For the next two weeks, we’ll be taking a look at where each B1G team needs to improve and answering pressing questions this offseason. For some it’s establishing depth, and for others, it’s learning a new system. Whatever it is, each team has at least five things to take care of before 2016 kicks off.
1. Get Clayton Thorson comfortable
I give Thorson credit. As a redshirt freshman, he stepped in and helped Northwestern to 10 wins. He showed some impressive mobility and at times, he looked like a guy who could become one of the B1G’s better quarterbacks down the road.
But there were some noteworthy stats from Thorson’s first year under center. One was that outside of the Ball State game — his best game of the year — he threw only four touchdown passes. He also was seventh to last in the country in yards per attempt, yet he only completed 51 percent of his passes. Sure, he didn’t have a bunch of dynamic receiving targets to help him out, but that number obviously has to see a big rise in Year 2.
This is such a key offseason for Thorson with a year under his belt. The game should slow down. He should be able to work through his progressions better. He should have a better feel of when he should tuck it and run.
Talk out of camp has been positive about the second-year starter. Pat Fitzgerald said that he looks like a totally different quarterback already. He’ll need to be if Northwestern hopes to improve from the No. 114 offense in the country.
2. Find Dan Vitale’s replacement
Just like I said with Andy Janovich, this likely not be a one-man job. Plugging somebody into the superback role isn’t easy. Part fullback, part wideout, part blocking H-back, part tight end, Vitale was actually Northwestern’s leading receiver.
But with Vitale off to the NFL, Garrett Dickerson and Jayme Taylor are the two guys who could fill that void. Dickerson could be more of the tight end and Taylor could satisfy the backfield responsibilities. Both juniors, Dickerson got decent playing time as a sophomore and Taylor missed the entire season with an ankle injury.
Even between the two of them, they might not be able to cover all of areas Vitale did. Dickerson still has to improve as a pass-catcher. Taylor might be the better option there, but his experience is minimal because of his injury.
Northwestern needs all the help it can get on offense. Dickerson and Taylor might not become household names, but they can make sure Northwestern doesn’t take a step back without Vitale.
3. Figure out how to get Solomon Vault more involved
Moving Solomon Vault to receiver was a no-brainer. Given how limited Northwestern was in the passing game and how dynamic Vault was in the return game, that was as obvious a position switch as a coach will make.
The question will be how Vault is used as a receiver. Simply running bubble screens to him every time he steps on the field won’t be enough. He played a little slot receiver in high school, which figures to be the ideal spot for him this year. The tough part will be making sure that he can get the ball in space with enough room to showcase his open-field ability.
Fitzgerald is doing whatever it takes to find some outside weapons. Marcus McShepard and Steven Reese are also moving to receiver. Northwestern is desperate to add speed, and if guys like Vault can take some of the pressure off Thorson, it would be a major boost.
4. Develop young defensive line
Replacing three multi-year starters on the defensive line will be Northwestern’s biggest personnel adjustment this offseason. Gone are the likes of Dean Lowry, Deonte Gibson and C.J. Robbins, who started a combined 77 games in their careers.
That means Tyler Lancaster is all of the sudden the elder statesman of the group. Jordan Thompson could be in line to lock down the vacant defensive tackle spot after appearing in every game as a true freshman. Junior Xavier Washington doesn’t have a career start, but he got plenty of snaps the last two seasons and figures to get starting defensive end spot.
The wild card is Ifeadi Odenigbo. The highest-rated recruit in the Fitzgerald era hasn’t quite lived up to the billing yet. He was still only used as a third-down pass-rushing specialist last year. That will change in 2016. Odenigbo has the ability to become an All-B1G defensive end, but that will be dependent on him becoming more consistent.
Consistency from Lowry and Gibson was what made Northwestern’s defense what it was. On the bright side, the new-look line will have an All-American linebacker in Anthony Walker to clean up any messes.
5. Follow same August blueprint as 2015
Whatever Fitzgerald did to get Northwestern ready to go for 2015, he should do again. The Wildcats came out firing on all cylinders last year.
Remember when Christian McCaffrey had 89 yards from scrimmage and Stanford was held to six points in Evanston? Based on quality of wins, you could’ve made an argument that Northwestern was a top-five team in the first three weeks of the season.
Home games against Western Michigan, Illinois State and Duke aren’t exactly circle-the-calendar games, but look what Northwestern has to start B1G play:
- vs. Nebraska
- at Iowa
- at Michigan State
- vs. Indiana
- at Ohio State
Northwestern has to be in midseason mode early or else it could easily be looking at an 0-3 start to B1G play. Obviously nobody in Evanston wants that after last year’s 6-2 mark.
So what do the Wildcats have to do to start off strong again? Playing gap control, disciplined defense was the Wildcats’ identity. No team in the B1G was penalized less than Northwestern in the first month of the season. Repeating that would certainly help that cause. Getting some help for Justin Jackson on offense would also be a boost.
If the Wildcats come out with the same approach they had in 2015, there should be plenty more dancing in 2016.
— USA TODAY Sports (@USATODAYsports) September 5, 2015