Best-case scenario: 4 factors that could help Northwestern enjoy a special season
The proverbial dog days of summer can be long and tedious for college football fans. But each passing day brings us closer to the launch of the 2016 season.
In the past few weeks, Land Of 10 has been offering a “Best-Case Scenario” story for the Big Ten’s presumed cluster of bowl-bound clubs. Today’s piece focuses on Northwestern, which collected 10 victories last season — the school’s third double-digit-win campaign since 1995 (Big Ten champs, Rose Bowl berth), and the second on program leader Pat Fitzgerald’s coaching watch along with 2013.
Here are four factors that will matter for the Wildcats in 2016:
1. All-everything linebacker Anthony Walker Jr. takes another step forward in his rapid development
Walker will undoubtedly be a productive NFL player someday. The question is, at what position?
At 6-foot-1 and 235 pounds, Walker (4 sacks, 19 tackles for loss, 120 tackles last season) certainly has the size and ball-hawking capacity to flourish at linebacker.
However, given his supreme burst, lateral quickness and top-end speed when traveling from Point A to Point B (see video below), Walker could be an All-Pro safety at the NFL level. Something in the neighborhood of Eric Berry (Kansas City Chiefs), Harrison Smith (Minnesota Vikings), T.J. Ward (Denver Broncos) or Earl Thomas (Seattle Seahawks).
In the short term, however, Walker seems content with wreaking havoc at the middle linebacker slot. He’s happy leading a Northwestern defense that posted top-25 rankings last year in five vital categories — scoring defense (12th nationally), total defense (12th), fewest first downs allowed (19th), rushing defense (21st) and passing defense (23rd).
But of the four Northwestern defenders with double-digit tackles for loss last season, only Walker returns in 2016. This could result in Walker garnering extra-special attention from opposing blocking schemes — a move that will either free the Wildcats’ next wave of playmakers for positive results or expose the defensive unit as a hollowed-out remnant of better days.
It certainly puts pressure on Walker to take his supreme talents to another level. But then again, this is what future NFL high-achievers do at the college level: Dominate the competition, no matter the circumstances.
2. QB Clayton Thorson converts the harsh lessons from last season into positive energy
Miami’s Brad Kaaya could be a top-3 pick in next year’s NFL draft. DeShone Kizer (2,880 yards passing, 31 total TDs) led Notre Dame to a 10-3 record last year after filling in for the injured Malik Zaire.
Purdue’s David Blough accounted for 356 total yards and five touchdowns in the Boilermakers’ shocking upset of Nebraska last season, the standout effort from a full campaign of starting reps. And Drew Barker (Kentucky), Jalan McClendon (North Carolina State), Mason Rudolph (Oklahoma State), Wilton Speight (Michigan) and Patrick Mahomes (Texas Tech) could all be starters for their respective Power 5 programs this fall.
What’s the common thread with the above names? According to 247Sports.com, Thorson (No. 5 pro-style passer) was the highest-rated commodity of this group from the Class of 2014.
Thorson has tangible upside, and that’s the good news.
The bad news involved Thorson playing a secondary role in last year’s pedestrian offense, completing only 51 percent of his passes and tallying more interceptions (nine) than passing TDs (seven). Digging deeper, Thorson had 11 outings of 14 or fewer completions, nine games of 50-percent-or-less passing, 11 efforts of under-160 yards passing and six games with zero rushing or passing touchdowns.
But home springs eternal for the fall. Returning receivers Austin Carr, Marcus McShepard and Solomon Vault possess fine athletic tools and the Wildcats have a wave of upside wideouts from the last two recruiting classes — including Cameron Green, Jelani Roberts, Charlie Fessler, Flynn Nagel (2015 signees) and Ramaud Chiaokhiao-Bowman, Ben Skowronek (2016 signees).
In fact, on its current roster, Northwestern absurdly has 19 wide receivers. Thankfully, they also have a viable All-Big Ten candidate at left tackle in sophomore Blake Hance.
3. Tailback Justin Jackson channels his prolific freshman self in the red zone
Jackson serves as the Big Ten’s top returning rusher from last season (1,418 yards) and the conference’s leading active rusher (2,605 career yards). He also has an outside chance to become the second Northwestern player in history to rush for 2,000 yards in a single season — joining Damien Anderson (2,063 yards in 2000).
Even if Jackson falls short of the 2,000-yard mark, there’s still a consolation prize within reach: The junior-to-be is within striking distance of Anderson’s school record for career rushing yards (4,485 yards), which took four seasons to accrue. Right now, Jackson (two-year average: 1,303 yards) can surpass Anderson with 1,881 additional rushing yards.
The ‘touchdowns’ component of Jackson’s college story, however, has been less celebrated.
He rolled for 11 touchdowns as a freshman (10 rushing), but only five scores as a sophomore; and this downturn occurred, despite a seismic bump in touches (333 last season, up from 267).
There are two ways to rationalize Jackson’s scoring dip:
- Northwestern’s 2014 cadre of receivers (Kyle Prater, Dan Vitale, Tony Jones, Cameron Dickerson) were more dynamic red-zone targets compared to last year’s group. (The numbers don’t suggest this to be true.)
- Opposing defenses are pouring more red-zone resources into containing Jackson — and it’s paying off. In 2015, the Wildcats converted on just 33 red-zone scores (80th nationally), a below-average figure which painfully included three passing TDs and 17 field goals. Contrast that with 2014: Of Northwestern’s 35 red-zone scores, there were seven passing TDs, 11 scoring runs and only 11 field goals.
4. The Wildcats will play in a prominent bowl if they start Big Ten play at 2-3 or better
In past years, the above statement would have been clarified as a “New Year’s Day” bowl. But with Jan. 1 taking place on a Sunday in 2017 (the NFL owns this day), the colleges had to go in split-amoeba mode, moving the Citrus and TaxSlayer bowls up to New Year’s Eve … and bumping the Rose and Outback bowls to Jan. 2.
Either way, Northwestern has a rock-solid shot at making one of the four bowls listed above with a 9-3 regular-season record. The probability curve comes in three stages:
- Sweeping the non-conference slate of Western Michigan, Illinois State and Duke — all three at home.
- Northwestern encounters Nebraska (home), Iowa (road), Michigan State (road), Indiana (home) and Ohio State (road) in the first five games. Neither of the two home outings are “gimmes” … and all three away games could be decisive defeats. Nevertheless, it’s imperative for the Wildcats to stay strong at Ryan Field – four of the last five matchups with Nebraska have been decided by three or fewer points – and then pull off one shocker on the road. To reach a prominent bowl, it’s likely go 2-3 or bust at this stage.
- The Wildcats catch fire in the final four weeks against Wisconsin (home), Purdue (road), Minnesota (road) and Illinois (home). In a plausible dream scenario, the program posts a 9-3 mark and plays on New Year’s Eve (TaxSlayer or Citrus).
Jay Clemons, the 2015 national winner for “Sports Blog Of The Year” (Cynopsis Media), has previously written for SI.com, The National Football Post, Bleacher Report and Fox Sports.