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2017 Fierce 40 Previews: #38 Northwestern

by DJ Boyer on Jul. 5, 2017

#38 Northwestern Wildcats

2016 Recap:
It was a bumpy ride for most of the year but after an upset of Pittsburgh in the Pinstripe Bowl, Northwestern finished on the right side of the .500 mark at 7-6. Northwestern lost to Western Michigan to open the season and little did we know what kind of team Western Michigan would turn into. After a loss to FCS Illinois State it seemed like a lost year. Wins in the middle of the season against Big Ten opponents Iowa, Miuchigan State and Indiana righted the ship.


Coaching:
After 11 years Pat Fitzgerald is no longer a coaching novelty. The former standout linebacker was not taken seriously when first hired but that was 11 years ago. Fitzgerald owns a career 77-62 record and has surpassed the expectations nearly everyone had when he first came aboard at his alma mater.


Offense

What's amazing about Northwestern is they continue to evolve their offensive identity from a running team to a passing one. Offensive coordinatorMick McCall continues to be under heavy scrutiny and many have called for his firing but he is back for a 10th season. It will be intersting to see how the passing game develops with Austin Carr now gone and Northwestern having one of the top running backs in the country in Justin Jackson. Jackson flirted with turning pro after last season but he is back for his senior campaign after gaining over 1,600 yards on the ground. Jackson also caught 35 passes last season so he is far from one dimensional. The downfall with the running game and the offense in general could come in the form of an offensive line that has struggled with consistency and staying healthy. Four starters are back and are led by center Brad North. This line has to perform and at least be mid-pack in terms of play in the Big Ten because right now they look to be perhaps the worst line outside of Purdue. Garrett Dickerson is the superback (A tight end/fullback hybrid) and he could be the red zone target of choice for the Wildcats.
 

Best Draft Prospects: Justin Jackson RB 3rd Round 2018

                                       Garrett Dickerson FB/TE 6th Round 2018.


Defense

Regardless of how high powered or stagnent the offense may be, Northwestern is known as a defensive squad. Most of the returning talent is in the secondary although this was the area that as a team Northwetern had the most struggles with in 2016. Godwin Igwebuike is the star here and he led the team with 108 stops a season ago. The cornerback play should be improved with Montre Hartage and Keith Watkins II. Nate Hall will led the linebacking corps although new starter Nathan Fox may be the most talanted player in the group. The defensive line has the ability to be one of the best units in the conference due to the depth the line possesses. While the individual talent is not here and cannot compete with the likes of Ohio State, Michigan or Penn State, Northwestern can play six or seven bodies consistently along their 4-3 line and not miss a beat.

Best Draft Prospects: Godwin IgwebuikeS 2nd/3rd Round 2018.                

                                       Tyler Lancaster DT FA 2018.


Special Teams:

Northwestern should win many of the battles in the Special Teams area as they excel in virtually every aspect of the Special Teams game. Hunter Niswander is one of the better punters in the Big Ten and Northwestern is excited about the kicking game, the only area they failed to perform on Special Teams last year. Solomon Vault is back as the kick returner and will keep the role despite now moving into a starting position as one of the teams three receivers. Flynn Nagel should resume duties as the punt returners again meaning there is a ton of special teams expereince returning for the Wildcats.


Schedule:

No Michigan or Ohio State on the schedule is a positive thing for Northwestern. The two toughest conference games look to be Wisconsin and Penn State and they will be back-to-back on the road and Penn State will be at home. This schedule is filled with tough games but aside from the two game stretch we detailed it doesn't look exceptionally hard.


Draft and Overall Outlook:

We haven't even talked about quarterback Clayton Thorson and he is a sneaky good player who could see himself drafted after next season. Northwestern has been placing 1-2 solid prospects a year at the next level and there is no shortage this season. Northwestern can contend in the Big Ten with a few breaks.

DJ Boyer