Northwestern football: Projecting the 2021 starting lineup for the Wildcats
How was that for a bounce-back season? Just one year after posting the worst record of the Pat Fitzgerald era (3-9), Northwestern responded by winning the B1G West, challenging Ohio State in the conference title game and taking care of Auburn in the Citrus Bowl.
Peyton Ramsey’s decision to transfer to Northwestern after spending the previous four years at Indiana really rejuvenated an offense that only found the end zone by accident in 2019. An abundance of talent and experience on the other side of the ball allowed the Wildcats to flex their muscle as a defensive juggernaut again in 2020.
There’s no question that Northwestern was one of the more entertaining and interesting teams in college football last season. But can the results from 2020 be sustained moving forward? Are the Wildcats in the mix to defend their B1G West title in 2021?
A lot of Northwestern’s production is departing from the 7-2 squad we just saw — and it’s on both sides of the football. Despite the NCAA granting a blanket waiver for all student-athletes, many seniors aren’t intending on a return to Evanston. Pair that with a small but impactful group of players entering the transfer portal, and it makes for an interesting offseason.
Let’s take a look at Northwestern’s roster and projected starting lineup for the 2021 season.
QB: Hunter Johnson
RB: Cam Porter
WR1: Bryce Kirtz
WR2: Wayne Dennis Jr.
WR3: Genson Hooper-Price
LT: Peter Skoronski
LG: Dom D’Antonio
C: Sam Gerak
RG: Ethan Wiederkehr
RT: Ben Wrather
TE: Charlie Mangieri
The skinny: It should go without saying, but Northwestern’s biggest concern is the quarterback position. With Ramsey moving on, the Wildcats are likely going to turn to either Hunter Johnson, Andrew Marty or transfer Ryan Hilinski, a former starter at South Carolina.
I couldn’t be more excited and grateful for this opportunity. Go Cats! 💜 pic.twitter.com/OX1g0CNzEK
— Ryan Hilinski (@ryan_hilinski) January 19, 2021
Regardless, neither Johnson nor Marty demonstrated a strong ability to lead Northwestern’s offense in 2019, and that could be a problem entering 2021.
Quarterback is far from the only worry the ‘Cats have this offseason.
Northwestern lost running backs Drake Anderson and Isaiah Bowser to the transfer portal and all three of the top wide receivers — Kyric McGowan, Ramaud Chiaokhiao-Bowman and Riley Lees — are all departing. The offense is going to have to develop some playmakers, and fast, over the offseason.
The Wildcats weren’t a potent offense in the B1G. They ranked 10th in scoring at 24.7 points per game and gained just over 360 yards per contest, but it was good enough to win. Right now, it’s hard to say that will be the case for the 2021 season.
Porter emerged as a strong running back for Northwestern at the end of the season, rushing for 331 yards and 5 touchdowns on 81 carries. Pairing him with Evan Hull should give the Wildcats a nice backfield tandem, but everything else is a big question mark in Evanston right now.
DE: Adetomiwa Adebawore
DT: Trevor Kent
DT: Wyatt Blake
DE: Devin O’Rourke
LB: Chris Bergin
LB: Peter McIntyre
LB: Jaylen Rivers
CB: Cam Mitchell
CB: Cam Ruiz
S: Brandon Joseph
S: Bryce Jackson
The skinny: Take a quick look at that starting lineup and you’ll notice that some of the biggest contributors over the last few seasons are no longer around. Losing Paddy Fisher, Blake Gallagher, Joe Spivak and Greg Newsome will leave significant voids for Northwestern to fill. The retirement of defensive coordinator Mike Hankwitz is a pretty big deal, too.
But one of the staples of Fitzgerald’s tenure at Northwestern is putting a rough-and-tough defense on the field. Even with all those departures, is anyone really betting against the Wildcats to have a defense that finishes in the top half of the B1G next year?
Northwestern does have linebacker Chris Bergin returning after piling up 78 tackles and 4 pass break-ups last season. And B1G Freshman of the Year Brandon Joseph anchors the secondary after hauling in a league-best 6 interceptions in 2020. There are plenty of solid linebackers and cornerbacks to fill those missing voids, too.
Last season, Northwestern’s defense allowed just 15.6 points per game, the best in the B1G. The ‘Cats probably lost a little too much to replicate that kind of success in 2021, but there’s a lot to like about what will be back on the field in Evanston when fall arrives.
Between departing seniors, players entering the transfer portal and the retirement of Hankwitz, there’s a lot of moving parts for Fitzgerald’s team this offseason. When you look at the lost production — with so much leaving on both sides of the ball — it’s hard to imagine Northwestern being a team capable of defending its division crown.
Then again, we’ve said that before.
Once again, Northwestern’s defense will be the strength in 2021, capable of playing well enough to get the Wildcats to a bowl game. The lingering questions come on the offensive side, having to replace Ramsey at quarterback, two departing offensive linemen, and a total of 6 impact wide receivers and running backs, who are either ending their college careers or have hit the portal.
The 2021 season may be a rebuilding year in Evanston, but if the Wildcats can figure out some things offensively, they’ll continue to be a pesky team in the B1G West. Right now, it just doesn’t look like there’s enough returning to get back to the B1G Championship Game for the third time in four years.