Northwestern football: 10 critical questions the Wildcats must answer in 2022
Northwestern began training camp last week. It was a little earlier than usual, but head coach Pat Fitzgerald wanted to make sure his team had a month’s worth of practices before opening the season against Nebraska in Dublin, Ireland, on Aug. 27. The Wildcats have undergone some changes on both offense and defense but have plenty of familiar faces returning. The task for Coach Fitz and his staff, coming off a 3-9 season, will be to get everyone to gel together to have a bounce back season.
Before the “Cardiac Cats” can even think about a bowl game, they have some issues to sort out in training camp. These are issues that will ultimately decide how this team performs once the season begins. But as they prepare for the 2022 campaign, here are 10 questions that must be answered before the season begins. …
1. Who starts at quarterback?
For a team looking to improve an offense that finished 11th in the Big Ten (322.3 ypg) last year, this is quite an important question. And since there’s no Clayton Thorson or Peyton Ramsey on the current roster, it does not have an easy answer.
Ryan Hilinski has the most game experience of any signal-caller on the team right now, but he has struggled to fully seize control of the starting job. He completed just 54 percent of his 2021 pass attempts for 978 yards and 3 touchdowns.
He also threw 4 interceptions, took 9 sacks and had his share of injuries. Granted, a subpar offensive line (more on that later) played a role in that. But Hilinski hasn’t always looked comfortable in Mike Bajakian’s offense, and has made questionable decisions at times. Nonetheless, he will get every opportunity to start on opening day.
The only other QB who has had snaps in a game is Carl Richardson (19 passing yards in 3 games last year). But expect freshman Jack Lausch to get plenty of chances as well. The 3-star from Brother Rice High School in suburban Chicago recorded 2,447 passing yards, 1,084 rushing yards and 41 total touchdowns during his high school career.
2. Can Cam Porter have a breakout season?
After rushing for 333 yards and 5 touchdowns as a freshman during the Cats’ historical 2020 campaign, Porter missed all of ’21 after getting injured during training camp. Evan Hull did a solid job in Porter’s absence, as he went on to be the Big Ten’s 6th-leading rusher (1,009 yards). But imagine the one-two punch that Northwestern could have in the backfield with both men healthy. And if Porter can stay healthy and put up bigger numbers, it would take a great deal of pressure off whomever settles in at quarterback.
3. Will the next go-to receiver please stand up?
Malik Washington (44 receptions, 578 yards, 2 TDs in ’21) and Bryce Kirtz (19, 203, 10.7 yards per catch) most likely will lock down starting positions. But who will grab that No. 3 receiver job, and who can emerge as the next great Northwestern receiver? All eyes will be on Calvin Johnson II to possibly be that guy. While he has yet to catch a pass in Evanston, he has plenty of potential based on his high school numbers (4,051 all-purpose yards, 64 total touchdowns).
4. Is more production available from the TEs?
Under Bajakian’s play-calling since 2020, Wildcats tight ends (Trey Pugh, Charlie Mangieri, Marshall Lang, John Raine, Thomas Gordon) have caught 60 passes for 459 yards and 9 touchdowns. And of those 5 tight ends, only Mangieri, Gordon and Lang are on this year’s roster (combined to catch just 22 balls last season). Getting them more involved in the passing attack will not only give the Wildcats more options downfield, it will improve this offense as a whole.
5. Can the O-line make progress?
I know it sounds cliche to say success starts up front, but when you consider that NU allowed the 3rd-most sacks in the Big Ten last year (29), you know that disrupted the offense’s rhythm. It ended drives and killed scoring chances, which ultimately helped cost this team some games.
6. Where will the pass rush come from?
The first place to look will be in the direction of defensive ends Adetomiwa Adebawore and Sean McLaughlin, who combined for 6 sacks last season. They’ll obviously need to increase their numbers to be successful, but they can’t do it by themselves. Adebawore and McLaughlin will need an assist from less experienced players such as Jason Gold Jr. (no career sacks) and freshmen Anto Saka and Brendan Flakes, among others.
7. Can LB Bryce Gallagher take the next step?
He’ll have no choice but to do exactly that. With Chris Bergin on to the next phase of his life, and older brother Blake departing the team a year ago, Bryce is now the top guy in the middle of the defense. Gallagher already has 96 tackles to his credit, but now he needs to be the anchor on defense.
8. Can the secondary provide more leadership?
Yes, especially since this is now the most experienced position group of the defense. Defensive backs Coco Azema, Cameron Mitchell, Jaheem Joseph, Nigel Williams, Garnett Hollis Jr., Tyler Haskins, Rod Heard II, Joe Dehaan (all juniors), A.J. Hampton Jr., Jeremiah Lewis (both seniors) and Trent Carrington (graduate student) make up 11 of the 33 upperclassmen on defense.
9. Which youngsters can make the biggest impact on defense?
Aside from the players already mentioned, Chris Bergin’s younger brother Owen (also a linebacker) will see some more reps this season. Defensive backs Ore Adeyi and Theran Johnson, along with defensive lineman Najee Story, are also players to pay attention to.
10. How does Northwestern replace Charlie Kuhbander?
Kuhbander was special when it came to kicking the ball. And while it’s unknown if Jack Olsen (1 career extra-point attempt) or Jacob Tabibian can be at least half as good, as long as they’re consistent this team will be in good shape.