Northwestern Spring Preview: Part 2

anthonywalkerWith only a few games left in the basketball season, spring practice is underway for the Wildcats of the gridiron. If you missed it, be sure to read “Part 1” of the Spring Preview, which covered the outlook for Clayton Thorson and his wide receivers. In Part 2, we take a look at what we might expect from the defense as well as the play calling from Northwestern coach Pat Fitzgerald and company.

Can the defense maintain their dominance?

Last season’s 10-3 record can be credited almost entirely to their defense, which allowed only 18.5 points per game and had a 78% red zone defense.

As was the case last season, a big key to the defense continuing their reign over opposing offenses will be their ability to make up for some huge losses in personnel. Max Chapman, Traveon Henry, Deonte Gibson, Nick VanHoose, Drew Smith, CJ Robbins and Dean Lowry have all graduated and it will be up to a new group of players to step into those leadership roles. Unlike a few of the offensive position groups, the depth is there to do this rather seamlessly on defense. Underclassmen played integral roles last season and their experience should only serve as a positive with another season under their belts.

The two biggest holes could be the ones left by defensive ends Lowry and Gibson. The former was second on the team in tackles for loss with 13.5 and the latter led the team in sacks with eight. Ifeadi Odenigbo looks to be one of those players as he heads into his senior season. Odenigbo had 19 tackles to go along with five sacks, which was second on the team behind Gibson. He had his best season in a Northwestern uniform last year and will need to build on that next season in order for the defensive line to be a consistent threat.

In the secondary, Northwestern will be looking for players to fill the shoes of Henry and VanHoose. Henry was third on the team in tackles and had one sack and two picks, and VanHoose had three interceptions on the season, which would have been more if not for the blanketing coverage he played forcing quarterbacks to avoid throwing passes his way.

Northwestern will look to Godwin Igwebuike and Matthew Harris to step into leadership roles in the secondary. Both were outstanding last season, Igwebuike was second on the team in tackles and Harris led the team in interceptions despite only playing in 11 games due to injury. Also look for Kyle Queiro and Keith Watkins to step into larger roles.

But the most weight will fall on the shoulders of Anthony Walker, who will be the leader of this defense next year. As a sophomore last season, Walker led the team with 120 tackles. He was selected to the First Team All-Big Ten and was second in the nation in tackles for loss with 19.5. With so many defensive players graduating, Northwestern will be counting on Walker to put up numbers like that again next season.

Will the offense open up?

Despite their record, Northwestern had the worst scoring offense in the Big Ten last season. As we discussed in Part 1 of this preview, Clayton Thorson had a very limited playbook as a red shirt freshman and he didn’t really have any reliable wide receivers. Most of the offensive burden fell on Justin Jackson, who rushed the ball for 1,418 yards last season on 312 carries, up 67 from his freshman season.

Jackson projects to be the biggest weapon in Northwestern’s limited offensive arsenal again next season, but with no real passing game last season the offensive play call was predictable and unexciting. Once defenses got a sense of what Northwestern was going to do – often they would spend an entire half running on first down – they were very easy to stop.

Even if no clear number one receiver emerges out of camp, will we see Thorson, another year older and more experienced, given the freedom to air things out more often? Jackson is an outstanding running back, but if the offense doesn’t start to develop a threat through the air more often, Jackson’s target will also become even bigger than it already is.

A big part of the issue was Northwestern’s red zone offense last season (16 RZ touchdowns on 40 chances was the worst in the conference). But they struggled to score in general and their biggest offense weapon, Jackson, only saw the end zone five times all year (down from 10 two seasons ago). You cannot expect to beat good teams when your best offensive player doesn’t score. And if Northwestern’s offense can’t beat you any other way, defenses are going to see Jackson coming from miles away.

We may not see the answers to any of these questions emerge until a couple games into the season, but these are definitely questions Northwestern needs to be asking themselves as they begin spring practices. This year has all of the makings of a “let down” season coming off their success last year unless they actually grow as a team and prove to everyone that last year was not just a fluke.

There will be plenty of time for that growth and self-evaluation before Northwestern opens the season on September 3rd against Western Michigan.