Northwestern football: 5 biggest holes to fill in 2021 starting lineup
Northwestern’s quick turnaround from a 3-9 season in 2019 to winning the B1G West for the second time in three years was one of the more impressive accomplishments in college football in 2020. Finding a new quarterback and some weapons at wide receiver, as well as owning one of the nation’s top defenses, worked like a miracle drug for Pat Fitzgerald.
Heading into the 2021 season, though, there’s some question as to whether or not the Wildcats can maintain their status atop the division. Northwestern is losing starting quarterback Peyton Ramsey, all three of its top wide receivers, a few situational running backs and some depth from the offensive line. Defensively, the Wildcats are seeing the departures of star linebackers Paddy Fisher and Blake Gallagher, defensive lineman Joe Spivak and secondary starts Greg Newsome II and JR Pace.
Predicting the starting lineup for Northwestern in 2021 is no easy task, considering all the major holes this team has to fill before the 2021 season kicks off.
As the Wildcats begin the pursuit of their B1G West title defense next fall, let’s take a look at which holes are the most important for Fitzgerald to fill.
Quarterback: Ryan Hilinski replacing Peyton Ramsey
What you need to know: Northwestern’s last QB addition from the transfer portal proved to be beneficial, with Ramsey seamlessly transitioning in from Indiana to lead the Wildcats to a 7-2 season, a B1G West title and a win over Auburn in the Citrus Bowl. His decision to leave the Wildcats after the 2020 season put the Wildcats back in a tough situation at the quarterback position.
Getting Hilinski was significant for Fitzgerald, because the other quarterbacks on the roster — Andrew Marty and Hunter Johnson — struggled significant when they tried to lead the offense in 2019. Hilinski started in 11 games as a freshman at South Carolina in 2019 and threw for 2,357 yards and 11 touchdowns with just 5 interceptions.
Hilinski may not be a guy who is going to rack up a 3,000-yard passing season at Northwestern, but the Wildcats proved last season with Ramsey that they don’t need that kind of passer to be successful. If Hilinski can find his targets consistently, show some mobility with his feet and move the chains on a regular basis, Northwestern is going to have a chance in most games during the 2021 season because of its defense.
Wide receiver: Stephon Robinson replacing Ramaud Chiaokhiao-Bowman
What you need to know: The receiver position is going to be an interesting spot to keep an eye on all offseason and through the early portion of the 2020 season. The Wildcats are losing all three of their top receivers — Chiaokhiao-Bowman, Kyric McGowan and Riley Lees. So, adding experience through the portal was an important pick-up for Mike Bajakian’s offense.
Robinson comes to Northwestern after catching 75 passes for 1,092 yards and 9 touchdowns over the past three seasons at Kansas. Even though the Jayhawks have been one of the worst teams at the Power 5 level, Robinson proved to be a threat in the passing attack and was probably the best player on the roster.
Northwestern has to replace plenty of key playmakers from the 2020 season. Robinson should be a guy who can fill that void in Evanston, but learning a new offense with (potentially) a first-time starting quarterback could be a little tricky.
Linebacker: Peter McIntyre replacing Paddy Fisher
What you need to know: Fisher was the heart and soul of Northwestern’s defense the last four years, as he was often described as a younger version of Fitzgerald back when the head coach was a linebacker for the Wildcats in the 90s. Losing his skill set and his leadership is going to be a significant blow to the defense, especially with the Wildcats losing longtime defensive coordinator Mike Hankwitz to retirement.
Three times in his four year career, Fisher was the leading tackler for Northwestern. He ended his college career with 405 stops, 24.5 tackles for loss, 12 forced fumbles, 10 pass break-ups and 4 interceptions. That’s a ton of production for McIntyre to replace. Especially for a player who totaled just 7 tackles during the 2020 season.
McIntyre is far from a lock to land the starting job, and he’ll have to compete with plenty of other players at the position — Bryce Gallagher, Erik Mueller, Jaylen Rivers — but he’ll have a good shot to land the job. Regardless of who starts at linebacker for Northwestern and replaces Fisher in 2021, they’re going to have their hands full.
Cornerback: Cameron Mitchell replacing Greg Newsome II
What you need to know: One player who may have been overlooked for their contributions during the 2020 season was Newsome, who did an excellent job of shutting down receivers on most Saturday afternoons. He’ll take his talent to the NFL, leaving a major hole in Northwestern’s secondary for the 2021 season.
The good news? While Newsome’s departure leaves behind some big shoes to fill, Mitchell should be in great position to do just that. He finished last year with 18 tackles, 5 pass break-ups and an interception in 8 games for the Wildcats. In a bigger role at cornerback, Mitchell could elevate his game and become the next lockdown corner for Northwestern’s defense.
Mitchell is more than capable of handling the pressure next season. But Newsome’s contributions for the Wildcats can’t be overlooked. He was a great defensive player, and he’s not an easy guy to replace.
Left guard: Dom D’Antonio replacing Nik Urban
What you need to know: Transitions on the offensive line usually go one of two ways: Very well or very poor. Urban started every game for Northwestern at left guard last season and proved to be a solid blocker throughout the season. He wouldn’t have maintained his status up front if he didn’t have success.
Northwestern finds itself in a decent position with D’Antonio, who rotated in on the offensive line during the 2020 season and appeared in 8 games. Going from a rotational player to a full-time starter can be a difficult task, particularly in the trenches in the B1G. This probably isn’t the worst situation for the Wildcats, but it’ll be interesting to see how the transition from Urban to D’Antonio works out.