InsideNU has long been a solid member of the Big Ten blogging roster here at SB Nation. They have often been staffed by fine young journalists at the school. This year we have Ben Chasen to stop by and talk about the Wildcats:
T-Mill: Wrigley Field! I can’t tell you how excited I am for this game. What is the feeling around the Northwestern program?
Ben: The anticipation for the Wrigley game is significant, and for good reason. Way back in 2013, NU struck a deal with the Cubs to play five games at the iconic venue, and, because the Wildcats’ clash with Wisconsin last year was moved from Wrigleyville back to Evanston due to COVID-19, this will be the first game played under that agreement. Pat Fitzgerald and company have used the opportunity to play at Wrigley in their recruiting pitch for years, the NU Athletics marketing department has used the game as a major selling point for season tickets and, as a whole, it’s a very big deal that this game is finally happening for the Northwestern program.
A few weeks ago at Big Ten Media Day, Northwestern offensive lineman Sam Gerak called Wrigley “that place” in Chicago while stating his excitement to play at the Friendly Confines. For those of us who love sports, I feel that assessment is spot-on (sorry Ryan Field). Regardless of how the game goes, it’ll hopefully be a memorable day/night for everyone involved at a nearly unbeatable setting.
T-Mill: The largest question seems to be quarterback for Northwestern. What are your thoughts on Ryan Hilinski?
Ben: In terms of position competitions, quarterback is by far the most anticipated. Ryan Hilinski is considered by most to be the favorite, and he definitely appears to be stronger than the other two candidates (Hunter Johnson and Andrew Marty) in terms of his ability as a pure passer. For those who don’t know, he started in his true freshman year at South Carolina before being benched in his sophomore campaign and subsequently transfering to NU. He’s got a cannon for an arm and can make some deep throws that most college QBs cannot, and, with a shoddy offensive line at South Carolina against some terrifying SEC defensive fronts, he showed regularly that he’s able to assess the field quickly and get rid of the ball before getting sacked.
He’s not perfect, though, and the main knock on him is his mobility. He can throw on the run if he needs to, but it better be a short run he’s throwing on, because defensive linemen and linebackers will catch up to him quickly. As such, he can’t really scramble and it doesn’t seem likely he’ll be utilized heavily in option settings, which may hurt him in competition with Johnson and Marty (both of whom have great speed for quarterbacks, in my opinion), as Northwestern’s run game looks to be at the center of its offensive attack this year. Also, as I mentioned before, he’s got a really strong arm and can throw the ball deep... but the accuracy isn’t always there, and at SC, he occasionally made poor decisions when he was actually given time by his o-line, opting to heave the ball downfield into coverage when a check-down might’ve been a smarter move. If you’re interested, you can find a full review of Hilinski’s tape from his freshman year written by one of my co-Editors in Chief, Daniel Olinger, here.
So it’s a mixed bag skills wise, but what should be noted is we haven’t seen him play with an offensive line that can deal with the pass rush it faces adeptly and we haven’t seen him start a game in two years. A lot of development can happen in that time, especially under a coaching staff as strong as Northwestern’s, so he could have improved in his areas of weakness in ways we just don’t know about yet. Moreover, he certainly carries himself as an upstanding human being and a quality leader, the latter of which is necessary to lead a team successfully at his position. I expect him to start at QB for NU, and whether or not he performs up to expectations, he’s certainly earned my respect as a person.
T-Mill: Northwestern looks like they had a number of opt outs last year. Who is back as a major contributor?
Ben: The big name to watch is Samdup Miller, who will very likely start at defensive end opposite Adetomiwa Adebawore. Miller opted out of last season after starting all 35 of the games he appeared in during his first three years in Evanston, and Eku Leota -– who has since transferred to Auburn – filled in for him admirably. Still, opponents will likely notice his impact on the line when they play the Wildcats. Through the years, he’s wracked up 114 total tackles, including 17.5 TFLs and 7.5 sacks.
Returning for a final year with the ‘Cats, though, what may stand out more than his skillset is his leadership. He’s the only four-year starter on an otherwise very young NU defense (more on that in just a bit), and, if Northwestern is going to contend for another Big Ten West title, they’re going to need Miller to become someone they can rally behind. As such, it’s no surprise that our staff ranked him the eighth-most important player to Northwestern’s success this year in our preseason poll.
T-Mill: The Wildcat defense was very good last year. Is there a dropoff this year?
Ben: Ask most Northwestern fans, students, writers, etc. and they’ll likely tell you that Northwestern had one of, if not the very best defense in the country last season. Whether or not that’s true, the shoes last year’s defense left behind are undoubtedly big ones to fill, and so I’d say that there will likely be some dropoff this season for a variety of reasons.
The first is the massive amount of departed talent. The defensive line will probably look as good, if not slightly better than it did last year, as NU’s two season-opening starters at defensive tackle are back, as is one of it’s most promising defensive linemen in the modern era (Adebawore) and the four-year starter Miller at defensive end. Elsewhere, though, the ‘Cats are going to have a lot of new starting faces. Greg Newsome II, who was picked in the first round of the NFL draft and was perhaps the country’s top lockdown corner last year, is gone. So too is his fellow defensive back, safety JR Pace, a major leader of the NU secondary. So too are linebackers Paddy Fisher and Blake Gallagher, who collectively anchored the linebacking corps that has been the heart and soul of Northwestern’s defenses for years.
Then there’s the fact that NU’s longtime defensive coordinator and all-time college football legend, Mike Hankwitz, retired at the end of last season, marking the conclusion of a 51 year-long coaching career. In his place, Fitz has brought on Jim O’Neil, who GA’d at Northwestern long before his stints as defensive coordinator of the Cleveland Browns and San Francisco 49ers, neither of which were lengthy or successful. His most recent job as defensive backs coach of the Las Vegas Raiders was also ill-fated, as the Raiders allowed the eighth-most passing yards per game to opposing offenses in the NFL last year. Thus far, though, Northwestern’s players have raved about his energy and the NFL-style concepts he’s brought into the fold. Still, it would take a hell of a coach to replace the legendary Hankwitz.
So yeah, there will probably be a bit of dropoff between last year’s Northwestern defense and this year’s. But I wouldn’t be shocked if that dropoff is minimal and the ‘Cats maintain one of the best defenses in the nation, given that they’re returning arguably the best defensive player in the country (safety Brandon Joseph) and have plenty of young talent to mend the gaps with, strong position coaches on the defensive side of the ball and a former-linebacker head coach who invokes the envy of many other college programs.
T-Mill: What will it take for Northwestern to stay atop the west after two titles in three years?
Ben: The ‘Cats are going to have to reload – not rebuild – after a successful season, something they have struggled to do in the past (see: this cardiogram-looking graphic). 2020 was a magical year in Evanston, but it was only so special because a number of key players stepped up and performed even better than they had in years past... Greg Newsome and wide receiver Ramaud Chiaokhiao-Bowman come to mind as examples, but this was largely true across the board. A bunch of new guys also became major contributors... chiefly the aforementioned Joseph, RB Cam Porter and since-departed QB Peyton Ramsey. All of that will need to happen again for NU to book another trip to Indy.
And then there’s the rest of the Big Ten West division, which looks sure to be stronger this year than it was last. Wisconsin is probably the favorite, and a more mature Graham Mertz could certainly help the Badgers pull away from the pack. Iowa looked far more fearsome at the end of the 2020 season than it did at the start, and the Hawkeyes also return a ton of talent. Lastly, I personally believe that many people are overlooking Minnesota, who have brought back the two most important pieces to their offense puzzle: QB Tanner Morgan and RB Mohamed Ibrahim. The ‘Cats will probably need those teams to be slightly weaker than they have the potential to be, even if they perform their best as a team, in order to make it back to Lucas Oil Stadium.
One last thing to keep an eye on: its conference schedule isn’t remarkably difficult (read: they don’t play Ohio State, Indiana or Penn State), so a repeat for NU as kings of the West is certainly possible.
T-Mill: With some pretty close games with Purdue of late how do you see this playing out?
Ben: Tough to predict a game so late in the season, but, based on what I know about both teams in the preseason, I expect the Wildcats and Boilermakers to have yet another tough battle, with the game’s result in doubt until the fourth quarter at the earliest. I’m particularly looking forward to the matchup between George Karlaftis – arguably the strongest defensive end in the nation – and Peter Skoronski – one of the country’s most promising young o-linemen. All in all, though, I think the ‘Cats have a slight edge in talent and a strong advantage in coaching, so I’m going with NU to win the battle between the ivy. Northwestern 20, Purdue 13.