Northwestern comes off a 7-2 year that saw the Wildcats win the Big Ten West for the 2nd time in the last three years and beat Auburn 35-19 in the Citrus Bowl. The defense carried the team at times last year and Peyton Ramsey helped the passing game a lot. But Pat Fitzgerald will always put together a team that will compete and I wouldn’t expect anything less this year.
The offense is going to look very different this year. Three linemen return, headlined by sophomore left tackle Peter Skoronski. Peyton Ramsey is gone and Hunter Johnson is in at QB. Johnson. Many thought Ryan Hilinski might be the starter this year, but Pat Fitzgerald did announce Johnson would be the starter for week 1. After transferring from Clemson before 2018, Johnson saw time for the Wildcats in 2019, but struggled. Fitzgerald said the battle between Johnson, Hilinski and senior Andrew Marty was very competitive, but ultimately chose to begin the season with Johnson under center.
At the end of last year, it looked like Northwestern had their running back for the future in Cam Porter, but he suffered a leg injury in camp and will miss the entire 2021 season. With last year’s backup Drake Anderson transferring to Arizona and Isaiah Bowser transferring to Miami (OH), the Wildcats will have a different looking backfield. It’s up to last year’s 4th string RB Evan Hull, Bowling Green transfer Andrew Clair and freshman Anthony Tyus III to handle the duties.
Northwestern also loses their top four pass-catchers from last year. Kansas transfer Stephon Robinson should help and could provide some big-play potential that is much needed in Evanston. Senior Charlie Mangieri has been a red-zone target before and hauled in two touchdowns in 2020. Bryce Kirtz has seen time as quick target and Malik Washington and JJ Jefferson should be among many Wildcats to get a shot this year.
Last year’s defense was fantastic as it allowed just 16 points per game on only 341 yards per game. But only five starters return and some big names like Paddy Fisher, Blake Gallagher and Greg Newsome are gone. Chris Bergin will return at linebacker and likely be joined by Bryce Gallagher and Peter McIntyre.
I think the defensive line should be completely fine with Joe Spivak, Trevor Kent, Samdup Miller and Adetomiwa Adebawore leading the Wildcat defense. The secondary is a bit less certain and will likely have more of a be next-man-up mentality. Brandon Joseph at safety and AJ Hampton at corner are definitely the bright spots, but after that it’s not clear who Pat Fitzgerald trusts in that secondary.
Charlie Kuhbander returns as a 5th year grad student to kick for the Wildcats in 2021. Freshman Michigan State transfer Jack Olsen will back him up. Derek Adams will be the punter and punt/kick return duties will likely be Kansas transfer Stephon Robinson and a combination of a couple freshman receivers in Jordan Mosley and Jacob Gill.
Although many of the names are different this year, the style that Pat Fitzgerald teams play shouldn’t change much with this group. They also have quite possibly the easiest schedule in all of the Big Ten. This team should be in every single game on their schedule. It all starts on Friday against Michigan State!