Aug. 31, 2009
By Larry Watts
Graduation robbed Northwestern of all of its offensive skill position starters. Their replacements would fit well into No Name City of "Paint Your Wagon" fame because few people outside of Evanston have ever heard of them. But as Wildcats head coach Pat Fitzgerald says as he prepares for the 2009 season, "I know their names, and that's all that counts."
Coming off a 9-4 campaign (5-3 in the Big Ten, tied for fourth) and an Alamo Bowl appearance, Fitzgerald is confident he has the ingredients to put the Wildcats in back-to-back bowl games since he was a Hall of Fame linebacker in 1995-96. The nonconference schedule will help get the rookies' feet wet on offense while eight starters return to a defense reminding many of Fitzgerald's playing days. But the biggest return could be Wildcat coordinators Mike McCall (offense) and Mike Hankwitz (defense), who are both heading into their second season at Northwestern.
OFFENSE: Mike Kafka started the first four games at quarterback as a redshirt freshman before injuring his hamstring and then spent the next two-plus seasons as C.J. Bacher's backup. He filled in for Bacher for two starts in 2008, rushing for a Big Ten quarterback record 217 yards against Minnesota, but now he must prove he can pass as well as he can run. While the Wildcats lost three receivers who each caught over 100 passes in their careers, the good news is this year's receiving corps has a wealth of experience working with Kafka on the scout team and throughout the offseason. Often-injured senior Andrew Brewer (18 catches, 145 yards) moves over to the slot while sophomore Jeremy Ebert (15 catches, 161 yards) and junior Sidney Stewart (17 catches, 134 yards) should be big contributors. Ebert started four games last fall before suffering a season-ending hip injury. Senior Zeke Markshausen, sophomore Charles Brown and redshirt freshman Demetrius Fields are ready to make an impact. Junior Josh Rooks, one of five returning starters on offense, and sophomore Drake Dunsmore, who missed last season with a knee injury, are expected to see expanded roles at superback, Northwestern's hybrid version of the tight end/fullback. With the graduation of Tyrell Sutton (3,886 career rushing yards, 37 TDs) and backup Omar Conteh, junior Stephen Simmons (178 yards) held a slight advantage at running back heading into fall camp. Sophomore Jeravin Matthews has made the move from wide receiver and showed elusive skills in the spring. Fitzgerald likes the power running of redshirt freshman Alex Daniel and sophomore Scott Concannon while incoming freshman Arby Fields could be the ace up the Wildcats' sleeve. As the skill positions unfold, they will be protected by a veteran offensive line, where sophomores (RG) Doug Bartels, (C) Ben Burkett and (LT) Al Netter return as starters. Seniors Kurt Mattes and Desmond Taylor split time at right tackle and Taylor could also move to left guard to share time with junior Keegan Grant. Incoming freshman (LG) Patrick Ward was making a big impression in fall camp and could push for immediate playing time.
DEFENSE: With eight starters returning and depth at nearly every position, who can blame Fitzgerald when he envisions a defense from his glory days. The only drawback is four players -- senior Corey Wootton (ACL), junior Corbin Bryant (ACL), senior Adam Hahn (foot) and senior Brad Phillips (shoulder) -- are returning from surgeries. It all starts up front where defensive ends Wootton, a Playboy preseason All-American, and speedy sophomore Vince Browne are expected to create havoc in the offensive backfield. Wootton, a physical specimen at 6-foot-7, 270 pounds, had 16 tackles for loss last year while Browne, a maniac in the weight room, posted 7.5 TFLs before injuring his knee at Minnesota. Bryant and Hahn will be forces in the middle of the line. Although he didn't qualify as a returning starter, Hahn does have 27 career starts under his belt. When (MLB) Malcolm Arrington went down with a season-ending injury in the seventh game, junior Nate Williams stepped in and wound up as the team's fifth-leading tackler (66). Veteran Quentin Davie (57 tackles), a junior, is poised for a breakout year while sophomore Ben Johnson is a solid complement at strongside linebacker. Led by senior safeties Phillips and Brendan Smith, all four starters return in the Cat secondary. The hard-hitting Phillips, who led the team with 109 tackles and shared the lead with three interceptions, is capable of moving up to linebacker in nickel situations. A four-year starter, Smith picked off two passes last year and both were returned for touchdowns, including the game-winner at Minnesota. He was third on the team with 82 tackles in 2008. At cornerback, senior Sherrick McManis usually draw's the opposition's top receiver and sophomore Jordan Mabin, who had three picks last season, is a rising star. Sophomore Brian Peters and junior Justan Vaughan should see plenty of action at safety and corner, respectively.
SPECIAL TEAMS: Junior Stefan Demos may not have the biggest leg in the Big Ten, but his rugby-style punts certainly limited the opposition's return game last year. Twenty-six of his 64 punts landed inside the 20 and that percentage (40.6) was tops in the Big Ten. Demos' role may expand to handle all kicking duties this fall. Freshman Jeff Budzien, a high school All-American, will challenge for placekicking duties in fall camp. Smith is back to handle punt returns while McManis and Simmons will probably handle the kick returns. Matthews and Arby Fields could also figure into the picture.
MISCELLANEOUS: Will Mike Kafka change Northwestern's track record in replacing quarterbacks since going to the spread offense? After the graduation of Zak Kustok, the Cats went 3-9 in 2002. Following Brett Basanez' departure, they were 4-8 in 2006 ... After one week in fall camp, senior linebacker Chris Jeske elected to retire and become a student coach. The former Illinois player of the year has battled a series of back and leg injuries ever since coming to Northwestern ... One area where Fitzgerald would like to see history repeat itself is in the schedule. In each of the Cats' three Big Ten championship seasons since 1995, Ohio State was not on the schedule. The Buckeyes are off the schedule for the next two years.