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2016 Fierce 40 Previews: #29 Northwestern

by DJ Boyer on Jul. 19, 2016

#29 Northwestern Wildcats

2015 Recap:

Most people forget about Northwestern besting Stanford 16-6 to open the season and jumping out of the gate with a 5-0 record. Northwestern was then pulvorized in successive weeks by Michigan and Iowa by a combined 78-10 and they were written off by nearly everyone as being pretenders. Northwestern proceeded to win five more in a row before being waxed by a peaking Tennessee squad in the Outback Bowl. a 10-3 record is great but eight of the ten wins were by 10 points or fewer so this season could have been a lot worse.


Coaching:
It's hard to believe Pat Fitzgerald is entering his 11th season at Northwestern and his 70-56 record is very respectable. The 2015 version of the Wildcats were a lot like their ex-linebacker coach played the game. Mick McCall and Mike Hankwitz run the offense and defense for Northwestern.


Offense

Looking at the offensive numbers from last season you wonder how this team won ten games...or even six. Northwestern was 120th passing the football and 116th in total offense while averaging less than 20 points per game. Clayton Thorson is entrenched as the starter and he continues to develop as a passer. Thorson can move and run with the football and he is a capable thrower. Don't let the 51% completion percentage fool you, Thorson had a number of balls dropped last season with an inexperiened group of pass catchers. Thorson needs to comtinue to grow so junior running back Justin Jackson has room to operate. Jackson is also the top returning pass cather with 21 grabs a season ago and the Wildcats have an entirely new receiving corps. Austin Carr and Solomon Vault will be asked to do much of the work for the wideouts. The line is a bit of a patchwork process, Northwestern is an average offensive line overall with some good young depth that just seems to lack experience. Ian Park and Eric Olsen patrol the right side of the offensive line and look to be the best prospects for the next level.
 

Best Draft Prospects: Justin Jackson RB UFA 2018.

                                       Ian Park OG UFA 2017.


Defense

As many negative comments that we had for the offense, flip that over to the positive side for the defense. This was the most underrated defense at the FBS level last season, end of discussion. Northwestern has lost their share of great players from last season but there were so many players they rotated in for game action that the Wildcats will reap the benefits for 2016. Anthony Walker has a chance to be an NFL first rounder and is a linebacker that can play the middle or along the outside. Fellow returning starter Jaylen Prater is nearly as flexible for where he lines up. Tyler Lancaster showed continued improvement at nose tackle while end Ifeadi Odenigbo contributed 5 sacks as a reserve. While Walker is the best player there is no doubt Godwin Igwebuike is the best pure athlete. The safety lined up all over the field last season and opponents can expect more of the same this year. For Northwestern it was a bend-but-don't break philosophy and culminated with being ranked 12th in the nation in scoring average allowing just 18.6 PPG.

Best Draft Prospects: Anthony Walker LB 2nd Round 2018 (Early Declaration possible).

                                      Godwin Igwebuike S 4rd Round 2018.


Special Teams:

The kicking game for both field goals and punts suffered for Northwestern last season, perhaps making a few games closer than what they needed to be. Jack Mitchell missed 9 field goals for Northwestern but seemed to hit a couple of clutch kicks. Hunter Niswander was near the bottom of the Big Ten in punting but the Wildcats redeemed themselves a bit with Solomon Vault and his continued brilliance in the kick return game.


Schedule:

A 4-0 start will be needed by Northwestern because the schedule in October is cruel. Iowa and Michigan State on the road open October followed by Indiana, another road game with Ohio State and finally home with Wisconsin. Northwestern will be fortunate if they go 3-2 in this stretch. The close to the schedule is easier like the front. If Northwestern carries some momentum in the middle of October they could be near the top of the conference again. If Northwestern lays an egg out of the gate....this could be a long year.

Draft and Overall Outlook:

There are a couple of blue chip NFL players here with Anthony Walker and the emerging Godwin Igwebuike at safety. Tyler Lancaster and C.J. Robbins hold some promising along the defensive line. The offense lacks a standout prospect right now but the recruiting class was strong this past season.

DJ Boyer