In early July, I took my family on a vacation off-the-grid (for the most part anyway); I had no internet access, no Twitter, no text messages. I was offline for only a few days, and it was clear that I missed quite a bit regarding Northwestern when I came across the announcement of an interim head coach for the Wildcats. I had presumed after Pat Fitzgerald turned down multiple NFL jobs and signed a ten year contract, he was going to be a Northwestern lifer. I dare say nobody saw this scandal coming.
Interim head coach David Braun is getting his introduction to Power Five college football on the fly. He was hired this past offseason as Northwestern’s defensive coordinator after four years as North Dakota State’s defensive coordinator and safeties coach. Prior to that Braun spent two years at Northern Iowa, two years at Cal-Davis and four years at division 2 Winona State, his alma mater. Presumably selected because he had the least exposure to the scandal, he’s clearly in uncharted waters. Last week, Northwestern hired former UConn, South Florida, East Carolina and Louisiana Tech head coach Skip Holtz as a special assistant to help guide Braun through this unprecedented situation.
After Northwestern failed to win a game on U.S. soil last season, expectations were pretty low. (Yes, they did win one game in Dublin that I’d rather not remember.) And with this scandal, maybe those expectations should get dropped a bit further.
At quarterback, senior Ryan Hilinski (6’3” 217 lbs.) has been benched the last two seasons and is still recovering from a major knee injury sufferred late last season, where he completed just 56% of his passes for 1,644 yards and six touchdowns with seven interceptions. Sophomore Brendan Sullivan (6’3” 225 lbs.) likely was the leading quarterback following spring practice until Northwestern dove into the transfer portal. Cincinatti transfer Ben Bryant (6’3” 217 lbs.) completed 61% of his passes for 21 touchdowns and seven interceptions for 2,731 yards last season. You have to presume that Bryant is the likely starter at this point.
Leading rusher Evan Hull departed for the NFL, leaving junior Cam Porter (5’10” 220 lbs.) to fill the hole. Porter rushed for 286 yards last season after missing 2021 due to injury. Junior Anthony Tyus (6’1” 225 lbs.) has 266 career rushing yards. While there will be more opportunities for the backs now that Hull has departed, the running back corps will undoubtedly take a step back in 2023.
If you thought the running back room looked a little empty, look next door at Northwestern’s receivers room. Junior Bryce Kirtz (5’11” 190 lbs.) is the leading returning receiver with 19 catches for 212 yards. Junior tight ends Marshall Lang (6’4” 245 lbs.) and Thomas Gordon (6’5” 240 lbs.) combi ned for 27 catches last season for 354 yards. Senior tight end Charlie Mangieri (6’4” 250 lbs.) returns after being limited to just two games last season. The Wildcats did hit the portal, snagging former Michigan receiver AJ Henning (5’10” 185 lbs.).
Things don’t look any better on the offensive line, where NW has to replace All-American left tackle Peter Skoronski, who’s was a first round draft pick of the TItans. Sophomore Caleb Tiernan (6’7” 325 lbs.) gets the unenviable task of filling that hole; he started six games at guard in 2022. Junior left guard Josh Priebe (6’5” 310 lbs.) started seven games last season before a season-ending injury.
Defensively, the Wildcats are in better shape in terms of experience, though not necessarily up front. Senior defensive end Sean McLaughlin (6’6” 270 lbs.) had 31 tackles last season, but he’ll be surrounded by three sophomores. Sophomore defensive tackle Najee Story (6’4” 285 lbs.) started three games and had 25 tackles last season.
The strength of the defense will be the linebackers, with a group that returns intact. Junior middle linebacker Bryce Gallagher (6’2” 235 lbs.) is a two-year starter who led NW with 100 tackles last season. Junior weakside linebacker Xander Mueller (6’3” 235 lbs.) was second for NW with 87 tackles; his eight tackles for loss led the Wildcats. Junior star lRod Heard (5’11 185 lbs.) had 67 tackles last season, and if they need more size, junior strongside linebacker Greyson Metz (6’3” 230 lbs.) had 41 tackles last season.
Northwestern’s secondary is lead by senior safety Jeremiah Lewis (5’11” 197 lbs.), who had 70 tackles last season. Junior safety Coco Azema (5’11” 205 lbs.) returns after injuries limited him to just two starts last season; in 2021, he had 72 tackles for NW. Junior cornerback Garnett Hollis (6’2” 205 lbs.) added 29 tackles as a spot starter last season.
Prior to the scandal breaking, I would have expected Northwestern to be better on defense and regress quite a bit on offense in 2023. That’s not a failure point in the Big Ten; Iowa makes that a winning combination year in and year out. But the scandal throws everything into a big mixer; it could serve as a huge motivating factor or lead to players mailing it in as undoubtedly a new coaching staff is likely to come in this next winter. A non-conference slate against UTEP, Duke and Howard is manageable, and Ohio State gets replaced by Rutgers on the schedule as east opponents. One thing I’ve learned is don’t count out Northwestern, and while they may be the most likely last-place team in the Big Ten’s west division, stranger things have been known to happen.
What’s your prediction when NW takes on the real NU in Lincoln?
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NW has a way of frustrating the Huskers...and they shock the Big Ten with a road upset
NW plays smart and tough, but the Huskers pull out a narrow win at home.
It’s like two years ago again... NU blasts NW early and often in a Big Red Blowout.