Entering the 2009 season the Northwestern offense had a lot of question marks. They had a first time starter at quarterback that struggled to throw the ball, an unsettled backfield, and a largely new core of wide receivers. The one thing that looked relatively settled was the offensive line, which returned four starters.
That unit went on to put up some big numbers. Even with starter Mike Kafka missing most of two games, they lead the conference in passing average and were fourth in total offense. Zeke Markshausen and Andrew Brewer went from depth chart after-thoughts to All-Conference contenders.
They will face similar question marks entering this season with the graduation of those three previously mentioned players and a backfield that still looks unsettled. Will they be able to fill those gaps as well as they did this year?
Much like the 2009 season, the offensive line looks like one of the team's strengths entering next season. Though they had some struggles early in the year due to some lineup shuffling and a number of young players in the lineup, the unit seemed to gel late in the season.
All five late season starters will return next year, several of which already have two years of starting experience under their belts.
The headliner of the unit is tackle Al Netter. The junior to be already has 26 starts at Northwestern and earned All-Big Ten honorable mention honors from both the coaches and the media.
He is joined by two other juniors with significant starting experience. Center Ben Burkett has also started every game of his NU career and guard Doug Bartels has over 20 starts as well.
Senior Keegan Grant returns to man the other guard spot and sophomore Neal Deiters seems to have taken control of what was an unsettled right tackle spot.
Sophomores Patrick Ward and Brian Mulroe give the Cats depth to go with their experience. Both are quite talented and saw significant playing time last season.
The receiving core looked like a huge issue entering 2009 after the graduation of Ross Lane and Eric Peterman, but it turned into a strength. The previously mentioned Markshausen and Brewer had combined for 20 career receptions before 2009 but racked up 148 catches and 1,783 yards this season.
The Cats will have to replace their two leading receivers once again, but the cupboard doesn't look quite as bare as it did before last year.
One of the main reasons is super back Drake Dunsmore. Though NU generally hasn't had much statistical production from this position, Dunsmore looks like a potential play-maker after a solid sophomore season. He had 47 catches for 523 yards and three touchdowns, including an electrifying 66-yard screen pass in the Outback Bowl.
Senior Sidney Stewart should also be a factor after catching 42 passes for 470 yards and two touchdowns.
The Cats also bring back junior Jeremy Ebert (21 catches, 226 yards) and sophomore Demetrius Fields (24 catches for 225 yards and a touchdown).
The Cats do play quite a few wide receivers in their spread offense, so we will likely see some contributions from new players. Lee Coleman was the only other receiver to appear on the depth charts last year, so any guesses as to who that might be would be purely speculation. This will be a big area of interest in spring practice, as well as during Camp Kenosha when some of their recruits will have a chance to crack the depth chart.
Mike Kafka was a huge question mark entering the 2009 season. Most thought that he would be far more dangerous as a runner than as a passer, but instead he had arguably the most prolific passing season in the conference.
Now that he has graduated, Dan Persa will be the favorite to try to do the same thing. Much like Kafka, he has been most effective as a runner thus far and has extremely limited experience and production as a passer. He didn't look terribly comfortable when he was forced to throw last year, so his development will be a huge factor for the Cats.
While it is unlikely that he wins the starting job, Evan Watkins is another option at quarterback. Watkins never saw the field in his first season in Evanston, but is considered to be more of a pocket passer than Persa. Now that he has a year under his belt, he may have a chance to take the starting job with a strong spring. However, as I said, it is unlikely given that Persa has more game experience.
This was an area of much frustration for Cats' fans last season. NU used a multitude of running backs this year, none of which averaged even four yards per carry. All of them will return, which may or may not be a good thing depending on your perspective.
Finding a reliable running game would take considerable pressure off the previously mentioned Dan Persa.
Stephen Simmons opened the year as the starting running back, though he spent roughly as much time returning kicks as carrying the ball. Injuries also kept him from staying in the starting role. Simmons is supposedly one of the best athletes on the team, but he hasn't shown as much flash from the backfield as he has on returns. Whether he starts or not, he will definitely see the ball several times a game.
Sophomore Arby Fields was next in line and is the guy most fans probably want to see as the starter. He had several exciting runs early in the season, but didn't make much of an impact as the season wore on. He seems to have considerable potential, but has yet to take full advantage of it.
Jacob Schmidt was next on the running back carousel and didn't catch on either. Though he is useful as a short yardage back, he doesn't seem to have the burst or agility to be a feature back.
They finally settled on Scott Cancannon at the end of the year, though he didn't exactly get 20 carries a game. He was relatively effective at times, but they shifted away from the running game as the year continued.
Alex Daniel will also return from a serious ankle injury and redshirt Mike Trumpy could be a factor as well.
I also wouldn't rule out some carries from true freshman Veneric Mark, who doesn't have ideal size (5'9", 160 lbs.) but appears to have elite speed. However, given the logjam at the position he seems more likely to make an impact as a return man.
The running back position is yet another one to watch during the spring, as it will likely determine the pecking order in the backfield. Given the run-heavy leanings of Persa, it's possible that we'll see more option plays and thus a heavier reliance on the run.
I don't think anyone knows exactly what to expect from the Northwestern offense in 2010. Theoretically, a strong line will allow them to lean on the running game a little more, especially in their early season games while they try to develop chemistry in the passing game.
Whether or not that happens is another story. It was pretty clear last season that the Cats were more effective with Kafka throwing the ball than trying to force the run. With their bread and butter graduating, things could be quite different in 2010.
I said this in 2009 and I'll say it again in 2010—the backfield will likely determine the fate of the Cats. Even though the running game never really caught up, the emergence of Kafka played a huge role in their Outback Bowl berth.
They have to find a way to move the ball this year, whether it's still through the air or in a strengthened running game. If the ground game doesn't improve and we see a large drop-off in the passing game it could be a long year for the Cats.