Commentary: Five Question Marks for 2007
by Jonathan Hodges

Following up on last week's commentary on 5 reasons why you should be excited for Wildcat Football in 2007, now it is time to come back down to earth for a moment and discuss the (biggest) 5 question marks on this year's squad.

1. Linebackers:  In recent years, especially under Coach Walker and dating back to the playing days of Fitz in 1995, there has always been a strong linebacker corps for the 'Cats.  Bigtime players included Roach, McGarigle, Durr, Bentley, and Fitz.  This year there is a lack of a star returning player in the unit, and the depth is questionable at best.  There does seem to be some young talent on the unit but it is unproven on the field.  Right now the primary players of the unit consist of Kadela (who has the most experience, but lacks the speed that others have), Simpson (who is notoriously quick but doesn't have a wealth of experience), Arrington (who had very limited playing time last year), and Malleo (a converted QB/FB/special teams player who looked out of place while MSU was running wild in the 2nd half of last year's game).  Backing them up are Kwateng (also limited on experience), and then the youngsters Jeske (finally back from a back injury, lots of talent but unproven), Williams (redshirt freshman), and Davie (redshirt freshman who has been highly touted).  Basically there is not a returning starter with a ton of experience and lots of tackles racked up who stands out as a leader of the entire defensive unit like in the past.  Kadela does provide a lot of experience and has played well, but he does not stand out like those before him.  Another discomforting fact is that it was known that NU wanted to switch to a 3-4 defense and the shift was supposed to be completed this season - but given the lack of experience and depth at LB that would seem to be an unwise decision at this point - especially considering the talent and depth present on the DL this year (something that hasn't been in NU's favor for some time).  The potential is there for the LB unit, for sure, but the lack of experience is disconcerting, especially considering they will have to stop some serious offenses early on in the year (think OSU and Michigan).  Only time will tell, though, and I sure hope that this LB squad puts my fears at ease early on.

2. Offensive Line:  Again, under Walker this was usually a strong point, but now graduation has hit and the ranks are thin.  This unit returns probably the two most important pieces, center Rees and tackle Thiry.  Belding and Crum had significant playing time and will be holding down the guard positions, but they both had rough moments as well.  The rest of the squad is filled out by players who are sophomores or younger: Mattes at starting tackle, and backups Diaz, Grant, Taylor and Boyle.  The OL is a unit where experience and size matter - both things that underclassmen are rarely able to provide at a B10 level.  The OL is where the offense starts and it better be good if you want a shot at a good offensive performance.  Plus it is vital that they play as a unit and are well coordinated.  The upside to this year's squad is that 4 of the starters have had significant playing time, and 2 of those are key returning starters.  It is still worrisome, though, especially since the offense had enough trouble last year with a mostly veteran line.  Again, I hope that they prove me wrong and go out there and plow down defenses leaving plenty of room for Sutton to run free and plenty of time for Bacher to throw effectively, but it is still a precarious situation.

3. Quarterback/Offensive Production:  I will lump this all together, although I am not worried about Sutton - only what Sutton will have to deal with if the rest of the offense ( e.g. passing game) is not working - see last year's early Big Ten games for examples.  It starts with Bacher - who has the talent and has shown he can get it going on the field - but now it's up to him to get the offense humming again.  His key will be to find those receivers like he did last year but cut down on the mistakes ( e.g. interceptions).  The receivers have the talent - Lane, Peterman, Brewer, and even Ward and Jones are all very talented and have a plethora of experience that they received as underclassmen.  They will have to show off that talent on the field and make it happen.  Sutton will provide a great running game.  The biggest question mark from these starters is how will the coaching staff use them.  OC McGee made some very questionable play calling during the first half of last season, although it was his first time as a coordinator and he was working with two quarterbacks with zero collegiate experience coming into the season.  We have seen the 'Cats use a lot more of the H-back/superback (FB/TE) position in the past 2 seasons, so it will be interesting to see how that comes into play this year.  The fact is that NU has seen the most offensive success with a spread offense, and this season with the talent in the WR corps it wouldn't make sense to ignore that.  Outside of the starters, there are some players with experience and talent but there is a lot unproven, especially since some of them (particularly at QB) were not very successful in that experience.  Kafka will be the backup QB, followed up by redshirt freshman Mauro, and 'Cats fans sure hope that it doesn't come down to using either one of them - given last year's woes.  At RB Roberson will back up Sutton, followed by Conteh then redshirt freshman Simmons.  Don't forget incoming freshmen either (look what Sutton did in 2005), of which there were multiple RBs.  At WR are Fisher, Frymire, and Stewart - all talented, plus more incoming freshmen.  Finally, at the H-back, there are Woodsum, Mitchell, and Shanks - all young and with potential.  The pieces are all there and now that everyone has some experience under their belts, expectations for offensive production in 2007 are going to be significant.  Of course, there is basically nowhere to go but up from the 2006 showing, but a lot of this year's success depends on this unit.

4. Special Teams: Special teams made a big leap forward that went mostly unnoticed last season, and that was the coverage units.  The 'Cats gave up zero returns for touchdowns on kickoffs and punts (there was one blocked punt returned for a touchdown during the MSU game), which is a big improvement over the Walker years when 'Cats fans would hold their collective breath every time NU kicked/punted the ball because there was always a chance that it would be returned for a TD ( e.g. MSU 2001, which luckily NU pulled off).  This improvement can probably be attributed Fitz's concentration on special teams (since he has taken over those coaching duties himself) and putting the best players on the field even for special teams (although we see what can happen as Roach broke his leg during punt coverage).  NU did not manage any kickoff/punt returns for TDs, although McManis had a relatively high kick return average and was close to breaking a few - and this year the coaching staff will be looking to the likes of Conteh and Brewer to contribute as well.  The major concern going into next year, though, is can anyone kick?  No current player on the NU roster has punted at the collegiate level, and only one - Villareal - has kicked at all at this level.  Demos is listed as taking over the kicking game, and as a highly touted recruit - one of the top kickers in his recruiting year - expectations are very high.  Plus, during warmups last year he was nailing 50 yard field goals, which left many NU fans demanding playing time last season.  Fortunately the coaching staff redshirted him and he will be available starting this year for four years.  But my main concern is - will his talent yield results on the field?  Northwestern has not had a really solid FG kicker for some time (since 2000 or maybe even all the way back to the mid-90s), and the potential is there now but will it translate into production?  And the bigger question mark is the punter, where there is zero experience.  Daley or Demos will be the starter, and the question is does Daley have what it takes after sitting on the bench for multiple seasons OR does Demos have what it takes to kick and punt?  This is a key area that has been questionable for the 'Cats in the past and it will determine a lot as to how the season goes.

5. Coaching: We all love Fitz, but the fact is that he is only entering his second year as head coach (before which he had no head coaching or coordinator experience), McGee is only in his second year as a coordinator, and Colby's on the field performance leaves a lot to be desired and fans have been calling for his head for years.  Now that Fitz has had more than 6 weeks to prepare for the season, McGee has picked up some valuable experience, and Fitz will no doubt emphasize defensive production - it seems as though the pieces are there and it's up to them to put it together.  Many were dumbfounded by coaching gaffes last season - see the MSU collapse and the complete lack of offensive production over the first half of the season.  It is really up to these leaders to get this talented team working in the right direction and ready to roll on gameday.  Nobody doubts Fitz's passion for football and Northwestern, but now it is time for him to prove his abilities.

While these are all questions for 2007, I don't see them as negatives since there are potential answers for all of them.  The key is for the team and coaches to respond and etch those answers in place.  Last year there were seemingly many more questions - many due to the heartbreaking loss of Coach Walker - but this year it's time for the team to come into its own under Fitz.

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

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