Last season, the attack ranked second overall in the Big Ten (420.9). The passing game led the way, ranking first in the Big Ten (254.2 ypg) for an offense that was fifth in the conference in scoring (28.9 ppg). The area on offense that needs work? The rushing game.
And then there’s a defense that ranked 11th overall (407.7 ypg) and 10th in scoring (27.7 ppg) in the Big Ten last season. Fitzgerald thinks better maturity and communication will help.
He’s pumped up about the overall prospects of the Wildcats in 2012. And here are 10 reasons why Northwestern fans also should be excited.
1. QB Kain Colter. The guy is the epitome of versatility. Check this out: Last season, he threw for 673 yards, ran for 654 yards and caught 43 passes for 466 yards. The junior led the team in rushing and is the team’s top returning pass catcher and passer. Yes, it will be difficult to replace Dan Persa. But Colter has the skill set to be one of the most dangerous weapons in the Big Ten.
2. Lots of receiving options. The Wildcats may have the deepest collection of wideouts in the Big Ten. It begins with Detmetrius Fields and continues on with Christian Jones and Rashad Lawrence—among others. And NU received word today from the NCAA that USC transfer Kyle Prater will be eligible this fall, making the wideout corps even better.
3. Strong o-line. The big fellas could be among the best in the Big Ten, as three starters are back: center Brandon Vitabile, guard Brian Mulroe and tackle Patrick Ward. It will be important for this group to get a more consistent push in the running game, as Northwestern looks to produce its first 1,000-yard rusher since Tyrell Sutton in 2006. On that note, keep an eye on incoming running back Malin Jones, who could be special.
4. Ibraheim Campbell. It’s no secret. The Northwestern defense struggled last season. But with experience and improved communication—along with an influx of talent—the unit should be better. And Campbell should be the star. Last season, he paced the team with 100 tackles and garnered Freshman All-American accolades from several outlets from his safety spot.
[BTN.com: Wildcats release new Under Armour uniforms]
5. Veteran staff. Pat Fitzgerald has built a strong staff that teems with experience. In fact, seven of the nine assistants have at least 20 years of experience. And three of the assistants—defensive coordinator Mike Hankwitz, secondary coach Jerry Brown and linebackers coach Randy Bates—all have over 30 years of experience roaming the sidelines.
6. Potential in the front seven. In the spring, several players up front on defense flashed playmaking ability, including sophomore tackle Chance Carter and redshirt freshman end Deonte Gibson. It will be vital for the line and linebackers to get more pressure on quarterbacks to lessen the burden on the secondary.
7. E Tyler Scott. Keep an eye on the junior end, who could be in store for a big year. Coaches believe Scott is capable of leading the charge off the edge for a Wildcat defense that ranked last in the Big Ten in sacks last season and 11th in tackles for loss.
8. CB Nick VanHoose. Youth will be served on the defense if it means injecting more big-play potential. And that’s just what this redshirt freshman brings to the table in the secondary. Northwestern finished last in the Big Ten vs. the pass in 2011 (230.4 ypg). Yes, an anemic pass rush hurt. But better coverage is needed. And VanHoose can deliver that.
9. Linebackers. The Wildcats welcome back all three starters from 2011 in senior David Nwabuisi, junior Damien Proby and sophomore Collin Ellis. And don’t forget about Ifeadi Odenigbo, one of the most heralded recruits signed by Northwestern in years who will arrive with the ability to impact immediately.
10. Hunger. This is a program with something to prove. It’s motivated to win the school’s first bowl game since the 1948 season and to finish in the upper-half of the competitive Legends Division. Fitzgerald will feed that hunger.
BTN.com senior writer Tom Dienhart is on Twitter and Facebook, all of his work is at btn.com/tomdienhart, and you can subscribe to it all via his RSS feed. Also, send questions to his weekly mailbag using the form below.
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