I began by taking a broad overview of the Northwestern program, what it has done over the last five years and what that might tell us about what the Wildcats will do this season.
Two weeks ago, I looked at the 2012 NU offense and what it projects to look like.
Last week, I looked at the 2012 Northwestern defense and how it is shaping up.
This week, I'll look at the Wildcats' specialists, recruiting class, schedule and I'll give a final breakdown and my prediction for NU in 2012.
The good news is that every Northwestern specialist is returning.
Brandon Williams, the Cats' junior punter, had the fifth-best punting average in the conference in 2011.
Junior Mark Venric didn't have a great season on kick returns. He was eighth in the conference with 22.88 YPR, but he has proven how dangerous he can be, averaging 26.19 YPR in 2010. Moreover, Northwestern didn't force enough punts for Venric to rank among the conference's punt returners last season, though he was solid, averaging 15.88 on eight returns.
The bad news is the Wildcats' kickoff specialist, senior Steve Flaherty, had the conference's second-worst touchback percentage on kickoffs at 9.09 percent.
Even worse, Northwestern had the fewest field goal attempts with 10, and junior Jeff Budzien had the lowest field goal percentage with 60 percent, though he did go 50-for-50 on extra points.
2012 Recruiting Class
The Cats signed 21 players, with an emphasis on offensive line and defensive backs—five players each.
The reality is, NU will never sign the types of players that can come in and make immediate contributions to the team. Northwestern is a developmental program that depends on players to stay in the program—which they do—and contribute as juniors and seniors.
That said, any player that can help the team will be put in a position to do just that.
Pittsburgh's Jack Schwaba could come right in and compete for playing time at the vacated superback position. At 240 pounds, he is already at playing weight, and superback is wide open with the graduation of Drake Dunsmore.
Meanwhile, NU has only one returning starter in the secondary. As secondary is a position in which a player is most likely to make immediate contributions—either in nickel and dime schemes or on special teams—one or more of the Cats' five defensive back recruits could burn their shirts.
My bet is on Dwight White out of Cypress, Texas. Unlike the other four defensive back recruits, all of who project most ideally as safeties, White will be a cornerback, a position at which NU will start from scratch in 2012.
Finally, running back has been an issue for the Cats since Tyrell Sutton graduated in 2008. In effect, Malin Jones, who held offers from Notre Dame, Iowa and Illinois, among others, could grab immediate carries.
A pound sign—#—indicates must-win for Northwestern.
An exclamation point—!—indicates a probable loss.
A dollar sign—$—indicates a swing game.
Sept. 1: At Syracuse Orange $
Sept. 8: Vanderbilt Commodores $
Sept. 15: Boston College Eagles $
Sept. 22: South Dakota Coyotes (FCS) #
Sept. 29: Indiana Hoosiers #
Oct. 6: At Penn State Nittany Lions $
Oct. 13: At Minnesota Golden Gophers $
Oct. 20: Nebraska Cornhuskers !
Oct. 27: Iowa Hawkeyes $
Nov. 3: OPEN
Nov. 10: At Michigan Wolverines !
Nov. 17: At Michigan State Spartans !
Nov. 24: Illinois Fighting Illini !
Best Case Scenario: 8-4
In order for this to happen, Northwestern needs:
- The improved defense, that was on display in the spring game, to be the real deal
- Stellar play by the receivers
- Kain Colter spending most of his playing time in an upright position
Worst Case Scenario: 4-8
In order for this to happen:
- The defense has to be about the same as last season
- Kain Colter spends most of the season running for his life
- The receivers are serviceable, but little more than that
The Season Will Be a Success If...
Northwestern wins six games, goes to a bowl and wins aforementioned bowl game.
There is something of a rebuilding atmosphere in Evanston. Last season was the year for the Cats to do something special, and they dropped the ball. The offense did what it had to do, but the defense was terrible.
This season, some notable Wildcats—Ebert, Dunsmore, Persa, Burkett, Netter—are gone from the offfense. The defense only returns five, and NU is tied with Penn State for the second-fewest returning starters in the conference.
The out-of-conference slate is challenging, which will make it difficult to pick up easy wins while the new starters get their feet wet. This is a big issue in a precision offense.
In effect, a bowl bid, and just as importantly, the Cats' first bowl win since Truman was in office, will make it a successful year, and give NU something to build on for 2013.
The Wildcat defense will not improve as much as it appeared to in the spring game, but it will improve. However, the offense will have trouble.
This will be problematic early in the season, as Northwestern faces three AQ teams out of conference. Yes, those AQ teams are hardly Bama, Oklahoma and USC, but Northwestern is hardly Ohio State.
The Cats could have issues with any one of them, but I have them going 3-1 out-of-conference with a loss to Vanderbilt.
In conference, I have them beating Indiana and Penn State. They will get swept the rest of the way, but will put everything they have into the rivalry game against Illinois and will come up with the upset and bowl eligibility.
That will leave them 6-6, with one more chance to break their 40-plus year bowl drought.
Check out past installments of 2012 Big Ten Breakdown, beginning with the most recent, the Minnesota Golden Gophers.