Northwestern football: 6 offseason priorities for 2021
Before we turn the page to the offseason, it should be acknowledged the 2020 version of the Northwestern Wildcats put together as good of a turnaround season as you’ll see across college football.
Northwestern went from the last-place team in the B1G West in 2019 to the division champs one year later. For the second time in the last three years, the Wildcats were defeated by Ohio State in the conference title game, but they finished the year on a high note with a 35-19 victory over Auburn in the Citrus Bowl.
While 2020 was a fun season for the Wildcats and their fans, they head into the offseason needing to answer some major questions both on the field with players and off the field with the coaching staff. Northwestern has consistently been one of the more solid programs in Power 5 football, but some items need to be addressed.
Find a new quarterback
It’s the most important position in sports and at this point, it’s unclear who the Wildcats will be going with under center this fall. Indiana transfer QB Peyton Ramsey guided Northwestern this season after an atrocious 2019 at the position for the Wildcats. Ramsey could elect to stay for another season, which would be his sixth year in college football, and that would likely eliminate any doubt on the position heading into the offseason. There have been no reports or announcements whether he made a decision, but I would imagine he moves on.
The other quarterbacks on the roster include Andrew Marty, Carl Richardson, Hunter Johnson and Zac Krause, with 3-star signee Brendan Sullivan coming in. None of those QBs attempted a pass during the 2020 season. Like we saw with Ramsey, Northwestern could elect to take a look around the transfer portal.
Bring back Pat Fitzgerald
It’s become an annual tradition for Northwestern head coach Pat Fitzgerald to be rumored for head coaching positions, but could this be the year he takes the jump to the NFL? CBS Sports has reported he is expected to consider some of the NFL’s vacant head coaching positions. This would certainly be a decent time to head out, with the program needing to replace a key position on the coaching staff and athletic director Jim Phillips moving on to be the new ACC commissioner.
This would obviously be a major loss for Northwestern, as Fitzgerald has done an incredible job creating and maintaining a steady level of success in the B1G. He’s been in Evanston since 2006, and Northwestern should do everything it can to keep him there.
New defensive coordinator
The success of Northwestern this season relied on the defensive side of the ball, and the leader of that unit is not going to be with the program in 2021. Defensive coordinator Mike Hankwitz announced prior to the bowl game that it would be his last game, as he is set to retire after 51 years of coaching. He has held that position at Northwestern since 2008.
For a program like Northwestern to have success, it needs to be solid on the defensive end, and Hankwitz has been in Evanston for nearly as long as Fitzgerald has, so he is a major part of the success in the Fitzgerald era. The Wildcats need to make a good replacement hire to continue on the tradition.
Prepare young running backs
After the Citrus Bowl win, Northwestern saw two of its top three running backs enter the transfer portal — Drake Anderson and Isaiah Bowser. The Wildcats won’t be hurt too much at the top of the position as true freshman Cam Porter took over as the main ball-carrier the last three games of the season. However, depth could be an issue. Redshirt freshman Evan Hull received just 25 carries this season, but he showed some burst in long runs against Illinois this season.
Replace stud linebackers
Northwestern will have some major production to replace at the linebacker position, a spot that has been pretty impressive over the years for the Wildcats. Headlined by Paddy Fisher, a 2020 trio of senior linebackers referred to as the “Irish Law Firm” also included Blake Gallagher and Chris Bergin, both of whom earned all-conference honors.
Bergin has already said he will be back next season, but no announcement has been made about Gallagher or Fisher. Assuming both are no longer going to be on the roster, the Wildcats will need to develop linebackers, which they have been able to do on a consistent basis through recruiting and skill development at the position.
Continue to develop NFL talent
One of the major tools in recruiting high school football players is to show them the type of players the team brought in and turned into NFL talents. Northwestern should hear its name called this spring during the draft with cornerback Greg Newsome II, who will be leaving school early for the NFL, as well as Fisher, who could be taken in the first round. Continuing to do this will have a big impact on the future of Northwestern football, especially if it goes through major overhauls of its roster, coaching staff and administration before the start of the 2021 season.