The notion that it’s merely sufficient to recruit well to be successful dies when it comes to the Northwestern Wildcats. Despite constantly pulling in some of the lowest recruiting rankings in the Big Ten, Pat Fitzgerald’s teams deliver on the field, winning the Big Ten’s west division title two out of the last three seasons. To me, it illustrates that the most important element of success in college football is coaching and development. Schools with great recruiting (i.e. Texas, Southern Cal) underperform due to poor coaching, while schools with great coaching, such as Northwestern, exceed the expectations from their recruiting. The Holy Grail, of course, are those programs like Alabama and Clemson that combine both.
Great coaching by itself can only take programs so far, especially at times when there’s a high amount of turnover on the roster. That might be the case at Northwestern in 2021, where only eight starters from 2020 return. Two years ago, NW had to replace six starters on offense and went 3-9.
In 2021, Northwestern has to replace seven starters on offense.
South Carolina transfer Ryan Hilinski (6’3” 225 lbs.) would seem to be the heir apparent at quarterback in 2021. Two years ago, Hilinski started 11 games for the Gamecocks, completing 58% of his passes for 2,357 yards and 11 touchdowns, but found himself third string after a coaching change last season. Hilinski will be battling former five-star Clemson transfer Hunter Johnson (6’2” 215 lbs.), who’s started five games for Northwestern the last two seasons, completing just 46% of his passes with one touchdown and four interceptions. Also in the mix is Andrew Marty (6’3” 224 lbs.), who started one game in 2019, completing 64% of his passes with two touchdowns.
Northwestern’s receiver corps is in full rebuild mode in 2021 as last year’s top four receivers all depart. JJ Jefferson (5’10” 180 lbs.) sat out last season after catching 22 passes for 336 yards and four touchdowns in 2018-19. Kansas transfer Stephon Robinson (5’10” 180 lbs.) was injured most of last season, but did catch 45 passes for 727 yards and eight touchdowns in 2019 for the Jayhawks. Tight end Charlie Mangieri (6’4” 250 lbs.) caught seven passes for 53 yards and two touchdowns last season.
With those question marks, Northwestern will almost certainly lean on their running backs, who exploded late last season. Cam Porter, who only carried the ball eight times for 32 yards in the first four games, rushed 73 times in the final three games of the season. Porter’s season total was 333 yards with five touchdowns, averaging 4.1 yards per carry. Evan Hull rushed for 209 yards as a freshman, with 149 against Illinois. Of Hull’s five touchdowns last season, four came on runs of 30 yards or more, giving him a gaudy 8.4 yards per carry average. Bowling Green transfer Andrew Clair (5’11” 205 lbs.) missed much of the last two seasons due to injury, but had rushed for 1,937 yards in 15 starts.
Three starters return on the offensive line, led by left tackle Peter Skoronski (6’4” 294 lbs.), who was a second team all-Big Ten honoree as a freshman last year. Center Sam Gerak (6’4” 295 lbs.) has started every game for the Wildcats the last two seasons, along with Ethan Wiederkehr (6’5” 295 lbs.) at right guard/tackle.
Northwestern’s defense should be led by the line, where two starters from last season return. Defensive end Adetomiwa Adebawore (6’2” 265 lbs.) started two games as a true freshman then all nine games last year along with defensive tackle Joe Spivak (6’0” 300 lbs.). But the big addition is the return of defensive end Samdup Miller (6’3” 270 lbs.), who was injured for part of 2019 and opted out last season. In 2018, Miller was fourth on the team in tackles for loss with 6.5; he totaled a career high 14 tackles against the Huskers.
After four years of all-Big Ten middle linebacker Paddy Fisher and three years of Blake Gallagher at weakside linebacker, only Chris Bergin (5’11” 215 lbs.) returns at strongside linebacker in 2021. Bergin had 86 tackles in 2019 and 78 last season. The new guys, weakside linebacker Peter McIntyre (6’2” 231 lbs.) and middle linebacker Khalid Jones (6’0” 230 lbs.) only have 12 and three tackles respectively in their careers, so there’s a lot of inexperience to overcome.
In the secondary, safety Brandon Joseph (6’1” 192 lbs.) returns after a freshman season that saw him named first team all-Big Ten with 52 tackles and a Big Ten leading six interceptions. (Including one in the end zone where Joseph stole one from Nebraska’s 6’8” Austin Allen.)Cornerback AJ Hampton (5’11” 180 lbs.) started three games last season with 26 tackles and five pass breakups. Last season, Northwestern had the entire secondary return and that resulted in the Big Ten’s top pass defense in 2020, but expectations are a lot lower in 2021.
Never underestimate a Pat Fitzgerald coached team. Never. But 2021 has all of the makings of a rebuilding year in Evanston. With a somewhat favorable crossover schedule (playing Michigan, Michigan State and Rutgers from the East division), the Wildcats will probably pull off a couple of upsets and make it at least to bowl eligibility.
What’s your prediction when Northwestern plays NU?
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More frustration for Husker fans as NW wins yet again in Lincoln.
It’s close as NU/NW games typically go, but the Huskers end up on top.
Nebraska’s further along in answering their questions in 2021. It’s a big victory for the Big Red.