For the first time since 2015, there is uncertainty at quarterback for Northwestern.
It’s not because senior Clayton Thorson’s job is in danger. The Wildcats have gone 27-12 in the three years since Thorson won the job at the beginning of the 2015 season, but the senior leader’s status for the season opener at Purdue has been in jeopardy ever since he tore his ACL in the Music City Bowl in late December.
Signs in camp were encouraging. Coach Pat Fitzgerald said that Thorson’s goal is to play against Purdue in the opener, and the gunslinger was seen at training camp completing a chest bump and landing solidly on his injured right leg. Fitzgerald, as expected, avoided shedding any light on the situation throughout game week.
If Thorson is healthy, he’ll bring stability and senior leadership to the most important position in football. He’s already thrown for the second-most yards in program history, and if he can pile up just over 3,000 more — a number he reached in 2016 and approached last year — he’ll set the record. Thorson is familiar with the offensive system, has demonstrated the ability to win against quality completion and has a cannon for a right arm. He’s also a dual-threat quarterback who has tallied 518 rushing yards and 18 rushing touchdowns over his 39-game career.
After a less-than-impressive freshman season, Thorson has since completed nearly 60 percent of his passes and improved his patience in the pocket. With his 6-foot 4-inch, 226-pound frame, strong arm and impressive athleticism, there’s a reason Thorson has been featured in the first round of some 2019 NFL mock drafts.
However, Thorson is not exactly a Heisman Trophy front-runner. He’s still inaccurate at times, and the Cats’ 27-12 record hasn’t come on the back of an explosive offense or a dynamic passing game. Oklahoma and Baker Mayfield they are not.
If Thorson isn’t ready Thursday night, things get really interesting quickly. There are five other quarterbacks on the roster: junior T.J. Green, sophomore Aidan Smith, redshirt freshman Andrew Marty, true freshman Jason Whittaker and five-star sophomore transfer Hunter Johnson, who will be forced to sit out the season due to NCAA transfer rules.
Of the four other quarterbacks, only Green has thrown a pass in a game at the collegiate level, completing his only attempt for five yards at the end of a 49-7 blowout of Bowling Green in September 2017. He won the training camp battle for the right to start if Thorson misses time, but that's a scenario the Cats would probably prefer to avoid.
Daily file photo by Jeremy Yu
Justin Jackson’s career always had to end.
That someday is now here for the back who tallied 5,440 career rushing yards, good for 11th in FBS history, four 1,000 yard seasons and a 100 percent completion percentage as a passer (he was 1 for 1).
But alas, Jackson is now competing for a roster spot with the Los Angeles Chargers and the world will move on without him in Evanston. And he appears to have a pretty clear successor.
Jeremy Larkin burst onto the scene in 2017, establishing himself as the clear No. 2 behind Jackson and giving Northwestern a change-of-pace element reminiscent of the Venric Mark era. He rushed for 503 yards in his redshirt freshman season; his best game came in the Music City Bowl, when he gained 112 yards on just nine carries.
Larkin will be at the controls of a Wildcat rushing attack that has the tools to be very successful in 2018. NU returns most of last season’s offensive line, and Clayton Thorson’s return should benefit Larkin. Opposing defenses will no doubt look to key in on the passing attack, especially with Jackson gone. That should give Larkin lots of opportunities, especially early in the season.
There’s no question that losing Jackson will be a huge blow to the Cats. But in his admittedly limited action last season, Larkin flashed quickness and shiftiness that even Jackson — truly one of the best backs in college football history — never did. So NU fans should rightly be excited about what could be a breakout season for Larkin.
John Moten will likely get the first look behind Larkin. The junior served as Jackson’s backup in 2016 before losing the job to Larkin last season. But there will be enough carries for multiple backs, so Moten should play a part.
There are a plethora of other running backs on the roster. Of note is freshman Drake Anderson — the son of Damien Anderson, who held the NU rushing record before Jackson broke it last season — who will wear Jackson’s former No. 21 in purple.
Daily file photo by Allie Goulding
The question before the 2017 season was simple: Who will replace Austin Carr?
The answer wasn’t one specific player. A year ago, five different players caught 30 or more passes each for the first time since 2007 and quarterback Clayton Thorson didn’t have one favorite target — a contrast to 2016, when Carr accounted for nearly 40 percent of the team’s total receiving yardage.
Heading into 2018, three of those five players have graduated, and with them goes 41 percent of last season’s receiving production. The departure of Garrett Dickerson, Macan Wilson, and Justin Jackson hurts, but still return two starters and bring competitive depth to the table.
Junior Bennett Skowronek leads the receivers after finishing with team highs in receiving touchdowns and total yards during his breakout 2017 season. His six-foot-four frame and his ability to get open down the field made him Thorson’s favorite target in 2017, and he’ll look to improve his consistency as the Cats’ No. 1 receiver in 2018.
Flynn Nagel is the Cats’ other returning starting receiver, after his team-best 48 catches last season. The senior performed well in clutch situations, and he’ll be an important short-yardage slot receiver again in 2018.
Sophomore Ramaud Chiaokhiao-Bowman, with just four career receptions to date, was listed as the third starter in the Week 1 depth chart, but he'll have lots of competition for his role. Up-and-coming sophomores Riley Lees and Kyric McGowan, senior speedster Jelani Roberts, Oregon graduate transfer Jalen Brown and even junior Charlie Fessler will all see the field and have a chance to earn more playing time.
At superback, replacing Dickerson and his versatility as a pass-catcher and a blocker will not be easy.
Cam Green, who saw snaps as Dickerson battled injuries in 2017, seems well-equipped to fill the spot. The junior pulled in 20 catches for 170 yards last fall. If he can prove himself as a blocker, he may well succeed Dickerson as the next in a line of talented NU superbacks.
In an offense that can no longer depend on Jackson and his multidimensional talents — in addition to his record-breaking feats as a running back, Jackson had the third-most receptions for the Cats in 2017 — there’s potential for a player like Skowronek or Green to become Thorson’s go-to man and make a major impact.
Daily file photo by Jacob Swan
A year ago, Northwestern went as its offensive line went. The front five struggled mightily in the Wildcats’ 2-3 start, surrendering eight sacks to Wisconsin and grinding NU to just 148 rushing yards in its first two conference games.
But all of a sudden, the line picked up its level as the Cats won eight straight to close the campaign. And with four returning starters — many of whom paved the way for Justin Jackson to set the program rushing record, coach Pat Fitzgerald points out often — there is cautious optimism for the unit this season.
“Now they have to play with that experience. That’s a group that — good, bad or indifferent — they’ve been bulls-eyes,” Fitzgerald said earlier this month. “But we have to be more consistent.”
That consistency will be key right off the bat at Purdue, with quarterback Clayton Thorson’s status uncertain and Jeremy Larkin leading the rushers instead of Jackson.
The standout of the line is senior right guard Tommy Doles, who has started all 26 games the last two seasons and was named to the Outland Trophy watch list this summer. The close friend of Thorson has steadily risen throughout his time in Evanston, securing honorable mention all-conference distinctions in 2016 and third-team honors last season.
Doles will be joined on the right side by sophomore tackle Rashawn Slater, who impressed enough to start 12 games as a true freshman a season ago. Slater took command of the up-for-grabs spot midway through the season, ending the “revolving door” that had plagued the Cats, Fitzgerald told Big Ten Network at the conference’s media days.
Senior tackle Blake Hance and senior guard J.B. Butler will anchor the left side after a shakeup at the beginning of last year moved Hance to guard and Butler to the bench. Each played the entirety of the winning streak at their more natural spots.
Brad North’s graduation leaves the lone open spot at center, where junior Jared Thomas is the natural choice to take over. A longtime reserve center, he then assumed left tackle responsibilities to begin 2017 before reverting to his backup spot on the interior.
He is likely to face some competition as the season progresses, with sophomore backup Nik Urban a possible challenger. Even if Thomas — or someone else — rolls to the permanent starting role, Fitzgerald said he hopes to find seven or eight reliable options across the line.
Daily file photo by Lauren Duquette
Despite losing heart-and-soul guy — and excellent player — Tyler Lancaster to graduation, the defensive line nonetheless returns four proven players who should lock down each of the starting roles and make this unit arguably the best on the team.
Brothers Sam Miller, a sophomore end, and Alex Miller, a junior tackle, will fill one of the sides with both run-stopping expertise and brotherly love. Steady senior Jordan Thompson occupies the other tackle spot, and junior Joe Gaziano looks to be one of the best defensive ends in the conference this year.
Gaziano is the undisputed star in this group, improving on a promising 2016 freshman season with an impeccable 2017 campaign. The Massachusetts native registered 12.5 tackles for loss, four forced fumbles, nine sacks and 12 quarterback hurries, leading the team by a wide margin in the latter two categories. But Thompson and Alex Miller are both excellent run-stoppers, too: the Cats ranked 10th in the country in rushing yards allowed per attempt for a reason, and that reason wasn’t just Lancaster.
There’s plenty of veteran depth in this room, too. Seniors Ben Oxley and Fred Wyatt are the biggest linemen in terms of height and weight, are experienced with the system, and appeared as backups in all 13 games last year. Junior Trent Goens had four sacks (yet only 11 other tackles) in 2017.
The big unknown is what roles (or lack of roles) true freshman Devin O’Rourke and sophomore Earnest Brown — the top-ranked players by 247Sports in each of NU’s last two recruiting classes — will take on.
O’Rourke and Brown are ultra-talented defensive ends who just happen to be stuck behind a loaded cast of upperclassmen. It would probably be wisest for O’Rourke to redshirt, but new a NCAA rule that allows even redshirted players to still play in up to four games means that Cats fans could still see him some this fall. Brown was listed as a backup in the Week 1 depth chart; O'Rourke was nowhere to be seen.
Daily file photo by Lauren Duquette
It didn’t take long for Pat Fitzgerald to find Anthony Walker Jr.’s successor.
In his redshirt freshman season, Paddy Fisher was everywhere for Northwestern’s defense, finishing as the only Power 5 player to finish at least two games with 18 or more tackles. He was named to the All-Big Ten second team by the media and Big Ten Freshman Defensive Player of the Year by Big Ten Network. And he led all freshmen in tackles with 113.
His performance against Michigan State proved that Fisher was a force to be reckoned with in Evanston. He finished with 19 tackles and two forced fumbles in a game that the Wildcats eventually won in triple overtime. For that performance, he was named Walter Camp National Defensive Player of the Week.
NU’s other returning starter is Nate Hall, whose most iconic moment with the Cats is his game-sealing interception in that same game against the Spartans. Hall finished with 79 tackles, good for second on the team. In his senior season — and in his return from a December ACL tear — he’ll need to continue playing at a high level.
There are a number of questions at the third linebacker spot with Brett Walsh gone. Sophomore Blake Gallagher will get the first crack at it; he saw the field in 2017 as a true freshman. He may face competition from talented junior Nathan Fox, who played behind Fisher a season ago.
Sophomore Chris Bergin and redshirt freshman Peter McIntyre are the other backups on the depth chart. True freshman Khalid Jones, a South Carolina native rated by some as a four-star recruit, could also compete for a spot.
NU’s linebacking corps have the chance to be one of its most dominant position groups in 2017. And along with a solid defensive line, the Cats will boast a daunting front seven when they take on Purdue.
Daily file photo by Lauren Duquette
Longtime leaders Godwin Igwebuike and Kyle Queiro are gone, leaving some question marks in the defensive backs room this season. Though established senior Montre Hartage and juniors Alonzo Mayo and Trae Williams will provide consistency at cornerback, a new coach and two new starters make the defensive backfield an area to keep an eye on this fall.
Senior Jared McGee and sophomore JR Pace are expected to fill the vacated positions at strong and free safety, respectively, but neither has ever held down a starting role before. McGee has played frequently as a backup the past two seasons, appearing in 25 of 26 games and recording 63 tackles, seven passes defensed and three interceptions over that time span. Pace saw the field a little as a reserve during his 2017 true freshman year and will be asked to make a big jump this fall.
Both McGee and Pace missed spring practice with injuries, though — a scary thing for a position group that, in recent years, endured more injury plagues than any other unit.
“(The mood is) a lot different,” Pace told the Daily in April. “I’m just trying to soak everything in. … It’s a little hard. But I will try to assume that leadership role when I get back playing.”
Under the tutelage of converted running backs coach Matt MacPherson, shifted over to the opposite side of the ball when former defensive backs coach Jerry Brown retired last winter, an untested and relatively unknown horde of other safeties have seen lots of playing time this spring and summer.
Redshirt freshman Bryce Jackson and sophomore Travis Whillock served as the first-team safeties in spring ball, while Jackson was joined by junior Joe Bergin, merely a reserve defensive back up to this point in his collegiate career, in the Week 1 depth chart. Unclear is the status of junior Roderick Campbell, a former four-star recruit who missed all of last year with an injury but showed well in 2016.
Hartage has locked down the No. 1 cornerback role; Mayo and Williams will compete as the season progresses for the No. 2 spot and both should see a lot of the field in nickel and dime sets.
NU historically deploys its defensive backs rather conservatively, playing well off the ball as part of the bend-but-don’t-break defensive approach. The Cats were 117th in pass completions allowed last season, but 26th in yards allowed per attempt. That mentality of keeping all receivers in front of them, coupled with a stellar red zone defense (top 10 for two consecutive years), has been a big part of NU's overall defensive effectiveness.
Daily file photo by Jeremy Yu
The Wildcats are set to have some different prominent faces on special teams in 2018 — but the results could look very similar.
Gone are punter Hunter Niswander and kickoff specialist Luke Otto, while kick return maestro Solomon Vault is set to return after injury cost him 2017. That leaves kicker Charlie Kuhbander and punt returners Flynn Nagel and Riley Lees primed to continue their responsibilities from a season ago.
Kuhbander hit a respectable 13 of 16 field goals as a rookie and converted all but one extra point, but he made nothing beyond 40 yards and Fitzgerald usually seemed more comfortable to keep the offense on the field than trot out Kuhbander. Nevertheless, the Ohio native has no strong competition this season.
Punting in 2017 followed a similar script, as Hunter Niswander averaged 43 yards per punt — far better than in his previous campaigns — but still threw in occasional clunkers. With Niswander graduated, graduate transfer Jake Collins, a solid if unspectacular performer at Western Kentucky, should handle punting duties in 2018.
Nagel was notorious for fair catches last year; he officially returned just five punts for 16 total yards. Lees, meanwhile, who was sent out on fewer occasions, had a 39-yard return against Purdue but put just seven others in play.
Kick return, thus, offers the most likely spot for excitement. Lees and reserve running back John Moten took the bulk of returns, tallying decent numbers but no spectacular efforts. A healthy Vault, meanwhile, returned at least one kick for a touchdown in each of his first three seasons, including a momentum-changing score at Michigan State in 2016.
Should Vault’s swiftness and shiftiness return after a long injury layoff, the Cats could get a difference-making spark in a close contest — an ability still up in the air for NU’s other specialists.
Daily file photo by Lauren Duquette
Northwestern returns a lot of talent from last year’s 10-win team, but three factors will work against them this year: schedule, injuries and luck.
The schedule’s challenges are obvious. Not only do the Wildcats have a top-15 team (Notre Dame) and another bowl team from a power conference (Duke) among their three non-conference foes, they also draw two of the toughest possible opponents in cross-divisional play (Michigan and Michigan State) and, of course, must play Wisconsin. There are four near-automatic losses right off the bat.
Every team has injuries, of course, but the Cats go into Week 1 — and this is no average Week 1, having to play a Big Ten road game right off the bat — with two of their best seniors (quarterback Clayton Thorson and linebacker Nate Hall) coming off December ACL tears. That’s not a great start considering that more nicks, bruises and serious injuries too will inevitably happen once the season gets underway.
Finally, the last two times NU went 10-3 — in 2012 and in 2015 — it turned around and went 5-7 and 6-6 the following regular seasons. For a program that can’t recruit at an elite level and instead relies on discipline, gameplan and remarkable close-game prowess to succeed, it’s hard to produce back-to-back excellent seasons. Plus, it’s not like the Cats are going to win three overtime games again, either.
NU has enough playmakers on each side of the ball — Jeremy Larkin, Joe Gaziano and the like — to mask some holes and pull off one upset of a highly-regarded team like Michigan or Michigan State. But it’s the schedule that will hold the Cats back: Even if NU snags a win against a probable top-15 team, it can only afford to lose one game to a lower-quality opponent to earn this record.
That’s a tall ask given questions at superback and safety, but a doable task. The Cats’ fearsome front seven will slow opposing offenses, while improvement at receiver and along the offensive line should steady an offense welcoming back Thorson and beginning post-Justin Jackson life.
Much has to go right if NU is to beat all of Purdue, Iowa and Nebraska (the former two on the road), but if 2017 is any indication, the Cats will find ways to win when they’re playing well. Should NU display the consistency it did late last season, another decent bowl game is well within reach.
It’s all about the start. In 2016, it was the opening home losses to Western Michigan and Illinois State. In 2017, it was a 2-3 record by the second week of October. We haven’t seen Northwestern come firing out of the gate since the 5-0 start of 2015.
The Cats need to channel 2015 and start the 2018 season on a high note. An early 3-0 start before Big Ten play ramps up in earnest would give NU a healthy dose of momentum heading into the daunting back-to-backs of Michigan-Michigan State in weeks 5 and 6 and Wisconsin-Notre Dame in weeks 9 and 10.
A strong early start and at least one win in that four-game midseason stretch might not spell a division title, but it could mean bowl eligibility and building NU’s respectability in the Big Ten.
Is it too bold to say Northwestern is good? Because Northwestern is good. They have a top-tier Big Ten quarterback, offensive and defensive lines returning almost all of their key contributors, most of the linebackers from a very good rushing defense are back, and the secondary is good enough for the Big Ten (though maybe not some conferences).
Last year, the Wildcats were lucky and played an easier schedule. Luck is notoriously hard to repeat, though Pat Fitzgerald has consistently done well in one-possession games throughout his time at NU. The schedule is harder, but the Cats are also better.
The team will miss Justin Jackson, the best running back in program history, and the consistently high level of play at safety from Godwin Igwebuike and Kyle Quiero, but there are enough pieces on this team to win every game it should and steal one of the four games against highly-ranked teams.
People seem to be forgetting that Northwestern brings the Power 5’s longest active win streak into the 2018 season. Now, it’s not quite as long as Central Florida’s. But the Wildcats’ eight-game run to end the season means they’re poised for big things in 2018.
As has been the case for the last four years, pretty much everything will come down to Clayton Thorson. How will his surgically-repaired knee hold up? Will he be ready for the opener on Aug. 30? And if he isn’t, who will NU’s quarterback be?
One thing is no question: The schedule is absurdly tough. But that’ll mean a ton of close games, and a lot of national attention if the Cats can string together some wins. NU’s matchup against Michigan — the first at Ryan Field since the infamous game that ended with Trevor Siemian falling on a game-deciding two-point conversion attempt — will set the tone for the season.
And remember: if NU is somehow undefeated when it hosts Wisconsin on Oct. 27 or Notre Dame on Nov. 3, we could be welcoming College Gameday back to Evanston. We all know that’s why we’re really here.
Daily file photo by Jacob Swan