For all of the optimism swirling around the D, there is an equal amount of questions circling the offense at the start of the 2009 season. As any good Wildcats fan knows, NU lost EVERY starting skill position player off of last year's nine-win squad, including NU's second all-time rusher Tyrell Sutton and owner of multiple NU single-game passing records CJ Bacher. Oh, and don't forget a trio of receivers who have found themselves in NU's top ten lists for receptions and receiving yards: Ward, Lane, and Peterman. On top of that, NU also lost its backup RB, Conteh, to graduation. Finally, OC McCall is looking to gain some traction with his "get the playmakers the ball in space" offense that didn't churn out the points as expected in 2008.
Despite losing so many experienced players from the skill positions, NU does show some promise in the trenches, returning key members across the OL. And the guys taking over at the skill positions have a lot of speed and talent - which are good things to have in such positions. And, thankfully, Northwestern's early-season schedule is forgiving enough to give the offense a chance to get their act together before facing the trials and tribulations of the Big Ten schedule. Given that, here's the preview of the offense by positions.
It all starts up front. Last year, the Wildcats threw a bunch of redshirt freshmen into the fire and survived (although a nine-win season is more than surviving). They did reasonably well with pass protection (although a lot of thanks goes to the offensive scheme which calls for getting the ball out of the QB's hand quickly), and while their run blocking was less than extraordinary, it was good enough to get the job done on most days (particularly when Sutton could work his magic). And what NU got out of it was a trio of solid sophomores: RG Bartels, C Burkett, and LT Netter. Burkett and Netter have even begun to attract some attention at the conference level, and that's with only one season under their collective belt. The other two positions will be fought between three of the more experienced linemen: junior Keegan Grant, finally healthy, will look to secure LG, while senior Kurt Mattes (who also overcame an injury during the '08 season) will try for playing time at RT. Senior Desmond Taylor, who spent much of last year at RT, will be looking for time at either of those positions, and his versatility should come in handy if there are any injuries across the line. Junior Boyle also saw some playing time a year ago and provides a backup with some experience.
And the guys at the top of the chart on the line better not get too complacent, because the highly touted recruits from a year ago (Adamle, Deiters, Mulroe, and Porcelli) are now redshirt freshmen, and then there's the true freshman Ward who is NU's highest rated incoming recruit. Look for at least a couple of these guys to see the field at some point during the year, possibly during some of the less challenging non-conference games if NU has a secure lead, and there's always the possibility one of these guys could push a starter enough to earn some playing time of significance.
Fitz's recruiting has really helped shore up the line, which was rather anemic when he took the helm of the team in 2006. The line this year is young and talented, yet has enough experience and depth to put it in contention with others in the conference. This year will be vital to show the progress of this unit, and if they perform well, look out, because they could be really good over the next two years.
Everyone's favorite position to discuss is, of course, QB. While the 'Cats lose two-and-one-half year starter CJ Bacher, they bring in a senior QB to take over the helm for the first time in over a decade. Mike Kafka has started 6 games in his career, including filling in twice in 2008 for the injured Bacher, including the infamous Minnesota game where he set a conference record for rushing yards by a QB in a single game, with 217 yards. The one thing we know about "crazy legs" Kafka is that he can run (592 career rushing yards at 5.0 yards/carry with 3 TDs), but the question is: can he throw consistently?
In his NU career, he's completed just over 61% of his passes for 835 yards and 3 TDs (against 8 INTs, 5 of which came in 2006 as a redshirt freshman). The thing is, though, he's never been the first team QB on a consistent basis: in 2006 he was thrown into the fire as a redshirt freshman as CJ went down during camp and was in a position battle with Brewer (who was moved to WR later that season), and last season he was relegated to a fill-in role while CJ recovered from a hamstring injury and spent most of the time utilizing his running abilities.
While some have looked to sophomore Dan Persa to challenge him for the starting spot, that hasn't materialized, and this is Kafka's team to lead. And what most people don't realize is that Kafka's skillset plays right into the hands of OC McCall, who loves a running QB, which gives him one more ballcarrier to use in his spread offense. Don't expect Kafka to run with the same frequency as last year (especially against Minnesota), but his speed will be utilized more often than CJ, who seemed very wary of taking off with the ball on most occasions. This and the fact that NU's opponents have seen what Kafka can do with his legs will give the 'Cats a better chance to make things happen through the air: one more defender in or near the box will give the WRs a chance to get open or the chance to get the ball to someone in space near the line of scrimmage.
The opportunity is there, but Kafka must prove that he can effectively run the offense and get the ball to his receivers when required. He's been alright as a backup so far in his career, and it will be very interesting to see if he can take the next step and lead the offense to success in 2009. Out of all of the newcomers in the skill positions, Kafka is by far the most known quantity, and others will be looking to him for leadership.
A team doesn't lose its second all time rusher (who would likely have been first if not for injuries that ate up the majority of two separate seasons) and a very solid backup without losing a step, but fortunately NU has the aforementioned OL to open some holes for the newcomer RBs this year. The trio of Simmons (junior), Matthews (sophomore), and Daniel (redshirt freshman) will battle for playing time - and expect all three to see the field during the first few games (and possibly all season) as they see who can be the most effective on the ground.
Simmons comes in with the most experience, having started the final three games of the 2008 regular season. For his career, he has 66 rushes for 175 yards (2.7 yards/carry) and 2 TDs, with all of the positive yardage coming last season. His best known moment was probably the kickoff return for a TD back in 2007 at Ohio State (the only points NU scored on that day). He's fast and should be an effective receiver out of the backfield (although he only has two receptions in his collegiate career - both of which went for more than 10 yards).
Even though Simmons may have the most experience, Alex Daniel was the one trotting out with the first team during the spring game, and he's the biggest of the three RBs (who are all on the small side for collegiate RBs). He put up big numbers in high school and also has speed, but will likely be expected to make things happen in the middle given his relative size. He performed well during the spring and should see the field often despite his youth.
Finally, Jeravin Matthews, the converted WR, looks to be one of the speediest guys on the field and will also get a shot carrying the ball. Last year he made his mark on special teams, particularly the coverage units, flying down the field and making tackles or popping the ball out of opponents' hands. He showed off his speed during the spring game, reversing direction and flying across the field and into the end zone. Expect him to get a shot as well, although there will likely be questions about his durability, switching over from WR (although he did play RB in high school).
Don't expect one guy to take over this job exclusively, especially given the lack of experience and size across the board. Thankfully, all three guys have good to excellent speed which should lead to a competitive race for carries. And Kafka's running ability will take some pressure off of this position, at least through this season, which will help them all get settled into the position. If the OL can live up to high expectations and open up some holes, the RBs should be able to let speed take over and pick up good chunks of yardage and maybe even break a long run off.
Also in the mix are sophomores Schmidt and Concannon (who have experience on special teams), and true freshmen Arby Fields and Mike Trumpy. Don't be too surprised to see any of these guys see the field, especially if the three "co-starters" aren't as effective as desired. All-in-all, the RB race is pretty wide open for the first time in years, and it will be interesting to see if someone will emerge to take over a lineage of strong runners for NU over the past decade (Anderson, Wright, Herron, and Sutton).
Here, again, NU lost its top three guys: Ward, Peterman, and Lane - all reliable targets with speed and playmaking abilities (they scored NU's 3 TDs in the Alamo Bowl last year in exciting fashion). The 'Cats do get senior Andrew Brewer back, and after being sidelined with a broken arm in 2007 and held back with a leg injury some of last year, he will be the number one receiver this year, and did a nice job kicking things off with a 55 yard reception against NU's top cornerback McManis in the spring game. He'll share the field with fellow senior Markshausen, junior Stewart, and sophomore Ebert.
While losing the three guys from a year ago is a significant loss, NU has the depth at receiver to manage the loss. Brewer has no. one speed, and hopefully he can stay healthy enough to take over that role this season. Ebert was very effective in his true freshman year, despite being converted from QB over the summer. Markshausen has worked his way up the depth chart and has bonded with his fellow seniors (Brewer, Kafka) and should be good in the slot. Finally, Stewart has seen the field as a backup and is looking to secure a larger role.
The depth doesn't stop there, though, as senior Frymire is looking to come back from a broken leg sustained in the 2008 spring game, and there's also Coleman (who moved up thanks to solid special teams play last year), Brown, and the redshirt freshman Demetrius Fields. Many also anticipate seeing redshirt freshmen Barber and Bayless, who were highly touted recruits. Finally, don't count out the junior Fisher who has some playing time under his belt.
Everyone on the 2-deep will get their shot at the field, given the fact that NU regularly rotates receivers in the spread offense, and has at least three on the field at any one time in typical situations. If Brewer and Stewart can stretch the field on the outsides and Markshausen and Ebert can become reliable targets in the middle, it will go a long way in helping Kafka and the team's success. It will be interesting to see who develops into a "go-to" receiver and if the receivers can make good use of their speed and talent.
The often neglected tight end/fullback position (especially in the spread offense) was used more often last year by McCall, albeit in a blocking type role. NU returns a lot of experience at this position, and it will once again be intriguing how McCall decides to use them.
Rooks (junior) and Brendan Mitchell (senior) hold down the tight-end-type positions and both were used last season (with both catching TD passes as well), so look for them in TE-type roles once again this year, blocking or running short routes. They provide nice big targets that are useful in the red zone.
This season also sees the return of Dunsmore from his knee injury sustained in camp before last season; he was a very effective receiver as a true freshman in 2007 and may take a similar role in an H-back type position this year. He provides good versatility for the backfield. Woodsum (senior) is also there to provide fullback experience; he's anchored that position (when used) for the past couple years.
The question here is how often and how will they be used in the offense? There are a lot of options between TE/H-back/Fullback type guys who can block and catch the football, which should work to NU's advantage if McCall can find an effective mix.
Most don't have high hopes for the offense in 2009 given the loss of all starting skill position players, but things don't have to be that dim. The OL is experienced, deep, and talented and should be able to pave the way for good things. Kafka brings in some experience at QB, and his running ability fits McCall's offensive scheme perfectly. The receiving corps is deep and has guys with some experience, and Brewer is looking to make an impact in his senior season. While the running back situation is up in the air, there is a lot of speed. Finally, the superbacks give NU some good versatility to run different types of sets depending on the situation - the 'Cats don't have to line up with four-wide every down.
To some, the offensive production in 2008 was a letdown, and they may point to McCall. That was just season one in a familiar system with new terminology and some kinks thrown in, now we'll see what can emerge with a new set of players. With a solid line and speed at the skill positions, the ingredients are there to make things interesting - and the Wildcats' soft schedule to start the year will give this unit a chance to get things together before facing the stout defenses in the Big Ten.
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