The Daily Northwestern



Positional Previews

Quarterbacks: Finding stability in a crowded room

Northwestern’s inconsistent quarterback play was a major reason why the Wildcats’ offense failed last season. As a position group, the four quarterbacks who played important minutes in 2019 combined for just 6 passing TDs, but 15 INTs.

So in a 2020 season that has already seen so much fluctuation and uncertainty, finding stability at quarterback this year will be vital to NU's success.

Coach Pat Fitzgerald and his staff believe they have found that consistency with the addition of graduate transfer quarterback Peyton Ramsey to their roster. Ramsey completed 68 percent of his passes last season at Indiana and tallied 13 touchdowns while throwing just 5 interceptions.

His experience starting 23 games over the past three seasons, coupled with 147.7 passing efficiency rating that ranked 31st in the country last season, is probably one of the many reasons Ramsey won the job. But, if last year proved anything, the Cats also need to have backup options ready.

Senior quarterback Aidan Smith opted out on Friday, leaving the Cats with four quarterbacks from last year’s quarterback room returning — sixth-year T.J. Green, juniors Hunter Johnson and Andrew Marty and redshirt freshman Zac Krause. They also added freshman quarterback Carl Richardson in last year’s recruiting class.

Johnson certainly has the potential to be a serviceable backup who can learn and blossom next season. As the number one quarterback in the 2017 recruiting class, Johnson had lofty expectations and struggled to live up to them in his first season in Evanston. But with a new season and a new offensive coordinator, Johnson could be a great option if Ramsey were to go down. Green could be a dark horse candidate given his experience, but a new offense and returning from an injury could limit him from taking the field this season.

- Andrew Golden

Courtesy of Northwestern Athletics

Running Backs: Bowser looks to establish himself again as lead back

Last season, then-sophomore Isaiah Bowser was expected to be the lead back after being a key cog in Northwestern’s Big Ten title run two years ago. But injuries sidelined him for most of the 2019 campaign, allowing other running backs behind him to get touches and gain experience.

Sophomore Drake Anderson led the way in the backfield with 634 yards rushing last season, but, other than him, the running backs struggled to produce. The Wildcats’ second-leading rusher last season was redshirt freshman Evan Hull, who gained 220 of his 286 yards in one game last season against UMass.

So the 2020 season should be a balance between Anderson and Bowser, who both bring different styles — Anderson is a speedy runner, while Bowser plays as more of a one-cut back. But the Cats tend to use more than just two backs during the course of the season.

Hull or senior Jesse Brown could see action early in the season at running back as a backup like he did last season. Brown, who was honored with the No. 1 jersey before the season, had 108 all-purpose yards in the team’s first two games last year and showed flashes. Offensive coordinator Mike Bajakian has emphasized getting the ball to playmakers in space, so look for senior Kyric McGowan to also get touches from the running back position like he did at times last season.

Aside from the more experienced running backs, NU has three freshman running backs — redshirts Marcus Cisco and Connor Newhouse and true freshman Cam Porter. Porter came from the same high school as standout Jeremy Larkin and has the potential to see playing time, coming in as the second-best recruit in the 2020 recruiting class.

NU has a lot of options at running back, but will be anchored by Anderson and Bowser as they look to bounce back from a dismal season as a group.

- Andrew Golden

Daily file photo by Noah Frick-Alofs

Receivers: Lees headlines veteran unit with talented underclassmen

Last season, Northwestern’s eight receivers combined for 1,257 yards as part of the nation’s fifth-worst offense. With inconsistent quarterback play and conservative play calling, the Wildcats’ receivers struggled as only one player caught more than 50 passes and gained more than 200 yards.

But this year looks to be different. With former Indiana quarterback Peyton Ramsey under center and a new up-tempo offensive coordinator Mike Bajakian, NU’s skilled receivers have a chance to shine in 2020.

Despite Bennett Skowronek joining Notre Dame as a graduate transfer, the Cats are well-suited at receiver with numerous veterans, including senior Riley Lees. After reeling in a team-high 430 yards and two touchdowns in 2019, Lees — who also returns punts and kicks — hopes to use his speed and shiftiness in the slot to become a top target of Ramsey.

NU’s other starting receivers are seniors Ramaud Chiaokhiao-Bowman and Kyric McGowan. In 2020, Chiaokhiao-Bowman will be utilized as a tall target on the outside and gain yards after the catch, while McGowan will use his speed and skills to be a big-play maker. The Georgia native ran for a 79-yard touchdown against Purdue last season and hauled in a 77-yard touchdown pass against Michigan State in 2018.

Additionally, some of NU’s younger receivers are primed for a larger role in the offense. According to Bajakian, sophomore Malik Washington — who caught six passes for 25 yards in 2019 — impressed coaches during fall camp with his performance. Redshirt freshmen Genson Hooper-Price and Bryce Kirtz could see plenty of action for the Cats after not playing in 2019. NU also returns juniors Berkeley Holman and JJ Jefferson, who combined for 279 yards and two touchdowns last season.

- Drew Schott

Daily file photo by Alison Albelda

Tight Ends: Out with the superbacks, in with the new

Mike Bajakian is instituting a bunch of changes to Northwestern’s offense, but none more niche than eliminating the superbacks position and returning tight ends to Evanston.

The switch is pretty much in name only. For the past few years, superbacks were serving in almost the exact same role as a tight end. There will be a few differences — mostly in where tight ends will line up on the line compared to superbacks — but they will not be extremely noticeable.

Last fall, the superbacks had almost no impact whatsoever on offense. Of the Wildcats’ 156 receptions and 1404 receiving yards, superbacks accounted for just seven catches and 30 yards. Those 30 yards account for less than one percent of Northwestern’s total offense output of 3565 yards. Suffice to say, that is unacceptable.

That lack of production will not be the case last year. Junior Charlie Mangieri, who started most of the season, is back. So is junior Trey Pugh, who missed most of the season with an injury before returning late in the year. Both will not only have another year of experience under their belts, but also an expected bigger role in the offense.

But a potential breakout star of the entire offensive is graduate transfer and Week 1 starter John Raine. Raine comes to NU after spending four years at Florida Atlantic. He had a great season in 2019, catching 38 passes for 343 yards and six touchdowns.

With more two tight end sets expected in Northwestern’s offense, it will be crucial for Charlie Mangieri, Trey Pugh and Raine to rise up after last season’s nothingburger from the position group. Last year, their struggles were overshadowed by other positions on offense — most notably, quarterback.

But that likely won’t be the case this fall. There will be added eyes and added pressure for this group to perform and contribute. Who steps up and becomes a key piece will become a major reason for the success, or lack thereof, of the offense.

- Peter Warren

Courtesy of Northwestern Athletics

Offensive line: Makeshift line looks set to protect Ramsey

Heading into the offseason, pundits were high on a Northwestern offensive line that held a struggling offense afloat for much of last year's slog of a season. Anchored by potential first-round pick Rashawn Slater and seniors Gunnar Vogel and Nik Urban, the line held opposing defenses to under two sacks in 4 of the season’s last five games — accommodating a carousel of quarterbacks who struggled under the bright lights at Ryan Field.

Together, the offensive line corps allowed NU’s running attack to surpass 275 yards three times, including a masterclass performance against Illinois on Nov. 30, in which the team recorded a season-high 383 yards in a 29-10 win. When all was said and done, the Cats’ runners finished fourth in the Big Ten with 180.1 yards per game.

The unit finished last season with 23 sacks allowed, good for 55th in the nation. They were even better against the run, ending up in 44th place nationally.

Things are different now. Rashawn Slater is headlining a list of COVID-related opt-outs. Sophomore Sam Stovall medically retired. Last year’s stalwart at center, Jared Thomas, graduated. So did solid backup Cam Kolwich.

Which begs the question: who are the players set to protect Peyton Ramsey?

Vogel and Urban are the veterans. They’ll provide leadership to a top-line recruiting class which includes freshman Josh Priebe and Peter Skoronski, the newly installed starter at left tackle. They’re two of the best offensive line talents to ever take their talents to Northwestern. Sam Gerak, a center in high school, will slide there having spent last year on the interior.

It’s a year of uncertainty — and no one really knows what to expect from an offensive line that’s full of moving pieces and parts.

- Greg Svirnovskiy

Daily file photo by Joshua Hoffman

Defensive Line: With Gaziano and Miller gone, line looks inward to fill holes

The life cycles of college football players are fickle and often frustrating. Players spend years developing into talented stars and leaders -- only to graduate. And then they’re gone. Joe Gaziano, the defensive corps’ longtime leader in production and identity is gone, fighting to start his NFL career with the Los Angeles Chargers. The Miller brothers, Alex and Samdup, won't be suiting up at Ryan Field either. The former graduated last year and the latter opted out for the season due to COVID-19 concerns.

Those three players together accounted for 13.5 total sacks last year, garnering a combined 71 solo tackles and 48 assists — leaving behind a big hole for the defense to fill.

But there are players in the room who can step up. Senior Earnest Brown IV has been a dynamic pass rusher the past three seasons and junior Trevor Kent returns to the starting lineup after a solid first season on the interior.

Brown will be the focal point. The defensive end has played in 31 games over his three-year career at NU, registering six sacks and 21 solo tackles in that span. He was outstanding in the Big Ten Championship game against Ohio State two years ago, sacking Dwayne Haskins. If he stays healthy this season, it won’t be the last time you see Brown sacking an NFL quarterback.

But the cupboard is well stocked. Last year’s defensive line was great, leading a defense that stopped opponents 59 percent of the time when less than four yards were needed for a first down, good for 14th in the country. The Cats finished as the nation’s 36th best defense against the run last year, allowing just 14 rushing touchdowns all season long. And they allowed only 4.9 yards per defensive play, good for 26th place nationally.

- Greg Svirnovskiy

Daily file photo by Allie Goulding

Linebackers: Starting trio leads Northwestern's best unit

This season, Northwestern’s top defensive unit will be its stellar linebacking corps of seniors Blake Gallagher, Paddy Fisher and Chris Bergin.

Anchoring the nation’s 43rd-best defense in 2019, the trio combined for 266 tackles and were responsible for four of the Wildcats’ seven interceptions.

After leading the Big Ten with 127 tackles in 2018, Gallagher looks to build on his junior season of 91 tackles and three interceptions. The Massachusetts native made 60 tackles in the midst of a seven-game losing streak last fall, including three consecutive contests with double-digit tackles. Additionally, he led NU with three interceptions, grabbing a pick in three of the Cats’ final four games.

A preseason All-Big Ten honoree, Fisher made 89 tackles and caught one interception during his junior season. After being named to the All-Big Ten First Team in 2018, Fisher started 2019 off strong, forcing three turnovers in two games. Despite only reaching double-digit tackles once — he made 10 stops in NU’s 13-10 loss to Nebraska — Fisher had six tackles for loss across 12 games, tied for third-most on the team.

Lining up with Gallagher and Fisher will be Bergin, who made 86 tackles in 12 games last season. Bergin had back-to-back double-digit games against Stanford and UNLV, as well as an 85-yard touchdown return of a blocked field goal against UMass.

Behind the leaders of the linebacking unit, the Cats have some question marks. Senior Erik Mueller has only 13 career tackles across his three-year career, while junior Peter McIntyre made two tackles in 2019. Sophomore Jaylen Rivers, despite appearing in seven games last season, had no tackles.

Earlier this fall, Gallagher said NU hopes to have the most physical linebacking corps in the Big Ten. With this group, they have the chance to achieve it, as well as be the top unit in the conference.

- Drew Schott

Daily file photo by Alison Albelda

Secondary: Defensive backs look to boost productivity, stay healthy

Defensive coordinator Mike Hankwitz has echoed the same message throughout this prolonged preseason: Northwestern needs more takeaways in 2020.

The Wildcats averaged 1.2 caused turnovers — forced fumbles and interceptions — per game in 2019. That was an uncharacteristic statistic for a program that prides itself so much on its defense: Last season was not only the first time the caused turnovers-per-game statistic has dropped below 1.5 since 2007, but the only time it’s dropped that low in the entire Pat Fitzgerald era.

Hankwitz will turn to his secondary for a turnaround in 2020. Junior cornerback Cam Ruiz and senior safety JR Pace are two of the unit’s returnees, having combined for 86 tackles and two interceptions in 2019.

The loss of Pace’s safety partner Travis Whillock is one of the biggest stories of this year’s secondary. The Texas native was a bright spot in an otherwise mainly dismal season for NU in 2019, earning an All-Big Ten Honorable Mention and collecting 78 tackles and two fumble recoveries. Whillock was one of five players to opt out from the 2020 season, and his slot will be filled by redshirt freshman Brandon Joseph, who saw time in four games for the Cats in 2019.

Greg Newsome — who broke into a starting role in the secondary corps as a freshman out of IMG Academy in 2018 — is back after a 2019 campaign where he led the team with 11 pass breakups. But Newsome has battled injuries throughout his past two seasons, and he’ll already reportedly be missing this year’s opener against Maryland with another one.

The Cats’ corners and safeties have traditionally struggled to stay healthy as a unit. The depth is there — backups Bryce Jackson and AJ Hampton all saw game time in 2019, while second-string safety Coco Azema impressed filling in at running back in the season finale at Illinois.

With no bye week in the schedule and an already-shortened season, a backfield that stays not only productive, but healthy, is more important than ever for the Cats.

- Ella Brockway

Daily file photo by Alison Albelda

Special Teams: Grad transfer, Kuhbander lead unit

For the third straight season, Northwestern has brought in a grad transfer punter. The Wildcats have had mixed success with the last two — Jake Collins was solid in 2018, but Andrew David lost the job out of camp to Daniel Kubiak in 2019.

Punter Derek Adams arrives from Kent State after finishing as All-MAC second team in 2017 and All-MAC third team in 2019. His career punting average of 41.7 would rank as the second-highest in Northwestern history behind John Kidd, who was a first team All-American in 1983. Adams, who will also be the holder on kicks, has the potential to be a game changer if he continues booming punts at that average.

Senior Charlie Kuhbander has been the starting kicker since Week 1 of his freshman season, but has not been as steady as Pat Fitzgerald would like. After a solid freshman year, Kubhander dealt with a torn muscle in his kicking leg his sophomore year and was inconsistent last autumn as a junior. A lot will be expected of Kuhbander in his fourth season, especially if he’s healthy, and it will be interesting if he can put it all together.

In the return game, senior Riley Lees is back for another season of fielding kicks. The dynamic wide receiver has spent the previous three years returning kicks and punts, and while he hasn’t returned any for touchdowns, he has come close to breaking a few for six.

One name that won’t get much publicity but is someone to know is senior long snapper Tyler Gilikin. Not only is Gilikin balancing his studies in the Feinberg School of Medicine, but he was named Preseason All-Big Ten by college football aficionado Phil Steele. Having an experienced and sure-handed snapper like Gillikin won’t draw headlines, but is a great asset for any team to have.

- Peter Warren

Daily file photo by Allie Goulding

Season Predictions


Ella Brockway

To quote the closing number from the 2018 blockbuster “Mary Poppins Returns” — which I watched a day before that year’s Holiday Bowl and now remember fondly in my mind — there’s Nowhere to Go But Up for Northwestern this season.

The 2019 campaign was a dismal one, marked by injuries, oft-questionable play-calling and a rotating quarterback room that threw as many touchdowns in one season as Joe Burrow scored in one game. (Which, somehow, was also in 2020. Time doesn’t exist.)

I don’t feel confident about making many predictions in this rollercoaster of a year, but I do feel solidly sure that the Wildcats are better than they were in 2019. Returning seven starters on defense. Bringing in a new quarterback who has experience playing in the Big Ten. Bringing in a new offensive coordinator who has experience not ranking 128th — out of 128 teams — in yards per play. A manageable slate with two favorable crossover opponents.

The Big Ten West is always an interesting one to watch, and with the condensed schedule and no room for a bye week, that’ll be no different this year. The early back-to-back against Iowa and Nebraska makes room for trouble, but I think the Cats pull some shades-of-2018 magic and take a win from either Wisconsin or Minnesota late in the fall. A 5-3 finish seems reasonable.


Andrew Golden

This shortened season actually favors Northwestern. Since 2016, the Wildcats have struggled in non-conference play, either losing to a team they shouldn’t have lost (read: Akron) to or losing to slightly better opponents (read: Duke and Stanford). With a shortened season playing familiar Big Ten West opponents, I like NU’s chances to win six out of eight.

In a season full of uncertainties, one thing is certain about the Cats: their defense will dominate again. Even with the losses to the front seven, the linebacker trio of Chris Bergin, Paddy Fisher and Blake Gallagher will anchor the defense. Against Maryland and Iowa, both starting inexperienced quarterbacks, defensive wizard Mike Hankwitz will pull out the tricks to get NU to 2-0.

The team’s next two games against Nebraska and Purdue will be wins too as the team starts to find the rhythm on both sides of the ball. But Week 5 against Wisconsin will be the real test for the Cats. At this point, we will know how well this offense is operating under Mike Bajakian and Peyton Ramsey. With two stout defenses facing each other, the Badgers’ offense will make enough plays to come out on top.

Pat Fitzgerald’s squad will split the next two road games, beating Michigan State and falling to a talented Minnesota team. In the team’s final game of the season against Illinois, well, if NU beat the Fighting Illini last year, who knows how badly the Cats will beat them this year.


Drew Schott

For the first time since 2014, Northwestern is opening its season after failing to reach a bowl game. This makes a great start all the more important for the Wildcats — who are notorious for their early-season blunders.

In 2020, NU has an early opportunity to show its growth from last year in a Halloween matchup against Iowa at Kinnick Stadium. A victory in Iowa City would give the Cats a boost of momentum and confidence for the back half of their eight-game conference schedule against Wisconsin, Michigan State and Minnesota.

There is no question that this NU team is talented. With a transfer quarterback familiar with the Big Ten in Peyton Ramsey, the Cats have a proven signal-caller who can help the offensive talent around him flourish. On the other side of the ball, one of the best linebacking corps in the Big Ten anchors the defense. .

NU’s quest for a Big Ten Championship will end against the Badgers and the Golden Gophers, the two top teams in the Big Ten West last season. While a division title is unlikely in 2020, an above-.500 campaign will show that the Cats’ return to Indianapolis may be sooner than expected.


Greg Svirnovskiy

I’m a meat and potatoes guy.

So some of the opt-outs and injury related retirements on both sides of the line have given me pause on heading into the season. Northwestern will miss guys like Samdup Miller and Rashawn Slater. But with Mick McCall out the door, I’m looking forward to seeing what incoming transfers Peyton Ramsey and John Raine can do in Mike Bajakian’s historically adaptable offense. He’s coached guys like Antonio Brown and Travis Kelce. Now, he gets a chance to tutor Isaiah Bowser and Riley Lees.

The Cats will beat Maryland, Nebraska and Illinois —-- those are gimmes. They’ll lose to the big boys: Iowa, Wisconsin and Minnesota. But I’m betting they come away with two close victories against Purdue and Michigan State to finish 5-3. After too many single-score losses last season, the cards are set to swing back in the other direction.


Peter Warren

Any prediction for how the next eight weeks will go for Northwestern football is more a guessing game than an exercise in prognostication. Almost any scenario feels in play in a season like this.

It might not blow you away, but this Wildcats team has talent on both sides of the ball. The team is packed with solid, competitive veterans and up-and-coming youngsters with talent. It feels simple to say, but as long as the quarterback room is league average, the team has the potential to be in the race for the division title.

And NU’s third schedule of the year is its best one yet. The Cats get Wisconsin, Michigan State and Minnesota all in the back half of their season. And while they will face Iowa, Michigan State and Minnesota on the road, who knows what home field advantage will look like in empty stadiums.

NU’s matchup against Iowa at Kinnick will be a key moment. With a win, the Cats will be able to have a lot more control of their destiny. With a loss, fate and fortune will be in the driver’s seat, and we all know they are crazy behind the wheel.

Daily file photo by Joshua Hoffman

Gameday Editors
Ella Brockway
Andrew Golden
Peter Warren
Published On
October 23, 2020