Tuesday, June 12, 2007

Big Ten Football Previews – Part III

Editor's Note: This is the third in a series of my annual summer Big Ten football previews. Check back weekly (approximately) to see who’s next...

Team: Northwestern Wildcats

Tidbits … The Wildcats are one of eight different teams to claim at least a share of the Big Ten title in the last decade (2000). Northwestern won two of its last three games in 2006.

Past Predictions/Results:
2006 Prediction/actual: 4-8, 1-7 (T-9th) / 4-8, 2-6 (T-8th)
2005 Prediction/actual: 5-6, 3-5 (T-7th) / 7-5, 5-3 (T-3rd) – Sun Bowl
2004 Prediction/actual: 5-7, 2-6 (9th) / 6-6, 5-3 (4th)
2003 Prediction/actual: 3-9, 0-8 (11th) / 6-7, 4-4 (T-7th) – Motor City Bowl
2002 Prediction/actual: 4-8, 1-7 (T-6th) / 3-9, 1-7 (T-10th)
2001 Prediction/actual: 7-4, 4-4 (T-5th) / 4-7, 2-6 (T-10th)

Returning Starters: 7 offense, 8 defense, 0 kickers

Key Returnees: QB C.J. Bachér, QB Mike Kafka, All-Purpose Andrew Brewer, WR Ross Lane, RB Tyrell Sutton, C Trevor Rees, OT Dylan Thiry, DE Corey Wootton, LB Adam Kadela, SS Brendan Smith

Key Losses: RB Terrell Jordan, WR Shaun Herbert, OG Joe Tripodi, LB Nick Roach, CB Marquise Cole, PK Joel Howells

Looking Back ... 2006 might have been the toughest year in Northwestern football history. Not because of the results on the field, but because of the sudden, shocking grief off the field. When Randy Walker passed away so unexpectedly in early summer, nothing going forward (that season) really mattered. Still, Northwestern stayed home and hired the young and full of fire Pat Fitzgerald to pick up the pieces. Given time, he is as likely to succeed as any young coach in the game.

On the field, 2006 had plenty of ups and downs. It started with an emotional season-opening win against Miami-OH, the program Randy Walker left for Northwestern. 1-AA New Hampshire brought the ‘cats back to earth by smashing them in the home opener. The loss at Nevada was a tough one, but showed that this very young and unpolished team had some future potential. That loss started a six game losing streak that made the season even tougher, culminated with the biggest stumble in D1 history – a 41-38 loss to Michigan State after leading 38-3 in the second half. Still, the season ended strong, with a nice performance at Michigan, a win at Iowa and a win over rival Illinois to close out the season. The young offense got a chance to improve and the defense got better as the year wore on as well, leaving Northwestern in decent shape heading into 2007…

Outlook - Offense ... 2006 was a year of transition for the Northwestern offense. In part, the death of Randy Walker was a factor, but more than that, it was the youth at quarterback. Teams could – and did – key on Tyrell Sutton and force the Wildcats to pass. The result? Northwestern ranked dead last in scoring and passing offense and struggled to eighth best on the ground, despite having one of the more electrifying, multi-talented tailbacks in the conference. The good news is that the growing pains suffered in 2006 should mean more consistency and success for the entire offense in 2007.

Leading into 2006, it was a question of who would man the quarterback position, when that new signal caller would emerge as a consistent threat, and how that QB would lead the team. There are far less questions as we enter 2007, even if three youngsters took turns handling the reigns a season ago. One, the athletic and immensely talented and versatile Andrew Brewer, will see the majority of his time spent at wide receiver. That means it is a two horse race (maybe) to see who gets to lead the charge this fall.

Junior C.J. Bachér was solid at the end of the ’06 campaign and would get the nod if the season started today. He has a better grasp on the aerial attack at this point than Sophomore Mike Kafka. Kafka’s strength is toting the rock. He was second on the team in rushing yards last season and brings a nice change of pace. The two can’t rest on last year’s experience however. Redshirt freshman Joe Mauro has size and a very promising all-around game and with a great August, could unseat Kafka, and maybe even Bachér. Regardless of who gets the nod, Northwestern’s passing game needs to be more consistent this fall if the Wildcats are to get back to a bowl game this holiday season.

The biggest strength of an otherwise generally inept offense in 2006 was the ground game. Tyrell Sutton is perhaps the most overlooked and under appreciated tailback in the Big Ten. He is shifty, fast and durable. He has great hands out of the backfield and can break long runs on any play. His vision is something you cannot teach. And his work ethic has improved by leaps and bounds since he burst onto the scene. In two seasons, he has already amassed nearly 2,500 yards rushing and his best football seems to be ahead of him.

The key will be finding a reliable back-up, or perhaps a change of pace guy. Last season that was Terrell Jordan. Jordan has moved on, however, leaving a wide open race for the remaining carries. The odds on favorites might well be senior Brandon Roberson and junior Omar Conteh. The pair had some solid battles in spring ball and it will be the guy who can perform with consistency that will get the call. If Sutton stays healthy, look for him to rack up numbers closer to his freshman campaign and for the Northwestern offense to improve greatly.

A position that needs to see some growth might be one of the most loaded on the team. Northwestern’s offense calls for multiple wide receivers to step up with good hands, great route running and solid play-making. The leading receiver from ’06 – Shaun Herbert – has departed and that means it’s time to find a new go-to guy. It could be Ross Lane, Eric Peterman or Rasheed Ward – the third - fifth leading receivers a season ago. It might be experienced senior Kim Thompson, the biggest target of the lot. Or the speedy Jeff Yarbrough. Coach Fitzgerald also likes what he sees in “rookies” Sidney Stewart, Lee Coleman and Carl Fisher.

For my money though, the guy to watch is converted quarterback Andrew Brewer. Brewer started four games at quarterback last fall and understands things from a signal caller’s perspective. He should have a leg up on truly knowing where to be and when. His athleticism and overall talent make him a huge threat with star potential at wide out, not to mention special teams. The bottom line is simple; there is ample opportunity for three or four guys to see the ball 40 or more times this season. It just remains to be seen which players are up to the challenge and can bring this passing game from worst to respectable this season.

In the Northwestern spread offense, there is not a true fullback or even really a tight end. In Evanston, it’s all about the superback – a combo fullback/tight end, or sort of “jack of all trades” sort of guy. It isn’t a position of glory as the most called upon duty is blocking when an extra body is needed in short yardage or true blitzing situations. The trio competing for this unheralded but vitally important role in the Wildcats offense are sophomores Mark Woodsum and Brendan Mitchell and senior Nathan Shanks. You won’t see electrifying plays from this position, nor gaudy stats. But if the NU offense is moving the ball in the aforementioned situations, you’ll be able to look to this position as a key reason for the success…

While not the deepest position at this point, the offensive line is full of experienced starters. With a still young quarterback calling the shots, it is imperative that he have a trustworthy group in front of him. Northwestern has quietly been churning out some very high quality offensive linemen and this season looks to be similar. The center position as well as the left side of the line returns in tact, with three solid seniors ready to go out as winners holding down the fort. Trevor Rees is a very good center with a chance to be among the best in the conference. Mammoth left tackle Dylan Thiry is far and away the best NFL prospect of the trio. Left guard Adam Crum will be a full time starter this fall despite being smallish for a guard. The key will be how the right side fills in and what kind of depth Northwestern can develop given the age of the left side. Junior Joel Belding is slated to start at right guard and he got some good experience in 2006. Right tackle is a little up in the air, but it appears that sophomore Kurt Mattes will take on that task. The real worry here again is depth. There are bodies, but only one is a junior (third string right guard Alex Rucks) and the rest are sophomores or redshirt freshmen. In some of the early season contests, look for the staff to try and develop players like right tackle Mike Boyle, right guard Ramon Diaz, center Keegan Grant, left guard Desmond Taylor and left tackle Tyler Compton. It is always important to have seven or eight guys that you can plug in to the lineup and not skip a beat. If Northwestern gets there this year, there should be vast improvement on last year’s woeful offensive performance.

This still won’t be the glory days of the Northwestern offense but the potential is there to be far better than last season and much more respectable in general. There is more experience returning than a season ago, namely at quarterback. Northwestern could surprise, but only if the offense holds up its end of the bargain.

Outlook - Defense ... You can’t really blame the defense for the shaky 2006 season. Was it as good as it needs to be? Not even close. But hey, it wasn’t nearly as bad as the unit that took the field in 2005. Northwestern was a mid to bottom of the pack, but semi-respectable seventh in scoring defense and total defense with a better pass defense (fifth) than run defense (ninth) and a so-so at best turnover margin (ninth – 22 forced). It does need to get better in 2007 though if the Wildcats are to put up a winning record. The good news? One of the best ever to play “D” for the purple and black runs the show…

It all starts up front. Sound familiar? The same can be said about any defense at any level. As repetitive, even cliché as it may be, it’s true and needs to be reiterated. All four starters return from last year’s team, led by sophomore defensive end Corey Wootton. As a freshman, the rangy end tallied 4.5 sacks and was seventh in tackles. Impressive for a first year starter. As he gets bigger and stronger, he should only get better, which is a scary prospect for opposing quarterbacks. The other end position has two viable starting candidates in senior Mark Koehn and junior Kevin Mims. Toss in senior end David Ngene and another youngster in Corbin Bryant (looked good early in 2006 and then got a medical redshirt) there is plenty of experience, depth and talent on the outside.

The men in the trenches have become some of the better up-the-middle guys in the Big Ten. Three in particular got early playing time in their careers and are poised to break out in 2007. John Gill, Adam Hahn and Keegan Kennedy will really solidify the middle of the Wildcats’ defense and help shore up the shaky run defense. Marshall Thomas and Tanner Highlen round out the playing group at tackle. With four starters returning and several with quality minutes in the book, this should be a strength for the defense where it was perhaps the weakness a season ago. In a league full of talented tailbacks, no team will have success without a very good front four and Northwestern is capable of putting that foot forward.

It’s a good thing Northwestern has some strength up front, because aside from fifth-year senior Adam Kadela, the NU linebacking corps is the weakness of the defense. Don’t get me wrong, there are some potential playmakers waiting in the wings, but the unit as a whole is light on experience. As noted, the bedrock is Adam Kadela. Kadela led the team with 80 tackles last fall and will be busy again this year, as a leader of the defense and as a teacher of the up and coming linebackers. Senior Eddie Simpson and junior Mike Dinard are slated to flank Kadela and do have experience, but are they ready to be every play defenders in a conference full of play-making offenses? As many as seven others will compete for playing time at linebacker this fall. Malcom Arrington (Jr.), Chris Malleo (Sr.) and Prince Kwateng (Jr.) will be called upon to contribute and must do so or the advantage gained up front will quickly get lost in the shuffle. Others to keep an eye on are Quentin Davie, Nate Williams, Chris Jeske and Rejaie Johnson – the latter two return from injuries.

The secondary takes a bit of a hit with the departure of Marquise Cole, a good, experienced cornerback but returns two senior starters to go with the anchor of the group, junior strong safety Brendan Smith. Smith led the team in interceptions a season ago and was second in tackles. Free safety Reggie McPherson, a 6-1 senior returns to hold down the other spot. With the departure of Cole, the task of lockdown corner will likely falls to senior Deante Battle. Sophomore Sherrick McManis has been penciled in as the replacement for Cole, but there is some decent depth here as well that should come into play. At the corners, those players are redshirt freshman Justan Vaughn and junior David Oredugba. Oredugba has great size (6-2) and could be key against the bigger receivers in the nickel or dime packages. At the safety position, senior Ben Rothrauff had a solid off-season and provides some relief for McPherson. Sophomore Brad Phillips could make a name for himself as the backup to Smith. The facts here are: there is depth, some experience and a solid returning core from a pretty good pass defense a year ago. The question is, with what appears to be a very weak group of linebackers in front of them, how will the secondary fare? That is the million dollar question…

The defense was fair in 2006 no better and not much worse. It only surrendered 17 points to a potent Michigan offense on the road and seven to Iowa but 54 to Ohio State and more concerning, 41 to Michigan State. The offense will be better, no doubt about it. Can the defense hold up its end of the deal? I’m not completely sold – yet.

Outlook - Special Teams ... Both kickers from what was an average – at best – unit are gone and that doesn’t bode well for a still young team that needs to be good in all phases of the game to rebound to a winning season. After spring ball, it appears that it could be a one man show for all kicking duties. Redshirt freshman Stefan Demos has a slight edge right now, but will be challenged by junior Amando Villarreal for place-kicking responsibilities and junior Kyle Daley for punting duties. Whomever wins these oft over-looked jobs holds a rather important key to the success of the Northwestern Wildcats. The good news is that the return game is solid. Andrew Brewer will likely be a large contributor with Sherrick McManis and Brendan Smith also in the mix.

9/8 – NEVADA
9/15 – DUKE
9/22 – at Ohio State
10/6 – at Michigan State
10/20 – at Eastern Michigan (Ford Field)
10/27 – at Purdue
11/3 – IOWA
11/10 – INDIANA
11/17 – at Illinois

Key Games: 9/22 – at Ohio State, 9/29 – Michigan, 11/3 – Iowa, 11/10 – Indiana, 11/17 – at Illinois

Prediction ... Northwestern is yet another team in this conference that could go a long way to proving me dead wrong. The thing is, I am usually pretty close on my predictions for the boys in purple. There is some good young talent and the team will be better than last year, even if the record doesn’t show that so much. The out of conference slate might be the easiest (aside from Minnesota) in the Big Ten, with the only real test coming from Nevada. NU misses Penn State and Wisconsin this year, but starts Big Ten play with Ohio State and Michigan. A bowl game is not out of the question, but in my opinion, if Northwestern gets to .500 or better, that means Pat Fitzgerald should garner Coach of the Year honors.

OOC: 3-1 (loss to Nevada)
B10: 2-6 (wins over Minnesota and Indiana)
Overall: 5-7, 9th in the conference

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