Commentary: Five Questions for Camp Kenosha 2008
by Jonathan Hodges

With the 'Cats' preseason practices already in full gear, I begin my 2008 analysis of Northwestern Football in earnest.  First off, I'll analyze five key questions about NU going into the season.

1. Will the offensive line be effective, especially considering its relative youth?

As of right now, the starting 5 on the OL look like the following: LT - Netter (RS FR), LG - Taylor (JR), C - Burkett (RS FR), RG - Kennedy (SR), RT - Mattes (JR).  The only one out of that group that has starting experience is Mattes.  Belding (SR) who played RG last year was originally slated for LG but it looks like he is feeling the heat and may not make it on the starting 5, although there is still plenty of time before the season opener on Aug. 30.  Otherwise, NU is looking at 4 new starters - including one transfer from the DL (Kennedy).

After last season, the loss of experienced starters Rees, Thiry, and Crum due to graduation, there was most definitely a void left on the OL, especially since there were few experienced backups on the roster.  Rucks (SR) and Grant (SO) have had limited playing time in backup roles but even then there would be more open spots than players with collegiate game experience.  So, NU is now going into the season with 3 starters who haven't played a down of college ball at that position (Netter and Burkett will see their first game experience, and Kennedy will see his first on the offensive side of the ball).

While there is cause for concern, the fact is that the outgoing line didn't exactly set the world on fire with their performances.  Yes, they had some stellar games in 2007 (MSU, Indiana - both of whom were ranked in the top 2 in the nation in sacks when NU played them) where they basically prevented any pressure from reaching CJ.  But, those were most definitely counter-balanced by poor performances with pressure reaching Bacher constantly (think the 4th quarters against Duke, Iowa, and Michigan).  Overall, it was a rather inconsistent performance given the level of experience on the line.  Yet the offense managed to put up a ton of yards - and NU is returning with some of the best offensive skill players in some time (more on that later).

So, the OL will still be a question mark moving forward - at least until Aug. 30 against live competition - and possibly even after that until Fitz gets his starting 5 set.  Until then look for new OC McCall to strategize around this by throwing quick passes and moving action away from the backfield by splitting Sutton wide and making things happen quickly.  The young unit may also benefit from the no huddle hurry-up offense which has the potential to catch defenses off-guard.  In the end, though, the performance of the OL and their ability to protect CJ and open lanes for Sutton/Conteh will make a huge difference as to the success of the Northwestern offense in 2008.

2. How much different will the defense look under Hankwitz?

Well, if they do look different, the D will look better - because (statistically) they can't look much worse.  At this point Colby's trademark appears to be a complete lack of pressure up front - with the DL unable to stop the run or get to the QB.  This left the secondary open to attack, and we saw the results many times.  Also, it routinely looked like the Northwestern defense was in a "watch and react" mode which left them open to yard-consuming drives from their opponents.  Overall, though, NU hasn't seen a really solid defense since 1996 or so, and it has been extremely frustrating to watch.

So, in comes Mike Hankwitz, with over 20 years of DC experience including multiple units ranked at or near the top of the nation in defensive statistics.  Oh, he has a national title ring, too.  He's coached at big-time schools (Colorado, Arizona, Texas A&M, and Wisconsin).  In fact, he basically has more experience as a DC than the amount of time Fitz has been playing and/or coaching organized football.  And from what we've seen thus far, both Fitz and the team believe in him and his philosophy.

His defensive mindset is definitely more attack-oriented, and it isn't too complicated.  In a recent article, some players noted that it was difficult to pick up on things easily with a rather complex defensive scheme under Colby.  Under Hankwitz, on the other hand, it's all about fundamentals and a limited set of aggressive plays.

In addtion to a new philosophy for the D, the team returns a lot of talent - including a talented DL that has thus-far underachieved.  Gill is expected to have a standout year, but don't forget about Wootton, Hahn, and Mims - who all have a wealth of experience at this level.  And there are up-and-comers, like Bryant (who looked great in spring practice), who expect to get on the field in the DL rotation and contribute.  Also, don't count out the new DL coach Long who may significantly help a change in direction.  In the secondary, you'll find more competiton than 'Cats fans have seen in some time: Smith (safety) and McManis (CB) look to anchor the unit with their talent and experience while Phillips, Arnold, and Peters will be duking it out for a safety spot and Oredugba, Vaughn, and possibly others (Mabin) will be trying to secure the other corner.  The competition should help push this unit and improve their performance.  Smith is returning from shoulder surgery but has looked good by delivering some hard hits in Kenosha.  The DBs look to significantly benefit from additional pressure up front as they have been exposed in recent years with receivers running free as the opposing QBs have had all day to throw the ball - something not entirely placed on the secondary's collective shoulders.

Finally, there are the LBs, led by Arrington in the middle and Kwateng and Davie on the outside.  Also pushing for playing time are McNaul and Nate Williams, and don't forget about senior Dinard, either.  While the current starters may not be considered the best, look for new energy instilled in them thanks to the defensive scheme.  Also, watch out for Arrington in his attempt to take the lead MLB role in a long line of very solid NU players (Durr, McGarigle, Roach, and Kadela).

Overall, we'll have to see them on the field, but I can already almost guarantee a statistical improvement.  I think one can see the change in attitude on the practice field already - and that should translate into improvment on the game field.  Now, I'm not going to go out and say this will be a top defense nationally, but I will say that they have the talent, experience, and leadership to wind up somehwere near the middle of the country and/or conference, which would give the 'Cats an excellent opportunity to excel.

3. Can Northwestern win all of its nonconference games?

The perennial question for NU is can it win all of its non Big Ten games?  They haven't done so since 1963.  Sure, for most of that era (until the late 90's), NU faced some tough competition - mostly foes who are now in BCS conferences, but NU also only played 3 non-conference games until the advent of the 12 game schedule this century (although NU did play 12 in 1997 thanks to the Pigskin Classic).  Even when NU had some of its best teams and won conference titles in 1995, 1996, and 2000, Northwestern lost to Miami (OH), Wake Forest, and TCU (respectively).  And in recent years NU has lost to New Hampshire and Duke (for their only win in their last 32 games).  It seems like NU always finds a way to lose a NC game - many time to what is considered an inferior opponent.

Well, if one was looking for the optimal non-conference schedule, NU has it this year.  The opponents are Syracuse, Duke, Southern Illinois, and Ohio.  Both Syracuse and Duke are considered to be at the bottom of BCS conference teams.  SIU did very well last year, making it rather far in the playoffs (they are in FCS/I-AA), but have lost key players and, most importantly, their coach (to NIU).  Finally, Ohio has improved under Solich but they haven't been able to take that step to the next level.  And three of those games are at home (Syracuse, SIU, Ohio) for NU.  In fact, ESPN rated NU's nonconference schedule one of the easiest in the nation going into the year.

The one thing that 2007 taught college football fans is never to count on anything, but the opportunity is definitely there for NU.  Not only is the schedule set up well, but the offense and defense contain a lot of experienced and talented players who have shown they can make things happen.  That leads into the next question...

4. Will the offense improve from last year (NU led the conference in total offense but was 10th in scoring)?

Many look at NU's offensive stats from 2007 and see some of the best numbers ever (especially passing yards).  But then one can look at the scores and think - where did all those yards go?  The fact is that the offense turned the ball over rather often, couldn't convert in the red zone consistently, and was most likely hurt by the loss of Sutton for essentially 7 games of the year.

This year, the Wildcats will look to turn all of that around with lots of experienced skill players returning: QB CJ Bacher, RBs Tyrell Sutton and Omar Conteh, and WRs Ross Lane, Eric Peterman, Jeff Yarbrough, and Rasheed Ward.  Oh, and don't forget about WR Brewer coming back after redshirting due to injury.  And there are some good young players waiting in the wings as well.  But the biggest factor is probably the new OC McCall - he hails from Bowling Green where he helped mold a couple of star MAC QBs (Harris and Jacobs - the former who burned NU when they played) and has a solid amount of experience dating back to high school coaching experience in Colorado.

McCall has and will run the spread, but he has made a point to say that he likes to call running plays from the spread (Sutton is chomping at the bit) and to control the tempo of the game through the use of no huddle and hurry-up offenses.  This seems to play right into the hands of NU's strengths with so many skill players returning.  And with a relatively ligher OL (not too many, if any, at that 300 lb. mark) that should benefit a quicker tempo.

The biggest question is with an outsider coming in and taking over the offense, what will the learning curve be?  Fortunately, NU has that aforementioned light nonconference schedule that the 'Cats can use to "warm up" before facing tough Big Ten foes.  Not to write off the nonconference opponents, but facing them is much easier than leading off with the likes of Ohio State.

Overall, look for more of a pass/run balance than last year's pass-happy attack, and look for much improved red zone results with Sutton being given the ball and allowed to make things happen.  It may take a game or two to get things fully synchronized, but they should be able to be more efficient as a unit and capitalize on opportunities better than last year's version.

5. Will Fitz's head coaching performance continue to improve?

Well, if he wanted trial by fire, he got it.  He was thrown in about 2 months before the start of the season as the youngest FBS/I-A coach and had no coordinator experience (including no coaching experience at all on offense).  Now it's 2 years later and he's been through about every situation one can imagine: on the wrong side of blowouts, the victim of the biggest comeback in history (at this level), multiple 4th quarter breakdowns, but also racking up the most wins through 2 years for any NU coach in the modern era and having some key comebacks and victories of his own.  Most importantly, though, he finally has "his" staff in place.

The previous two year he was basically honoring the late Coach Walker by keeping most of his staff on board - especially given the fact that Fitz wasn't in much of a position to swap out assistants a few weeks before the season or even after his first year when he was learning the ropes of the HC trade.  But after last season, he took the step many were waiting for by letting Colby go.  Just a few weeks later, former OC McGee left for Arkansas.  And he used his coaching network (particularly Gary Barnett) to grab OC McCall and DC Hankwitz.  Later, he also added DL coach Long to the mix.

This year, though, Fitz has his own hires in place - guys that he can fully trust and rely upon.  Not that he couldn't trust his coordinators the previous two years, but given their relative performances and the fact that they were hired by his predecessor there was cause for concern.  Both of his new hires come with a wealth of experience that he can also utilize given that he has still been a head coach for a tad over two years.

Not only that, but Fitz has learned through experience - in tough ways at times - but the opportunities have been there.  One can see that evidenced in his relationship with the media - just two years ago he seemed to be "Mr. Coachspeak" but this preseason he's been more upfront and better spoken.  'Cats fans can expect this attitude to be translated onto the field for this season, and hopefully NU will have far fewer lapses this year.

While there are a lot of questions going into the 2008 season, there are also a lot of opportunities to answer those questions and to win football games.  There should definitely be a lot of optimism for the 'Cats this year.

Go 'Cats!!!

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

Previous jhodges commentary

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