Welcome back from our little break here on B.O.R., as we needed some time to get in to the actual goings on of our wonderful foes to the south. After checking out the Illini in Champaign last we were together, it’s time to head north and take a look at the other Illinois school in the Badgers division.
Of course, we’re talking about the Northwestern Wildcats. Saying it’s been an interesting spring is perhaps the understatement of the year. That’s because not only did Northwestern have the 15 practices to get through, but also a massive media circus surrounding potentially unionizing for the first time in college sports.
However, that story is for a different day, what we care about is what is happening on the team and what those 15 practices can tell us. So, let’s dive in to some research on our new division rivals from Evanston.
What was the biggest weakness for Northwestern last season, its running back group, will be the strength of the team in 2014. In 2013, the Wildcats were supposed to have an amazing running back stable, but injuries to star Venric Mark and backup Treyvon Green made the group very thin and very unproductive. Things got so bad that even third-string running back Stephen Buckley couldn’t make it to the end of the season healthy.
That isn’t likely to happen again this year, as Mark and Green get to hit the reset button on what should’ve been a huge year in 2013. However, Buckley and Mark were held out of spring ball as they still recover from the ankle injury and knee surgery respectively.
As long as both are healthy, this will be a very deep running back group, and Northwestern’s most dangerous offensive weapon as well.
The Wildcats are one of the more veteran teams in the Big Ten this season, returning the entire secondary and all but three starters on defense. Offensively only two starters are gone, so clearly there aren’t a lot of things to pick out as weaknesses.
However, just because there’s experience back doesn’t mean everything is all good either. Northwestern’s defense ended the year No. 9 in the Big Ten in scoring defense (27.1ppg), total defense (423.4ypg) and in rushing defense (167.7ypg). It also was No. 10 in the conference in passing defense, giving up 255.8 yards per game. Clearly those numbers don’t help you win football games, especially when star players are injured.
Of all the groups, it was the secondary that caused the most concern, and with every member of the two-deep that ended 2013 back; the Wildcats need to find answers in the backfield to move forward in 2014.
Safety Ibraheim Campbell will be a senior and two-year starter Nick VanHoose will be an upperclassman as well. The duo need to show that they are more than big play guys, but guys that can also lead a group and make the ordinary plays needed to hold teams at bay in the pass game.
Northwestern had a good pass rush last season, ranking fifth with 27 sacks, so clearly it’s on the way the secondary played in 2013. After all, you don’t rank in the bottom third of the conference in all those passing stats and then be No. 1 in interceptions as a team without a disconnect existing. It can’t be feast or famine in the secondary this year if Northwestern wants to be a division contender.
Biggest question mark:
No fewer than 11 players were held of spring football this year, and some big names the Wildcats will need this fall were amongst those names. No position group was hurt more than the defensive line, where Sean McEvilly (foot) and defensive ends Ifeadi Odenigbo (shoulder) and Deonte Gibson (shoulder) were held out of spring ball.
So, as we head towards summer conditioning and fall practices we don’t know a lot about what this defensive line will look like. When you also factor in all-everything end Tyler Scott’s departure due to graduation, it becomes clear that this group has a lot of making up to do in the fall.
There is a lot of potential for the line to be good, especially from Odengibo and McEvilly but we haven’t seen if either are capable of stepping in to leadership and more of a star role either. While depth was certainly built in the spring with so few bodies available to take reps, Northwestern needs those three guys to be around in the fall or there will be severe trouble on the defensive line.
What it all means:
Northwestern has never been in the headlines the way they were in the spring this year. On the field there are a lot of returning parts and a very experienced team, but with all the distractions off the field one has to wonder how that will affect the team. Chemistry is very important, and a union vote can have a way of splitting a locker room, especially one full of 18-22 year olds. On the field though, this is a team that has the talent to contend, but just hasn’t been able to get over the hump. If spring is any indication, this team is heading in the right direction despite all that’s going against it.