No team needed an offseason more than Northwestern. After six months of flux that saw Randy Walker’s sudden death, Pat Fitzgerald’s quick entrance as head coach and a protracted quarterback competition, the Wildcats welcomed a chance to regroup. Stepping back from the 4–8 season, Fitzgerald had no trouble identifying Northwestern’s shortcomings — turnovers, special teams breakdowns, poor third-down defense. “It just punches you right between the eyes,” Fitzgerald says. “It’s obvious.” What’s slightly less obvious is the potential Northwestern brings for 2007.
After bringing life to a dormant offense, junior C.J. Bacher will be the catalyst for the Wildcats this fall. Bacher, who started the final five games of ’06, has plenty of playmakers at his disposal, including the deepest receiving corps in recent memory. Joining him is running back Tyrell Sutton, who rushed for 1,000 for the second straight season. There are depth concerns on the offensive line, but the Wildcats have enough veterans to return to their point-producing roots after finishing last in the Big Ten in scoring (16.5 ppg).
A whirlwind year behind them, the Wildcats have had time to recharge. With 14 starters back and a favorable schedule, Northwestern could return to the middle of thr pack in the Big Ten and re-enter the bowl picture.
Bacher brought life to a dormant offense late last fall. If he can limit interceptions, his first full season at quarterback should kick-start a talented unit that averaged a league-low 16.5 points per game in 2006. Second-year coordinator Garrick McGee can expand the playbook with Bacher, Sutton and a host of others.
Northwestern’s deep and versatile receiving corps includes uber-athlete Andrew Brewer, who started three games at quarterback last year before switching over to wideout. The line is iffy after struggling with injuries and transition last season. Following back-to-back top 10 finishes in fewest sacks allowed, Northwestern tied for 73rd nationally last fall, surrendering 26 sacks. The Wildcats must build depth up front and find a starter at right tackle.
Ball security is a must for Northwestern, which committed more than one turnover in eight games and five turnovers in three games last season.
Northwestern made strides on this side of the ball late last season and returns eight starters. The Wildcats are gradually transitioning to the 3-4, but their depth and experience up front should dictate mostly base 4-3 sets this fall. Defensive end Corey Wootton headlines the front four after adding 10 pounds of muscle this winter, boosting his 6-foot-7 frame to 285 pounds.
Linebacker play has been Northwestern’s strong suit, but graduation losses have softened the defense’s midsection. Weak-side linebacker could be the team’s most intense position battle. Three starters return in the secondary, which could finally have the right mix of experience and talent. Cornerback Sherrick McManis and free safety Brendan Smith form one of the Big Ten’s top playmaking tandems, combining for four interceptions and nine pass breakups in 2006. The defense must limit third-down conversions and generate more turnovers.
Special teams breakdowns led to losses in each of the last four seasons. Northwestern hopes scholarship kicker Stefan Demos can end the trend. Demos, who redshirted in 2006, will handle field goals, kickoffs and possibly the punting duties. McManis, one of the league’s top all-around special teamers, will serve as Northwestern’s primary kick returner after averaging 21 yards per runback last year. Smith will return punts, and several others, including Brewer, Brandon Roberson and freshman Jordan Mabin, will compete for return opportunities.
Northwestern plays seven home games for the first time in 61 years and skips both Penn State and Wisconsin. The Wildcats open league play with heavyweights Ohio State and Michigan, but if they maintain their confidence and sweep an easy non-conference schedule, they will be in position for a bowl berth.