Commentary: Let the Pre-Season Begin
by Jonathan Hodges

It's already late July, and that means that Camp Kenosha is quickly approaching for the 2009 Wildcats and the season opener on September 5th is just weeks away.  After a very successful 2008 campaign, especially for Coach Fitz (who recently extended his contract with NU through 2015), and with a favorable schedule, NU will be seeking a second consecutive bowl berth for only the 2nd time in school history (the other, of course, was when Fitz was playing in 1995-1995).  There is a lot of information to sort through before the start of the season, and this is just a taste of what is to come.

Defense Preview

What the NU defense did last season under new DC Hankwitz was pretty astounding, seeing significant gains in every major statistical category, as they were a huge reason the 'Cats reached 9 wins for only the 5th time in school history.  This year, the D returns 7 starters, although 3 of those moving into presumed starting roles have previous starting experience or significant playing time under their belts.  All-Big Ten 1st Team selection Corey Wootton will be looking to come back from a knee injury sustained during the Alamo Bowl to lead this unit, a group that led the Big Ten in sacks a season ago.  The secondary returns all 4 starters and a slew of talented backups who will be pushing for playing time - this has been noted as potentially one of the top defensive backfields in the conference, if not the country (I don't know if anyone has ever said that about NU).  And the linebackers will see 2 top performers return: Davie, who gets things done in the backfield, and Nate Williams, who was a great mid-season fill-in for the injured senior Malcolm Arrington.  The fact is that the defense is expected to carry NU in 2009 and may be forced to win games for the 'Cats with the offense losing every skill position starter.

Offense Preview

Gone from a year ago are the starting QB, RB (and backup), and top 3 WRs from a rather strong offensive unit.  Fortunately the Wildcats still have some WRs with playing time under their belt, a QB who has started (and is a strong runner), and some interesting RB prospects.  Those skill positions will be a huge question mark in the mind of every pundit (myself included) until they prove themselves on the field this fall.  NU fans saw what could happen with a struggling offense back in 2006 when Fitz took over, although this year's squad will benefit from a OL that has some experience under its belt and some pretty good talent.  Oh, and they have the aforementioned defense to carry them from time to time (something NU hadn't had before last year for about a decade).  And the schedule sets up pretty well for the offense to settle in over the relatively easy first half of the year before hitting a tough final stretch in the Big Ten schedule.

Special Teams Preview

Stefan Demos is back, but what he'll be doing is currently not exactly known.  He can kick and/or punt, but expect incoming freshman Budzien to take over one of those duties.  NU also needs a new long snapper and holder, and will also need to fill in returner roles with some talent as the return game has been relatively week during Fitz's 3 year tenure.

Five Questions for Camp

What are the top 5 questions that may be answered in pre-season camp (hint: one probably has to do with the offense replacing all of those players)?  We may actually get some answers once Fitz establishes the first-teamers for scrimmages in camp.

Big Ten Preseason Rankings

Who are the frontrunners, bowl contenders, and bottom feeders this year and where does Northwestern fit in?  The conference is in an interesting position this year with some up-and-coming teams (NU, MSU, Minnesota) as well as some who have fallen on hard times (Michigan, Illinois) and outside of the very top and very bottom there is a lot of room for variation.

Schedule Rundown and Predictions

I take great pride in my annual pre-season W/L and weekly pre-game score predictions, so we'll see where I have the 'Cats finishing this season and where they may go following the regular season.

With some great memories still resonating from last year, it's hard to believe "next year" is almost already here, and it's time to get ready for some football 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.