Commentary: Northwestern's 2011 Offense
by Jonathan Hodges

Time to have a look at the Northwestern offense that is returning nine starters from last year's squad, although one may barely notice those who are gone (WR Sidney Stewart and OL Keegan Grant) since so many players behind them garner not only significant playing time, but also some starts. The Wildcats have a lot of weapons on offense, led by Mr. Dan Persa himself at QB (last year's First Team All-Big Ten QB, amongst other honors), but they still have a ways to go in order to realize their full potential.

The 'Cats return a bevy of experience on the OL, featuring seniors Al Netter and Ben Burkett, who have started almost three straight years of games together at left tackle and center, respectively. The wide receiving corps is deep and features Jeremy Ebert, another First Team All-Conference selection from a year ago (also the Big Ten's leading receiver from 2010). And while the running back position has been a bit of an enigma for Coach Fitzgerald, Mike Trumpy broke the 100 yard mark in two games last year and ripped off an 80 yard TD run against Illinois (the longest run for the 'Cats in almost 20 years) before going out for the final two games with a hand injury. I hardly need to go into Persa's accomplishments, but let's just say he's pretty good.

Unfortunately, this talented group also had a good amount of experience going into last season and they didn't perform all that well. Looking at the season as a whole, they ranked 48th in total offense and 63rd in scoring offense; middle of the pack numbers that resulted in a middle of the pack record when all was said and done. Even with Persa, this offense was all about the long methodical drives (at that point NU led the nation in percent of drives 10 plays or more) instead of the explosion play: NU had 51 plays of 20 or more yards (10 of them on running plays), while opponents had 63 such plays (25 were runs). The 'Cats need to show the ability to break off big plays, especially out of the run game, to keep opponents honest. Now, on to the position by position breakdown.


The quarterback position going into 2011 for Northwestern is a huge story, and rightly so, with All-Conference QB (and Heisman Candidate, if you haven't heard) Dan Persa recovering from the ruptured Achilles' tendon injury he experienced after throwing the game-winning TD pass over Iowa in November of last year. His recovery has gone according to plan and although the injury is 100% healed (according to him and Fitz), he is still working on getting back into game shape and his ability to bounce back to previous form (especially his running ability) is in question.

Now, one might say that this season completely hinges on Persa: he accounted for 60.8% of NU's total offense in 2010 despite missing all of the final three games due to that aforementioned injury, while his immediate backup, now redshirt sophomore Evan Watkins, was less than stellar by completing just over 50% of his passes and turning the ball over often. But, NU holds a wildcard (and I'm not talking about their student IDs), and that is true sophomore Kain Colter, a speedy QB who ran for 105 yards and 2 TDs in the TicketCity Bowl and has the potential to be a nifty addition to the offense in various ways.

When Persa is playing, everyone know what to expect from his arm: he is extremely accurate (he set a Big Ten record with a 73.5% completion rate last year) and protects the football (he had a 15-to-4 TD-to-INT ratio last season, one of the best in the nation), and this helped him yield the 9th best passer efficiency in the nation. He knew how to keep drives going and led NU to many of those methodical drives. Unfortunately the other primary asset, his running ability, is in question following his injury. Will he be able to make plays with his feet; and, if not, how will NU make up for that?

One answer is that Colter will likely be used relatively often for his speed on the ground. But that would essentially telegraph the play call to the 'Cats' opponent, right? Not necessarily, as Colter has reportedly gained a lot of arm strength and accuracy in the offseason; one thing that wasn't highly publicized was that he was coming off of a throwing arm injury going into last season, so he may prove to be a legitimate passing threat this year, which would be a boon to the NU offense. When Persa is in, though, and if his mobility is limited at all, expect opponents to try and tee off on him early and often, and the 'Cats' success in those situations will be largely determined by the performance of the offensive line (more on them later).

So, this all basically boils down to: how healthy is Dan Persa? And we won't really know that for sure until September 3rd. If he isn't healthy enough to play or is not very mobile, things will likely fall into the hands of Colter, and the question then becomes: how has his passing ability progressed? It will be up to them; it's pretty clear that Watkins and redshirt freshman Trevor Siemian are unlikely to get much playing time outside of garbage time (unless things get really bad with injuries). It seems like Persa is doing everything he can to get on the field and, if he's there, everyone should feel confident in his ability to lead the offense.

Running Back

In the two seasons since Tyrell Sutton graduated, Northwestern has been desperately searching for a running back. In those 26 games, there have been five different starters: Arby Fields (7, he transferred out of NU during last season), Jacob Schmidt (5), Scott Concannon (4, he graduated after last season despite having one year of eligibility remaining), Stephan Simmons (4, he graduated after last season), and Mike Trumpy (4). The 'Cats used a true freshman both in 2009 (Fields) and 2010 (Adonis Smith). And in both of those seasons, the QB was the second ranked net rusher on the team (Mike Kafka in 2009, Persa in 2010), and both would have been ranked first on the team if not for sacks counting against their rushing numbers (also note that both missed significant playing time in their respective seasons as a starter). Although NU was a middle-of-the-pack 58th in rushing last year, Persa accounted for almost one third of those yards. And NU has averaged under four yards per carry in both seasons (3.0 in 2009 and 3.6 in 2010). Things certainly need to improve.

One can rightly point to the offensive line and their inability to open up holes for the RBs, but the offensive line will be evaluated later in this analysis. The running backs should shoulder a good amount of blame for the general failure of the running game over this time, though. Despite troubles running the ball, NU remains committed to the running game (and rightly so, especially after the offensive failures in the 2006-2007 squads led by OC Garrick McGee that were very pass heavy and, even with Sutton, rarely finished off drives while also squandering leads). In raw numbers, last year's squad ran the ball 59% of the time; running backs carried the ball exactly one third of the time, which isn't too shabby considering the offense was so Persa-heavy. Unfortunately, the RBs didn't do a particularly good job once they got the ball, averaging just 3.9 yards per carry (a slight improvement over 3.7 ypc in 2009).

And, as mentioned earlier, NU had a general lack of explosion plays in the running game (just 10 for the entire team in 2010, with Persa accounting for a good number of those). Also, there was the largely hyped string of games without a 100 yard rusher (20 games, to be exact), until then-redshirt freshman Trumpy broke 100 at Indiana last season (he also topped 100 against Illinois, the game during which he fractured his wrist, ending his season). The lack of a damaging rushing threat meant that opposing defenses could cheat by dedicating fewer resources to stopping the RB and more towards either pass coverage or rushing the passer. This significantly diminishes the value of the spread offense, as demonstrated by comparing the NU offensive attacks of the past two years to that from 2000 and 2001 when the explosive Damien Anderson garnered the majority of carries. And, in the red zone, a viable running game is key to keeping the defense honest and being able to pound the ball to paydirt.

The ground game has been a self-admitted point of emphasis for Coach Fitz for the better part of the past two calendar years, and the cast of characters at RB remains mostly the same as last year (minus Fields, plus a couple of promising freshmen who may or may not see the field in 2011). So, the question is (especially with questions at QB): can the running game pick it up? Fitz has resorted to a new ploy this preseason camp: trying to light a fire under the promising sophomores (Trumpy and Smith) by naming Schmidt the starter; Schmidt is a senior who has certainly paid his due and experienced a setback last year with some untimely fumbles and an injury that kept him out for the second half of the year, but he certainly hasn't shown the ability to be a number one RB thus far. Trumpy and Smith have reportedly heard the message, but it remains to be seen if one or both will step up.

It will be interesting to see how the carries are divided on September 3rd: expect all three of the aforementioned backs to get carries, and the best guess would see Trumpy or Smith run the most, although the final answer may ultimately depend on who performs the best in live action. Schmidt will almost certainly be utilized as a third down and short-yardage back as he is a rather consistent runner and has nice pass reception skills (he has 28 catches and a solid 9.3 yards per reception average through his career). If those three prove unable to carry the load or experience a setback on the injury front, expect to see a true freshman earn carries for the third consecutive season; this year's candidates: Treyvon Green and Jordan Perkins. Although they have potential, it would definitely be preferable to see one of the more experienced backs break out. And, as detailed earlier, NU needs a running back to break out.

Wide Receivers & Superbacks

The Wildcats are basically loaded at WR. The only loss was the aforementioned Stewart, who was a productive receiver but tied for second in receptions last season. Everyone else is back and the 'Cats have added some weapons as well (more on that later). Big Ten reception leader Jeremy Ebert is back, and superback Drake Dunsmore is as well (Ebert led NU in receptions last year and Dunsmore tied with Stewart for second); both have garnered significant conference and national preseason honors and nominations. They have a clear link with Persa and they both know how to make something happen after catching the football.

The list of quality receivers on Northwestern's roster hardly stops there; junior Demetrius Fields is a solid threat (he's caught 49 balls and has 3 TDs in two seasons of work), senior Charles Brown has reportedly come on this offseason, and last year's true freshmen Tony Jones and Rashad Lawrence are back along with their speed and jumping ability, respectively. This gives the 'Cats six very well established receiving threats, and they have a combination of skills that can force opponents into uncertain situations on defense. And that isn't even considering the speedy true sophomore Venric Mark or junior Brendan Barber, who has been stuck down the depth chart for a couple of years.

And then there is true freshman Christian Jones, who has received much praise this offseason and will likely see the field if his progress truly is as good as reported. This would give NU a nice rotation of receivers useful in a variety of circumstances, and it certainly looks like the talent and speed at this position have been bumped up to the next level. Now, the Wildcats must translate this into results by getting the ball to these WRs at various points around and down the field. Back to the point on explosion plays: NU needs to get some big downfield plays going, and if the running game isn't doing it, it will ultimately be up to these guys to make it happen. Fortunately, they have the talent to make it so.

It will be interesting to see how everyone is utilized as there will certainly be some sort of rotation within games; although Ebert led the league one season ago, it isn't unusual to see receptions spread across the unit, especially one with this much skill across the board. And even though NU doesn't have the flashy and prototypical WR (or at least not an established one recognized by the media), they likely have one of the (if not the) best receiving corps in the conference this year. If Persa is playing, this will likely translate into excellent results; if someone else is throwing to them, it will all depend on the QB's delivery.

Offensive Line

They aren't flashy but they are likely the most important unit on offense, and this year Northwestern comes in with the second most experienced line in the nation (behind SMU). But, as many NU fans and observers have noted, bringing in a very experienced but very underperforming line may not be a great thing. The rushing numbers are listed above and they aren't pretty (NU backs have averaged under four yards per carry the past two seasons). The sack numbers, though, are worse: NU ranked a miserable 112th nationally in sacks allowed last year (3.1 per game), and that was with the fleet-footed Persa behind center for much of the year. Even with questions at QB and RB, Northwestern needs a huge improvement here to generate better results on offense in 2011.

How does one do that with an experience-laden squad? Shake things up, and Fitz (along with his offensive line coach Adam Cushing) have done just that: three-year starting C Ben Burkett (39 consecutive starts at the position: every once since his redshirt freshman year began) will shift over to right guard to give way to a redshirt freshman Brandon Vitabile, who reportedly impressed in the spring and earned a starting spot. Fitz and Cushing have talked about starting "the best five" guys and it looks like they will be making good on that word.

The two tackles will be the same: Al Netter will hold down the left side (he's also a three-year starter), and highly ranked recruit Patrick Ward will be on the right side (this will be his third season after earning some playing time as a true freshman, a very unusual circumstance, and being a full time starter last year). Netter has already earned multiple honors and is on the watch list for more this season, while Ward has huge potential and, if he comes into his own, can earn some of his own. Finally, the left guard spot will be a dogfight: junior Brian Mulroe was the leader going into the preseason, but junior Neal Deiters or senior Doug Bartels may also be working for playing time there.

Don't be surprised to see even more shake ups here: keep a close eye on who trots out to start the game against Boston College, and then play close attention if things aren't clicking early. Senior Colin Armstrong, junior Chuck Porcelli, sophomore Brian Smith, and even redshirt freshman Paul Jorgensen were on the preseason two-deep and will provide some depth for the line. Fitz and company have been known to tweak OL lineups early and often, and it will be interesting to see who comes out on top in this competitive field for a limited number of spots.

The key to this season will be working together as a unit and avoiding individual breakdowns. Many of those aforementioned sacks (along with another 51 TFLs yielded) were due to one or two mistakes on the line, and in order to be successful, all five must do their jobs on every play and work as a cohesive group. Reports have been promising, but we'll only truly know the results once NU hits the field in September. And this year there isn't much of an excuse with so much focus put on the OL and so many talented individuals there. But the 'Cats will likely know the fate of the OL early, as Boston College will trot out one of the best defenses in the country in week one, including arguably the top linebacker in the nation.


So, despite a respectable offense and talented players across the board, there are many questions for the Wildcats as they seek those explosion plays that were so elusive last year. QB is a big question mark with the recovery of Persa's Achilles staring everyone in the face. The running back situation is in flux, just as it has been for the past two seasons. The wide receiving corps is a definite plus, but their success will be reliant on the QB and offensive line. And, finally, the offensive line must eliminate those individual breakdowns and find the winning combination that can reduce the sack numbers while increasing the running lanes.

But Northwestern has the athletes to put it all together and a coaching staff that knows what they have to do. NU fans will get a good idea of how things will go early with some significant tests in September leading up to the vital October stretch of games. No matter what happens it will almost certainly be interesting to watch.

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.