Northwestern football: 10 most valuable players from the past decade
Over the last 10 seasons (2012-2021), Northwestern has built itself into one of the more competitive football programs in the country.
This is evidenced by the 69-54 record they’ve posted during the stretch (43-42 vs. the Big Ten), along with 6 bowl appearances (5-1, including 4 straight wins), 5 finishes in the Top 25 (including a school-best No. 10 in 2020), and 2 appearances in the Big Ten Championship Game (2018, 2020). Head coach Pat Fitzgerald has been instrumental to this decade of success, and he did it with the help of talented players.
These were players who helped turn this program from an afterthought to one that regularly sends players to the NFL. Since 2012, the Wildcats have had 13 players chosen in the NFL Draft. Many more have been signed as undrafted free agents, and a handful of NU players are still playing the game at some level today. During these last 10 seasons, NU has had 26 players named as All-Big Ten selections, including one All-American.
Here are 10 players who stood out even among that lofty group and have made NU a destination for future prospects.
Clayton Thorson, QB (2015-18)
In addition winning more games (36) and bowl games (3) than any other signal caller in program history, Thorson also left Evanston as the all-time leader in passing yards (10,731, 4th in Big Ten history), touchdown passes (61), completed passes (991) and passing attempts (1,696). He’s also second among Wildcat QB’s in rushing touchdowns (27). Not to mention that he was a captain on the 2018 team that won the Big Ten West. Recently, Thorson started 7 games for the Houston Gamblers of the revived USFL earlier this year. Since his departure, the Wildcats have struggled at the quarterback position with the exception of Peyton Ramsey in 2020.
Justin Jackson, RB (2014-17)
He may not have been a Heisman Trophy finalist like Darnell Autry, but Jackson ran his way into the Wildcat record books during his 4 seasons in the purple and black. He leads the program in rushing yards (5,540), rushing touchdowns (41) and carries (1,142). He’s also No. 1 all-time in all-purpose yards (6,298) and total touchdowns (42). His achievements on the field made him the first NU running back to be chosen in the NFL Draft (7th round) since Noah Herron (2005). He spent the past 4 seasons with the Los Angeles Chargers.
Austin Carr, WR (2013-16)
The speedy slot receiver for both Trevor Siemian and the aforementioned Thorson is tied for 4th in school history in touchdown catches (14), and he’s 15th all-time in receiving yards (1.649). He’s best remembered for his memorable year in 2016, in which he led the Big Ten in catches (90), receiving yards (1,247) and TD catches (12). He also found himself atop the NU record books for most 100-yard receiving games in a season that year (6). As the Cats’ posted a 7-6 record that season, and closed out the campaign with a thrilling win over Pittsburgh in the Pinstripe Bowl, Carr was the team’s leading receiver in terms of yards in 12 of those 13 games. He took his talents to the NFL, where he caught 3 touchdowns for the New Orleans Saints between 2017 and 2020.
Flynn Nagel, WR (2015-18)
He was the go-to receiver during the Thorson era. He ranks 10th all-time among NU wideouts in receiving yards (1,763), tied for 7th in catches (160) and 8th in receptions per game (3.5). Nagel is also 7th in program history with 27 games with 3 or more catches. Nagel gave defenses fits during the course of his collegiate career, and everyone around him benefited from it.
Rashawn Slater, OT (2017-2020)
After being the right tackle for Thorson, Ramsey, Andrew Marty, Hunter Johnson, and TJ Green, Slater became the first NU player to be chosen in the 1st round of the NFL Draft (13th overall in 2021) since defensive tackle Luis Castillo (28th overall in 2005). Both were chosen by the San Diego/Los Angeles Chargers. Now Slater is tasked with protecting Justin Herbert; he’s also a solid run blocker.
Joe Gaziano, DE (2016-19)
Of course we had to include the Wildcats’ all-time sacks leader (30.0). The Boston native is also 2nd in school history in both tackles for loss (48.5) and forced fumbles (10). Gaziano and Slater are now teammates with the Chargers.
Paddy Fisher, LB (2017-2020)
In addition to having the most forced fumbles in team history (11), Fisher is also the 6th all-time leading tackler (404) and was an All-Big Ten selection in each of his 4 seasons. He also spent some time as teammates with Gaziano and Slater in Los Angeles last year (was also a practice squad player for the Carolina Panthers).
Anthony Walker Jr., LB (2014-16)
Before Fisher, the Gallagher brothers and Chris Bergin, Walker was the man in the middle of the Northwestern defense. And although he only played 3 seasons in a Wildcats uniform, he left his mark on the program. That was evidenced by his AP and Sports Illustrated All-America selections in 2015. He’s tied for 3rd for most forced fumbles in school history (8), tied for 5th all-time in tackles for loss (38), has the 4th-most fumble recoveries (6) and has the 3rd-most interception return yards (134). Walker — now with the Cleveland Browns — is preparing for his 6th NFL season.
Greg Newsome II, CB (2018-2020)
In addition to ranking 7th all-time in pass breakups for Northwestern (25), Newsome also made 71 total tackles during his 3 seasons on campus. His nose for the football, speed and coverage ability made him the 26th overall pick in last year’s NFL Draft (Cleveland Browns). And following Slater, they gave the Wildcats 2 1st-round selections in the same draft for the first time (13 selections apart). Newsome is now entering Year 2 with the Browns.
Charlie Kuhbander, K (2017-2021)
After kicking for 5 years at Ryan Field, Kuhbander’s leg put him in the school record books as well. He’s No. 2 all-time in points scored (265) and tied with Jeff Budzien for most extra points made (136). He even supplanted Jack Mitchell at No. 4 on the list of most field goals (43). His leg decided many games for the Wildcats during his time there, now the team has to find his replacement.
Kain Colter, QB/RB/WR (2010-13): Arguably the most versatile player in school history, Colter was originally recruited as a quarterback. But his speed and mobility led Coach Fitz to use him at running back and wide receiver (683 career receiving yards) as well. His efforts are etched in Northwestern history as he leads all Wildcat quarterbacks in both rushing yards (2,180, 10th all-time in team history) and touchdown runs (28). He’s also scored the 6th-most touchdowns in program history (32) and ranks 7th all-time in scoring (194 points). In addition, I think his activism for college players during his final season at NU played a central role in helping to secure NIL rights for today’s student-athletes.
Trevor Siemian, QB (2011-14): He was the bridge between Colter and Thorson, and he got the job done. He’s 5th on the school’s all-time list in both passing yards (5,931) and completed passes (550). He’s also 8th in 200-yard passing games (13) and 8th in TD passes (27) as he enters his 8th NFL season. It’ll be a homecoming of sorts for Siemian this year as he’ll suit up for the Chicago Bears.
Ifeadi Odenigbo, DL (2013-16): Here’s the man who dominated Northwestern’s defensive line before Gaziano, who’s 3rd on NU’s all-time sacks list (23.5) and tied for 5th in forced fumbles (5). And as he enters his 6th NFL season (first with the Indianapolis Colts), Odenigbo already has 72 tackles and 10.5 sacks as a professional.