thorson should have a fun day going over the top of of one of the MAC’s worst secondaries. The Broncos will try to keep pace with their dynamic offense, but it won’t be easy against a stellar NU defense which brings back some key pieces from a group that shut down Stanford a year ago. NU has tended to come out of the gate fresh and ready under Fitzgerald (the 2014 trainwreck against Cal notwithstanding), and there’s little reason to expect anything different in 2016. Western Michigan is not terrible, and won’t go down without a fight, but come the fourth quarter NU will have a lead wide enough to give its first units a late game break.
3. How full will Ryan Field be with classes not scheduled to start until Sept. 20?
Half-full (TB): I’m supposed to be good cop here, but it gets harder with this question. Ryan Field tends to be a graveyard in September and crowds in excess of 30,000 represent relative successes before Big Ten play kicks off. There’s reason to think the turnout could clear that benchmark against Western Michigan. Fresh off a top 25 finish, excitement is up a bit in Evanston, and the weather Saturday afternoon is expected to be beautiful. Perfect weather and some good, clean, American fun! Why not?
Half-empty (MG): Fitzgerald has lamented in the past about the atmosphere at Ryan Field before students show up, and I think he’ll have good reason to do so again Saturday. NU struggles to draw large crowds before conference play starts, and it’s not just because of the student section. A home stadium that seats fewer fans than any other Big Ten program and a smaller alumni base than the large, public Big Ten schools are just a couple reasons why I believe Ryan Field will only be about 50 to 60 percent full for Week 1. (And even when the Big Ten schedule rolls around it doesn’t get much better — the Cats are basically playing a road game whenever Nebraska visits Evanston.)
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.
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.
Saturday // 11am // Ryan Field pic.twitter.com/M6bvVjoD6w
— #B1GCats Football (@NUFBFamily) August 29, 2016
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.
After a record-setting season, the Wildcats come into 2016 with high expectations for themselves. Despite a blowout loss in the Outback Bowl, their 10 regular-season wins arguably helped them achieve their second-best season ever. But expectations from the outside are not as optimistic. In the season’s first AP Poll, Northwestern went unranked and received just five votes even though the team spent most of 2015 in the Top 25 and finished at No. 23. So what’s really in store for the Cats in 2016? Here we take a look at their schedule, starting with the first six games.
Sept. 3: vs. Western Michigan. Last year — 8-5 (6-2 MAC), won Bahamas Bowl. Coach — P.J. Fleck (fourth year)
Fleck has earned a reputation as one of the best recruiters outside of the non-Power conferences and has led the Broncos to back-to-back 8-5 seasons after going 1-11 his first year. In 2016 they return almost all of their starters on offense, including senior quarterback Zach Terrell who threw for over 3,500 yards last season and 29 touchdowns against nine interceptions. This is a team that NU should not underestimate, as starting off the season on the wrong foot will be detrimental in trying to forget about the blowout at the end of last season.
Best case scenario: Justin Jackson takes advantage of Western Michigan’s seeming inability to stop the big run play and rushes for two scores. Clayton Thorson also gets in on the running game, using his legs to keep the opposing defense off-balance. NU’s defense confuses Terrell and the Cats win by 17.
Worst case scenario: The absence of Keith Watkins II immediately burns NU and the experienced Terrell takes advantage of the non-Matthew Harris side of the field. Jack Mitchell misses a field goal, and Thorson throws at least two interceptions as the Cats look woefully unprepared to start the season and fall to the up-and-coming Broncos.
Sept. 10: vs. Illinois State. Last year — 10-3 (7-1 MVFC), reached FCS quarterfinals. Coach — Brock Spack (eighth year)
As the only FCS opponent on the schedule, Illinois State is by far NU’s easiest game, but that doesn’t mean it’s a complete cakewalk. The Redbirds were consistently ranked in the Top 6 of the FCS throughout 2015, even reaching as high as No. 2 and drawing a few first-place votes away from consensus favorite and champion North Dakota State. Illinois State lost its quarterback and running back from last season, but the rest of its starters return looking to steal a win in Evanston.
Best case scenario: This won’t be as big a win as last year’s early-season victory over Eastern Illinois, but the Cats will easily handle their FCS opponent. NU gets a big enough lead where they can rest their starters and Matt Alviti actually throws a touchdown pass.
Worst case scenario: The Redbirds keep the game close to the end, but NU manages to pull out a win at the last second. It’s a startlingly close game where Jackson leaves with an injury in the second quarter, knocking him out for a couple of weeks.
Sept. 17: vs. Duke. Last year — 8-5 (4-4 ACC), won Pinstripe Bowl. Coach — David Cutcliffe (ninth year)
NU faced the Blue Devils a year ago in Durham and won by 9 in a game that was the perfect embodiment of Pat Fitzgerald football — dominant defense, field possession and working the clock. This year the programs face off under the lights in Evanston and Duke is looking to establish some form of consistency. After starting the year 6-1 the Blue Devils lost four of their final five games but salvaged the season with an overtime win over Indiana in the Pinstripe Bowl. Their up-tempo offense sputtered against the Cats last year, and this matchup could determine whether last year’s close win was a fluke.
Best case scenario: NU again holds Duke’s offense to just one touchdown and Solomon Vault returns another kickoff for a touchdown. Thorson is responsible for three Cat touchdowns using his legs and arm and doesn’t turn the ball over, while Anthony Walker forces two fumbles.
Worst case scenario: The game is scoreless going into halftime. NU muffs a punt early in the third quarter and Duke takes advantage, but Thorson nearly saves the day by throwing a touchdown pass with three seconds left in the game. Fitzgerald opts to go for two instead of kicking the extra point to tie and the Cats fail to convert, losing the game.
Update: This post was written before it was announced Duke quarterback Thomas Sirk will miss the season with an injury. Without Sirk’s two-dimensional style of play, NU will have a much easier shot at winning.
Sept. 24: vs. Nebraska. Last year — 6-7 (3-5 Big Ten), won Foster Farms Bowl. Coach — Mike Riley (second year)
The battle for “The Real NU” could end up as the Cats’ toughest home game on the schedule. Nebraska struggled mightily last year after firing Bo Pelini, failing to reach nine wins for the first time since before the Pelini era, and Northwestern barely came away with a win in Lincoln last season. The Cornhuskers have already won the battle of the uniforms for this game (those shiny red N’s are superb work) and you can bet Ryan Field will be stocked with opposing fans. Heading into this year, Nebraska’s biggest question mark is its secondary, and it will be interesting to see whether or not the Cats decide to let Thorson air it out to take advantage.
Best case scenario: The Cats appear much more comfortable on their home turf as Nebraska struggles to put together anything that resembles an offense. A team rated highly by many “experts” in the preseason, the Cornhuskers are unable to put together more than 200 yards on offense.
Worst case scenario: Nebraska brings back the memories of the 2013 Hail Mary and 2014 Homecoming games and takes advantage of the Wildcats in prime time. The Cornhuskers move to 4-0 on the season and first place in the Big Ten West in a loss that will burn the Cats for the rest of the season.
Oct. 1: at Iowa. Last year — 12-2 (8-0 Big Ten), won Big Ten West, lost Rose Bowl. Coach — Kirk Ferentz (18th year)
NU’s loss to Iowa in 2015 was deflating for multiple reasons. First, the Cats got destroyed in the trenches, something Fitzgerald lamented following the loss and believes his team needs to be successful at in order to have a chance to defeat top-tier teams. Second, it proved the blowout loss to Michigan the week before was not a fluke and suggested the Cats were not as good as their record. Finally, it eliminated almost any chance NU had to win the Big Ten West, which had been one of the team’s goals from the beginning of the season and seemed within reach after knocking off a ranked Stanford team to open the season. The Cats need this win in order to have a shot at the Big Ten West again, but it’s unlikely they’ll get it.
Best case scenario: The Hawkeyes are not going to go 12-0 again in the regular season, but last year they managed to win a lot of close games (40-10 blowout over NU aside). That kind of run is unsustainable in any sport, and, with Iowa losing two elite offensive linemen, the Cats somehow, some way, eke out a win before their bye week.
Worst case scenario: NU limps out of Kinnick Stadium after another drubbing. The Cats are manhandled at the line of scrimmage. Wash, rinse, repeat.
Oct. 15: at Michigan State. Last year — 12-2 (7-1 Big Ten), Big Ten champion, reached College Football Playoff quarterfinals/lost Cotton Bowl. Coach — Mark Dantonio (10th year)
The Spartans were a strange team last season. They won 11 games in the regular season, but some very unconvincingly. There was the last-second field goal against Ohio State and the ridiculous punt-return touchdown against Michigan last season. Michigan State comes into the season at No. 12 in the nation, and it is still a very good team that could win double-digit games again. A blowout loss to eventual-champion Alabama burst the Spartan’s bubble at the end of last year and the team comes into 2016 without a definitive answer at quarterback after Connor Cook was drafted by the Oakland Raiders. However, Mark Dantonio’s squad has a legitimate shot at being the best defense in the country.
Best case scenario: Fitzgerald has discussed ad nauseum in the past about October slumps, and if it starts against Iowa it won’t get any better against the Spartans. This game is one Michigan State should absolutely win, but, if the Cats can keep it close like the Hawkeyes did in the Big Ten Championship Game last year, they may have a shot. NU would have to play perfectly though.
Worst case scenario: Two weeks after being blown out in Iowa, the Cats are shut out in East Lansing. NU heads into its first game against Ohio State since ESPN came to Evanston, having been outscored by 70+ points in its previous two games.
Northwestern’s football program has released a video preview for an upcoming show called “The Foundation.”
The show will give Wildcat fans a “behind-the-scenes” look at the team throughout the 2016 season, according to a press release. NU had previously produced “The Foundation” for spring football practices and summer basketball campaigns.
The first episode will debut Aug. 31 at 4:30 p.m. on CSN Chicago. Watch the full video below:
— #B1GCats Football (@NUFBFamily) August 25, 2016
We blew up the @coachfitz51 show.
— Paul Kennedy (@PK9) August 25, 2016
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.
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.