Commentary: Who will start in 2009?
by Jonathan Hodges

Now that the 2008 season has officially concluded, it's time to get ready for 2009, even with Spring Practice almost 4 months away.  And given the team's success in 2008, the expectations of a strong showing this coming fall are there, even in the traditional media (the Chicago Tribune's Teddy Greenstein picked NU 5th in his 2009 pre-preview).  Given my aversion to the recruiting world (which is now in full swing with signing day less than a month away), I'll focus on next year's players, schedule, and more.

First up is to address the burning questions in everyone's minds: who will be the starters in 2009?  The good news is that NU returns much of its heralded 2008 defensive unit, including DE Wootton (NU's only all-conference selection from this past year).  The bad news is that the 'Cats lose virtually ALL of their skill players from this past season: QB Bacher, RB Sutton, and WRs Lane, Peterman, and Ward.  Fortunately, Fitz has the cupboard stocked with talent on both sides of the ball, and now we'll go through each position and see where they'll have the biggest impact.  [Note: all classes designated below are for next year].

Key openings are marked with an asterisk (*), which are those where the potential starter is unclear.  Key openings are: OLB, LG, QB, RB, WR, PK, and P.


I'll stick with the easiest unit first: NU will return 8 of 11 starters from the 2008 defense - the most successful NU D in over a decade.  The only graduating starting seniors were DT Gill (who looks to be headed to the NFL), LB Kwateng (also, LB Arrington, who started for the first half of the season prior to his knee injury), and DE Mims.  DE Wootton decided not to turn pro, partially because of a knee injury sustained in the Alamo Bowl - an injury from which he is expected to make a full recovery in time for the start of the 2009 season on September 5th.

One interesting fold will be what defensive set DC Hankwitz will employ in 2009, especially with a lot of returning talent in the secondary.  For much of the latter half of the year, he utilized a 4-2-5 type formation with Phillips serving as a hybrid S/LB, which played to the advantage of the personnel that NU had available, so it will be interesting to see if NU will go with this in 2009 - or even a 3-3-5 with someone like Davie in a hybrid DE/LB role.

Defensive Line

This unit looks to be strong as they return a good amount of talent, including the consensus MVP from the 2008 NU squad.  They'll have to replace NFL-talent Gill and DE Mims, but thankfully have two experienced guys in Hahn (DT) and Browne (DE) to fill in those spots.  It will be interesting to see which backups can break into the rotation and play a role, much like Browne was able to do in '08.

DE - Corey Wootton (redshirt senior): as mentioned above, Wootton is expected to make a full recovery by the time the regular season rolls around.  Given his all-conference selection in 2008, his success is key for the D as a whole, and his performance next year could boost his NFL draft status as he has all of the potential for the next level.
DE - Vince Browne (redshirt sophomore): he broke into the rotation in 2008 in a big way (he was tied for 2nd on the team with 4.0 sacks) and looks to anchor down the other end position next year.  He recovered from a knee injury sustained against Minnesota in order to play in the Alamo Bowl, but should be good to go for next season.
Backup DEs - others in the mix on the outside include redshirt sophomore Jack DiNardo, redshirt sophomore TE convert Cameron Joplin, and redshirt sophomore Kevin Watt.  Look for them to get some action in relief of the starting two.
DT - Adam Hahn (redshirt senior): Hahn has starting experience and NU will look to him to be a run-stopper in the middle like Gill has been the past few seasons.
DT - Corbin Bryant (redshirt junior): Bryant began to come on strong in '08 as he took a starting spot from Hahn and played well until his knee injury against Michigan.  He should be back and ready to go, though, and his performance will be key as NU's D looks to replicate or better their success againt the run this past season.
Backup DTs - others in the mix in the middle include true senior Marshall Thomas (expected to be a key part of the rotation), redshirt freshman Luxenburg, redshirt sophomore Mafuli, and redshirt sophomore Struckmeyer.


The linebackers' condition looks to be much better with the great performance from redshirt junior Nate Williams filling in for injured senior Arrington.  The 'Cats also return OLB and pass rush specialist Quentin Davie.  The other LB spot (assuming a 4-3 or 3-3-5 formation) will be up for grabs and will have multiple suitors as Fitz has the sideline stocked with guys playing his former position.

MLB - Nate Williams (redshirt junior): Williams all but secured the starting spot in the middle thanks to his solid fill-in performance for the second half of 2008 as he made tackle after tackle on his way to racking up the 5th most on the squad for the entire year.
OLB - Quentin Davie (redshirt junior): Davie has shown great speed and pass rushing ability as he has set up as another down lineman at times yet can cover the slot and the flat effectively.  It will be interesting to see how he is utilized as in 2008 he was rotated out in place of a 5th DB (Phillips) during the latter half of the year.
*OLB - now time for that other spot, which will be up for grabs amongst the following group: Ben Johnson (redshirt sophomore), Bryce McNaul (redshirt sophomore), Aaron Nagel (Notre Dame transfer, redshirt junior), and Quentin Williams (redshirt freshman).  That's not even to mention other redshirt freshmen who may play into things and could earn some playing time with solid efforts on special teams.  Note that Johnson and McNaul both had solid play on special teams in 2008, but Nagel and the younger Williams brother are also likely to fight for playing time.


It's strange to say at Northwestern, but the secondary may very well be the deepest and, dare I say it, best unit going into 2009.  Back are starters McManis, Mabin, Phillips, and Smith, along with backups Peters, Arnold, and Bolden.  Oh, and don't forget about Vaughn, who sat out much of 2008 with a shoulder injury.  What will be interesting is how Hankwitz utilizes all of this talent and experience - again, he may go with 5 DBs relatively often (which did well against spread offenses this past season).

CB - Sherrick McManis (true senior): McManis returns after a quietly solid 2008 season where he led NU with 12 PBUs, also tacking on 2 INTs and racking up 67 tackles.  After a breakout true freshman performance, he's been quiet, and is poised for a great senior year - especially with an overall improved defensive unit.
CB - Jordan Mabin (redshirt sophomore): Jordan was named to the FWAA freshman all-American team and his performance warrants such accolades - he tied for the INT lead on NU with 3 and generally played very well; plus, he has a ton of upside and will look to be even better in 2009.  Along with McManis, NU looks to have the best CB tandem in years.
Backup CBs - others in the mix for backup roles are redshirt junior Vaughn (although he could be eligible for an additional year if he gets a medical redshirt for 2008 - which is quite plausible), redshirt sophomore Mike Bolden, and redshirt freshmen Dugar and Harper.
S - Brendan Smith (redshirt senior - includes medical hardship year): Smith is undoubtedly a leader on defense and did a great job in 2008, and not just because of his 2 INT returns for TDs: he was 3rd on the team in tackles, with 82, also adding 3 TFLs, a QB hurry, and 6 PBUs.
S - Brad Phillips (true senior) - Phillips really came on strong in 2008, leading the team in tackles, forcing 2 fumbles, grabbing 3 INTs (tied with Mabin for the team lead), and generally laying some nice hits on opponents.  Look for him to be back and to continue in a hybrid S/LB role given his size (6'4") and ability to make big hits.
S (nickel) - Brian Peters (redshirt sophomore) - Peters is included due to playing sigificant time in 2008 when NU employed 5 DBs, a trend likely to continue since everyone is coming back.  He has size and has shown improvement as the year progressed.  Don't think he won't be pushed, though, as there are others fighting for playing time behind him.
Backup S - the others fighting for that playing time are redshirt sophomore David Arnold, and redshirt freshman Hunter Bates (of NFL lineage).


Now, the more challenging of the units in terms of who NU fans should expect to see in 2009.  The 'Cats lose a 2.5 year starter at QB, a 4 year starter at RB, and the top 3 receivers who have been the foundation for success in the spread the past few seasons.  Also, don't forget that the backup RB is gone, leaving a big hole in the backfield, and NU also graduates one member of the otherwise youthful OL.  There are a lot of shoes to fill, and OC McCall will have his hands full filling in the holes.

Offensive Line

The OL looks to be the most stable unit going into next season, with 4 starters returning along with backups who have seen significant playing time.  The redshirt sophomore trio of Netter, Burkett, and Bartels will be in place, while Taylor should return for his senior year to anchor the right side.  The only spot really up for grabs looks to be left guard, which should spark some healthy competition.  Don't forget that Mattes is still around as a senior with starting experience at RT and NU has a touted group of recruits who will become redshirt freshmen and will be looking for some time on the field.

LT - Al Netter (redshirt sophomore): Netter did quite a good job last year as a first year player, anchoring the left side the entire season and looks to be getting even stronger moving forward.  He has the potential to be an all-conference type player once all is said and done.
*LG - Mike Boyle (redshirt junior) - I'll slate Boyle here for no other reason than the fact that he saw some playing time this year at RG in relief of Bartels, but this spot is really up for grabs.  I'll run down the guys fighting for the spot in a moment.
C - Ben Burkett (redshirt sophomore): Burkett had some early season issues with high snaps, but got things under control as the season went on and shaped up to be a respectable center - and it was his first year playing at the collegiate level.  Yes, improvement is needed, but things are looking up if that development continues.
RG - Doug Bartels (redshirt sophomore): He beat out an experienced senior (Joel Belding) for the starting spot in 2008 and is poised to be one of the 2nd year players holding down the line.
RT - Desmond Taylor (redshirt senior): The elder member of the OL beat out previous starter Mattes (thanks in part to filling in due to injury then winning the job), and should be back from an injury during the Alamo Bowl to anchor the right side of the line in 2009.
Backup OL - there is a lot of depth on the OL after a relatively dry spell that saw many inexperienced underclassmen get playing time this past season, and there is a high profile slew of recruits that will now be ready to play after redshirting a year.  From oldest to youngest: redshirt senior Kurt Mattes (who brings in more than a year of starting experience at RT), redshirt junior Keegan Grant, redshirt sophomore Colin Armstrong, then the 5 redshirt freshmen: Nick Adamle, Neal Deiters, Brian Mulroe, Chuck Porcelli, and Jeff Radek.  Only time will tell which ones will fight for playing time in 2009.

Offensive Backfield

Now to what will be the most discussed positions on the team: QB and RB.  At QB, NU has 3 primary options: the redshirt senior Kafka, who now garners 6 games of starting experience and has shown his ability to run with the football; the redshirt sophomore Persa, who was good enough to see the field in 2008, albeit on special teams; and the "unknown factor" redshirt junior Mauro, who has yet to see the playing field.  And at running back, NU has redshirt junior Stephan Simmons, redshirt sophomore Scott Concannon, redshirt sophomore walk-on Jacob Schmidt, and the highly touted redshirt freshman Alex Daniel.

*QB - Mike Kafka (redshirt senior): Kafka has the starting experience and his running ability will be well-utilized by OC McCall.  The question is can he make those passes in the spread offense; we didn't see too much against Minnesota and OSU this past year.  Expect him to get pushed hard by Persa, who is a big-time recruit with dual-threat QB skills; don't be surprised to see him get some playing time too.
*RB - Stephan Simmons (redshirt junior): Despite his performance in 2008 (2.7 yards/carry), Simmons is the most experienced back and has the necessary speed, and should be the starting RB in 2009.  He needs work, but now that he can practice with the 1st team for an entire offseason, he'll have that chance to develop.  Look for Concannon and Daniel to get carries as well, especially given Simmons' size, and don't count out Schmidt, who proved himself through special teams play.
SB - Josh Rooks (true junior), Brendan Mitchell (true senior), Drake Dunsmore (redshirt sophomore - counting last season as a medical hardship), Mark Woodsum (redshirt senior), and Brett Nagel (redshirt freshman) are the guys in the "superback" position.  Mitchell, Rooks, and Nagel are true TEs who will typically line up at an end position on the line; they have shown the ability to catch a ball from time to time.  Woodsum is more of a blocking FB.  Finally, the biggest factor looks to be the return of Dunsmore, who is more of an H-back that can catch passes out of the backfield - he impressed as a true freshman in 2007, catching 11 passes for 141 yards; he will be returning from a knee injury suffered during preseason camp.

Wide Receivers

A key in the spread offense is the wide receiver position, and NU has been blessed with solid talent there since switching to the spread in 2000.  Last year, NU featured 3 solid receivers in Lane, Peterman, and Ward - and for the first time in years, the 'Cats will be looking to replace their entire starting receiver lineup.  There is some talent on board, so it will be interesting to see who steps up; given the rotation of receivers during the game, many will get a chance to prove themselves.

WR - Jeremy Ebert (true sophomore): Ebert was one of the few true freshmen to play in 2008 and he caught 2 TD passes and saw significant playing time.  Look for him to hold down one of the slot positions.
WR - Andrew Brewer (redshirt junior - counting 2007 as a medical hardship season): Brewer didn't come on as strong as many expected in '08, but now he'll have the chance to step out and use his speed to make things happen.  He was slowed by some injuries last season, so he should be healthy and ready to go next year.
*WR - Sidney Stewart (redshirt junior): He saw significant playing time as a backup in 2008, catching a TD pass from Peterman against Purdue.  He'll have to fight for his spot as there will be plenty of competition for that WR spot.
Backup WRs - here are the slew of others competing for playing time: Charles Brown (redshirt sophomore), Lee Coleman (redshirt junior), Carl Fisher (redshirt junior), Kevin Frymire (redshirt junior - assuming a medical hardship year for this past season when he had a broken leg), Zeke Markshausen (walk-on senior), Jeravin Matthews (true sophomore), Kevin Mitchell (redshirt senior), and redshirt freshmen Martin Bayless, Brendan Barber, and Demetrius Fields.

Brown, Fisher, Frymire, and Markshausen have all seen playing time, and Coleman earned some time on special teams in '08, so look for them to be factors.  Matthews did a great job on special teams as a true freshman; he was also utilized as a backup RB for practice purposes late in the season.  Bayless is a highly touted recruit who has the size and speed to make a difference, and Fields is another talented young player who could see the field.

Special Teams

Another area where NU will experience some turnover, as the 'Cats have to replace reliable place kicker Villarreal, and the battery of long snapper (Brunner) and holder (Daley).  For coverage teams, NU has plenty of depth at defensive positions (especially secondary) and receivers who can be used to get down the field quickly and make tackles.  In terms of return men, there are also a lot of options, and with the return game needing a boost - that will be key.

*PK - Stefan Demos (redshirt junior): He was a highly touted place kicker coming in, but focued on punting with Villarreal solidly in the PK role the past 2 years.  He has specifically talked about taking over place kicking duties, although he'll have to compete with an incoming recruit - but he should be the one taking over place kicking duties full-time.
*P - Mark Ison (redshirt junior): Due to the lack of anyone else on the squad with punting experience and the fact that Demos won't be able to handle both place kicking and punting, Ison will get the nod here.  Again, an incoming recruit (true freshman) may earn this spot, but that is a long way off (since official signing day is still a month away).
LS - John Henry Pace (redshirt sophomore): A walk-on who has been groomed for the long snapping role with the departure of Brunner, he is in position to takve over that role.
H - Mark Ison: again, due to the lack of anyone else, he will likely be the holder, especially if Demos (the previous backup holder) is doing the kicking.
KR - Jeravin Matthews and Martin Bayless: Fitz has shown that he likes younger players on kick returns, and these guys are likely the quickest available on offense.  He generally avoids putting starters back there, so that would disqualify previous return men Simmons, Ebert, Mabin, and McManis.
PR - Brendan Smith: look for Smith to continue duties as he has found the way on occasion of generating respectable returns (i.e. the 51 yard return against Illinois, NU's longest punt return since 2005).  If one of the younger guys comes on strong, look for them to take over in this role, although Smith is the guy on the "punt safe" unit.

Before even reaching spring practice, it's hard to see where things are, so this topic will definitely be addressed once April, then August, roll around and the team hits the practice field once again.

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.