Commentary: The Offense
by Jonathan Hodges

For the second consecutive season, Northwestern will be looking to replace top performers at the offensive skill positions.  Although this may seem like an impossible task, the 'Cats did fairly well at replacing virtually every skill position in 2009, as NU actually increased its output measured in total offense yards per game (from 358.5 to 404.1) and, more importantly, points per game (from 24.4 to 25.9).

Each position/unit is detailed below, but the obvious positions where transition will occur are quarterback and wide receiver.  QB Mike Kafka graduated and moved into the NFL as a draft pick after a great season, highlighted by his valiant 78 passing attempt, 532 passing yard, 4 passing TD effort in the Outback Bowl.  The 'Cats also lose their top two WRs from a season ago, Zeke Markshausen and Andrew Brewer, who together accounted for 43% of NU's pass receptions and 48% of NU's receiving yardage last season.

While those losses are significant, Northwestern is set up well to move on in 2010.  QB Dan Persa was thrown into the fire last season against, arguably, NU's two toughest opponents (Penn State and Iowa) and performed fairly well.  Also, the 'Cats have continued the practice of rotating in wide receivers, so there are a slew of receivers with some experience waiting to take over.

The unsung heroes of any offense, the line, all return and are still young, but experienced, and ready to put on a cohesive effort to propel the 'Cats forward.  The "superbacks" are also ready to contribute, especially at the TE/H-back position where Drake Dunsmore is looking to build on his outstanding bowl game performance.  And, finally, although the running back position remains the biggest question mark on the entire team, they all return with another year of experience under their collective belt, something that should help presumed starter Arby Fields, who is now a true sophomore, a good deal.

Offensive Line

I'll start the unit breakdown with the most important but also most overlooked unit of the offense, the OL.  The 'Cats return a wealth of talent and, now, experience on the line; that despite having three juniors and two sophomores as projected starters (and that number could swing to two juniors and three sophomores depending on how the right guard spot goes).  Plus, with some more talent on the two deep as backups, this unit looks ready for this year and at least a couple more years to come.

The problem, though, comes when analyzing last year's performance that included many of these same players.  NU yielded an average of 2.46 sacks per game in 2009, ranking them 92nd nationally.  And the running game was also rather bad, with NU averaging a measly 3.0 yards per carry, and not all the blame can go to the lack of a feature back.

Admittedly, though, the NU OL dealt with shuffling of players and positions both in camp and throughout the year thanks to injury and trying to find the right combination of players.  Coach Fitzgerald did note that getting a line in place during camp so the cohesion can form is key.  It looks like the line is beginning to solidify early this year, thankfully, and here are the names to look out for.

Heralded recruit Patrick Ward looks to take over the right tackle spot after playing on special teams and as a backup throughout his true freshman season last year.  To put it in perspective, not only do few true freshman actually play in the Big Ten, but very few offensive linemen do, mostly due to the physical size requirements of the position.  Ward looked promising in limited action, and now with some playing time under his belt, things look a lot more solid on the right size that has been a bit unstable over the past couple seasons.

Ben Burkett, now a junior, will anchor the middle for the third straight year.  He's looked good and should continue to improve there, and many see some level of conference honors coming his way.  Fellow junior Al Netter will once again anchor the vital left tackle spot, like Burkett for the third straight season, and he may very well be one of the top linemen in the conference (he garnered an honorable mention all-conference last year by both the coaches and media).  With a wealth of experience at those two vital positions, NU is on very solid ground when it comes to the offensive line.

Now to the two guard positions, whose level of success may very well be entwined with the fate of the running game.  First, at left guard, Brian Mulroe is slated to take over full time after a some starts and a good amount of playing time last year as a redshirt freshman.  His backup is Keegan Grant, the only senior offensive lineman on the squad, who has plenty of starts and lots of playing time and will provide experience as a backup for either guard position.

Right guard is where the key camp competition will occur.  Doug Bartels, a junior, has starting experience at the position but is currently listed as the co-starter with sophomore Neal Deiters, a sophomore who previously played at right tackle.  It will be very interesting to see if Bartels can hold onto his position or if Deiters can take over after being moved out of his RT spot in favor of the younger Ward.


The offense is now Persa's, which has been made clear both verbally by Fitz and other team spokespeople and through Persa's actions.  Persa won the "Iron Cat" honor last season due to his weightlifting prowess and is, according to Fitz, on track to accomplish that task this year as well.  He is noted to be the first Wildcat on the practice field and the last to leave.  He filled in admirably in the Penn State and Iowa games after Kafka went down with a hamstring injury, including a TD toss to Dunsmore during the takedown of then-#4 (BCS) Iowa.

What will be interesting to see is if Persa dedicates himself to passing the ball despite his speed in the running game like Kafka did for much of last season.  With the running back position lacking, this presents a significant opportunity to get the NU ground game going, although the NU coaching staff surely wants to limit the chance of an injury at the QB position, given that the starting QB has missed at least one start due to injury in three of the four years that Fitz has been NU head coach.

Secondly, Persa will have to prove himself in the passing game, particularly on downfield passes.  Yes, NU lives on the short "dink and dunk" passing game, but hitting those downfield passes is key and is something that Kafka did very well at.  We did see one flash by Persa, a 72 yard TD pass to Brewer, but that was against Towson and Persa was creamed by multiple defenders just after letting go of that pass.

The consensus seems to be that Persa will do well now that it is his time to take over as the starting quarterback, even if he doesn't live up to the rather high bar set by some of his predecessors (thinking back, what a string of solid QBs NU has had with Kustok, Basanez, Bacher, and Kafka).

His backup, and the only other QB on the roster who is not a true freshman, is Evan Watkins, a touted local product who has size of a prototypical QB (6'6"), especially compared to Persa (listed at 6'1").  Watkins, a redshirt freshman this year, was only okay in the spring game this year and will hopefully have more time to hone his skills.

Like last season, NU has no real options beyond the starter and the backup, so one hopes that this year the discussion never comes down to the two true freshman, Kain Colter and Trevor Siemian.

Running Back

The largest question mark on the entire team is centered on this position, where the top four rushers at the position return but questions remain.  True sophomore Arby Fields is penciled in as the projected starter, and he has the highest potential of the bunch now that he garners a year of experience.  Fields also leads the pack with a 3.7 yards per carry average, and has more rushing touchdowns, 5, than any other RB.

Almost guaranteed to get playing time, at least as a situational back, is junior Jacob Schmidt.  He has averaged 3.3 yards per carry and has one rushing TD to his name, but also contributes both in blocking and receiving.  He has 14 career receptions with a respectable 10.5 yards per reception average.  He is also a trusted ballcarrier, unlike Fields who had some issues with fumbles during last season.

Also in the mix is Scott Concannon, who averaged 3.5 yards per carry and had the second most carries of any NU RB last year.  He is noted for his ability to cut and one can find him on highlight reels fighting for every last yard, particularly in the middle of the field despite being outsized by many defenders.

Next, we come to the seemingly forgotten senior, Stephen Simmons, who now appears to be relegated to kickoff return duty (where he has done well for himself).  Simmons has a career 3.2 yards per carry average with four rushing TDs, and saw his role as a running back diminish as last season progressed.  He has nice speed and may be used in some situations, but his largest contribution this year is likely to come as a kickoff return man.

The final non-freshman is Mike Trumpy, who redshirted last year, and may very well get his chance to contribute this season.  Word from camp is that he is ready to be added to the "running back by committee."  Of the three true freshman, Adonis Smith is the most promising, although with the crowded backfield in front of him it is unlikely for him or the other two to find playing time as a true freshman unless they are extremely impressive.

Notably absent is Alex Daniel, who parted ways with the team last academic year due to some off-the-field incidents.  He was in the mix for starting last season, after essentially starting the 2009 spring game, but suffered a season-ending ankle injury during preseason camp.

As Fitzgerald noted at Big Ten media day, it would be nice for one back to step up and take over, although Northwestern is trying to work with what they have, which is, for now, running back by committee.  The potential is definitely there for Fields to step up, but only time will tell as this position is very much in the air.


I will take time to concentrate on this hybrid fullback/tight end/H-back position title given its increasing role in the Northwestern offense since OC Mick McCall took over in 2008.

The "fullback" spot will feature a new starter this year, with Mark Woodsum moving on with his graduation.  While this spot is honestly not utilized that often, it is still used in short yardage situations from time to time.  It appears as though it will be filled by one of the Nagel brothers (Aaron, a junior who transferred from Notre Dame and switched position this year from linebacker, or Brett, a sophomore), who both have the size to fill the position.

The "tight end" spot will once again feature Josh Rooks, now a senior, who is used in mostly a blocking role but can also catch the ball (he has 11 career receptions for 87 yards).  He will likely be backed up by redshirt freshman John Plasencia.  Their success will likely be judged along with the offensive line in their ability to block in the running and passing games.

Finally, the most notable position, the "slot receiver" role, which will be filled by junior Drake Dunsmore.  Dunsmore is the leading returning receiver from last year's squad, where he nabbed 47 passes for 523 yards and 3 scores, including the highlight-reel 66 yard reception and run for TD during the Outback Bowl.  He has the size and skills to make an excellent passing target, and one should fully expect him to be a key target for Persa this season.

Wide Receivers

Finally, the wide receivers.  In the spread era at Northwestern, this is a position that is really taken for granted as NU has managed to "reload" here virtually every season.  Yes, Markshausen and Brewer are gone, but essentially everyone fully expect the next two to step up and pick up where they left off.

First, though, senior Sidney Stewart returns as the most experienced back, with 604 career receiving yards and three receiving TDs (notably, two of those from non-QBs on gadget plays: from Eric Peterman against Purdue in 2008 and from Zeke Markshausen against Wisconsin in 2009).  He will be reliable and knows the system well enough to contribute at any of the receiving positions he is asked to play.

Now on to the new starters, who are projected to be junior Jeremy Ebert and sophomore Demetrius Fields (both were originally in the same class, although Ebert played as a true freshman in 2008).  Ebert showed his ability as a true freshman in 2008, but was slowed last season due to his recovery from offseason hip surgery; he has 36 career receptions and 1 TD.  Fields stepped up last year and looked impressive when he had a chance to play, catching 24 passes and finding paydirt once.

Behind those three, though, the experience level really drops off.  Junior Charles Brown has garnered a decent amount of playing time in his NU career, but has just 10 catches to show for it.  The remaining receivers have never caught a collegiate pass.  Those players are sophomore Brendan Barber and redshirt freshman Drew Moulton, who both came in with high expectations, and now is the time for them to contribute as a part of the WR rotation.

Beyond the two deep, others who may see some playing time include sophomore Lee Coleman (who has mostly been used on special teams), redshirt freshman Jaleel Reed, and fellow redshirt freshman Mike Jensen.  There are also a handful of incoming true freshman receivers, and the recruit with the highest expectations is likely Venric Mark, so keep a keen eye on the receivers as they rotate in and out during the early games to see if any new faces get in the mix.

Overall, this unit really should be able to fill in the vacated positions nicely and help continue the success of the spread offense at Northwestern.


With NU having to replace its QB and two starting WRs, one may worry going into this season.  But 'Cats fans can feel much better after watching last year's squad increased its offensive output despite replacing every offensive skill position starter (QB, 3 WRs, and RB).  Persa looks ready to lead, the WRs look ready to reload, and, while questions remain at RB, the potential is there.

More importantly, though, the offensive line looks ready to really shine this year.  If the OL improves as much as it should going into this season, the rest of the offense will look that much better.  And don't forget about the "superbacks" who will be utilized quite often and should help contribute both in blocking and receiving.

While NU fans shouldn't expect to replicate the kind of offensive output seen in the Outback Bowl every game (and one hopes we won't repeat those five interceptions), the offense should be in good hands and is on solid ground to put NU into a bowl for a third consecutive season.

Go 'Cats!!!

e-mail: j-hodges@alumni.northwestern.edu

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jhodges is the primary content provider of HailToPurple.com.  His commentary and game analyses appear regularly during the season and occasionally in the offseason.