Commentary: What Injuries Could Really Hurt the 'Cats in 2007
by Jonathan Hodges

First of all - I sincerely hope Northwestern sees no significant injuries this year; it is the worst thing to see on a football field when someone goes down - they are all playing hard and you want to field your best team and play an opponent who is fielding their best team.  But, it is something that is a concern and must be addressed - especially when the depth of the team becomes a huge factor when someone goes down.

Injuries are always a factor in football - particularly in college football where the starters are vital for almost every team since it is very difficult to stock a team with 85 potential starters year in and year out.  Basically, every team has the players on their 2-deep available to step in, but beyond that there are huge question marks.  A good portion of the team is stocked with underclassmen (including redshirt freshmen) who won't see playing time unless there are extreme circumstances, and are there to bulk up and hone their skills for future seasons.  Injuries that force the coaching staff to reach down on the depth chart can be beneficial once in a while (think Sutton in 2005 when Jordan was out with a hamstring injury and Roberson went down in game 1 with an ankle injury), although many times it means not having the best and most prepared player on the field at that point.

The best example of a season ruined by injury for Northwestern was the 2001 season.  It was already a tough season to start - although NU was actually picked by the media to finish high, if not first, in the Big Ten thanks to its 2000 showing and the return of almost every offensive weapon - the death of Rashidi Wheeler in the offseason coupled with the emotional turmoil of 9/11 really put a damper on the start of a potentially bright season.  The Wildcats started the season off relatively strong, with wins over UNLV, Duke, and the last second thriller win over MSU, then a wet homecoming win over Minnesota.  Injuries began to hit NU and the loses began to pile up, with the most notable injury being to Damien Anderson, with that play being his final hurrah at Northwestern.  The defense also began to wear down thanks to the no huddle spread offense - which when clicking is effective at scoring quickly, but when out of sync means very quick 3 and outs.  All of that equaled very little rest for the defensive unit (despite having 2 future NFL players: Harris and Bentley) and a ton of points given up plus a number of routs.

For the 2007 squad, injuries could once again spoil the party - although NU fans hope that we don't see any.  This year's team has a plethora of talent and potential, but is not very deep (e.g. has a lot of youth and inexperience) in a few key areas.  The LB and OL units already have a lot of players without much experience battling for a spot on the 2-deep or even a starting role.  While the defensive backs look solid, outside of the top 5 or so NU gets to freshmen or sophomores who haven't yet seen the field.  At QB, after Bacher there's Kafka (who was seemingly ineffective as a QB last year, although he was arguably thrown into the fire to start the season), then nobody with any previous collegiate experience.  Running back seems to be a solid spot with Sutton, Roberson, and Conteh, followed up by Shanks then possibly some new faces, although there are already known injuries to Sutton (who, according to Fitz, "should be fine" by Sept. 1) and a report of an injury to Roberson.  The wide receivers may be the deepest of the units, although many of them are mostly unproven on the field.  The other strong squad would seem to be the defensive line, although that kind of depth is needed to keep enough players rotating in and out.  Finally, on special teams, most fans are banking on Demos, although there are basically no proven kickers/punters - plus an injury there could see players moving outside of their natural abilities (see Huffman moving to kicking duties although he was originally a punter, a pretty good one, which led to many kicking debacles, particularly in 2004).

Then there are the seemingly annual set of Kenosha injuries, especially to the legs/feet.  Last year the victim was Kim Thompson who had a broken foot at Kenosha.  Bacher only got a couple days in in 2006 before being pulled with a stress fracture that kept him out much of the season.  Obviously practice is necessary and the team needs players to go out playing full tilt in Kenosha, since there is no preseason in college football - since even the games against I-AA opponents count and should be taken seriously as NU knows full well.  But it is concerning when every year NU goes into the season with someone injured.  This year doing so may hurt even more due to the shallow depth chart at multiple key positions, particularly the OL.  Here are my top 5 positions where an injury would hurt the most for NU this year:

1. Offensive Line (specifically Rees or Thiry): Losing a member of the OL would be tough given the youth and inexperience at this level on the line.  Losing a leader and linchpin of the offense like Rees or Thiry would potentially mean the downfall of the NU offense's hopes this year.

2. Quarterback (Bacher): We all saw the offense last year without Bacher at the helm.  While virtually the entire coaching staff was taking on new positions, Bacher has the talent to do well but below him nobody seemed prepared enough to take over at this vital position.

3. Defensive Back (Battle, McManis): If one of these key players goes down, it's up to the young players to step in - although there is talent available there is little proven beyond these two.  Also, safety has 3 key players with Smith, McPherson, and Phillips - but beyond that is more youth.

4. Kicker/Punter (Demos): While the entire kicking/punting staff is virtually unproven, losing the most talented member would hurt.  He will obviously contribute in some form (kicking and/or punting) this year and having to turn to even more youth may lead to even more kicking/punting troubles for NU.

5. Linebackers (Kadela, Simpson): In an unproven unit where only 2 players have had significant playing time, injuries to those top 2 would hurt, especially when it comes to on the field leadership.  We all saw what happened against MSU last year when Roach went down.

Wildcats - most of all, stay healthy - and I hope that this commentary doesn't have to be revisited once the season begins.


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

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