Dienhart: Northwestern Wildcats' offseason to-do list
Pat Fitzgerald has his program humming again. Northwestern is coming off a special season in which it won 10 games. And it was a much-needed elixir for a program that was coming off consecutive 5-7 seasons. Now, can the Wildcats continue their evolution and win the Big Ten West?
For that to happen, the offense needs to get better after ranking last in the Big Ten in scoring (19.5 ppg) and last overall (327.1 ypg). The passing attack lacked big-play ability, as NU ranked—what else?—last in the conference (138.5 ypg). No staff changes were made, so any improvement will have to come through maturation.
The defense has as much talent as it ever has in the history of the program, but more plays need to be made along the front seven. A 45-6 loss to Tennessee in the Outback Bowl was a sober reminder of how much better Pat Fitzgerald’s program can become.
Here is a look at NU’s to-do list.
1. Build up the defensive line. The staff has two big holes to fill at end with Dean Lowry and Deonte Gibson departed. Lowry helped NU rank No. 6 in the Big Ten in rushing defense (126.2 ypg). He was a consensus second-team All-Big Ten selection after ranking second on the team in tackles for loss with 13.5. Lowry also had 52 tackles and three sacks. Gibson was a third-team All-Big Ten choice by the media and was honorable mention by the coaches. Gibson paced the squad with nine sacks and had 12.5 tackles for loss to go along with 39 tackles. This will be a big spring for Ifeadi Odenigbo, Xavier Washington, young Joe Gaziano. Will Odenigbo ever live up to his hype?
2. Develop some deep threats. The receiver slot disappointed last season for an offense that too often plodded along. Drops were an issue for a unit that has lost Cam Dickerson, Christian Jones and Mike McHugh. Are there any big-play makers on the edge who can open room for the ground game by making defenses respect the pass? Austin Carr looked good in the spring and could be the “guy.” And keep an eye on Andrew Scanlan. NU needs a healthy Flynn Nagel to continue to improve on the promise he showed as a true freshman in 2015 before a season-ending injury. Youngsters Charlie Fessler and Cam Green need to keep developing this offseason, too. And it’s also vital for converted RB Solomon Vault to make a move and add juice to this corps.
3. Better QB play. Clayton Thorson looked more confident in the spring and had some zip to his passes, but his accuracy can still be spotty. No doubt, he looked more comfortable. The job is his. And, he acted like it. Still, his numbers need to improve. In 2015, Thorson hit just 50 percent of his passes with seven touchdowns and nine picks for what was the worst passing offense in the Big Ten (138.5 ypg). Is Matt Alviti a legit option? Thorson needs to take the proverbial next step in his development if this program wants to remain one of the Big Ten’s best.
4. Bolster the o-line. Not long ago, this group lacked toughness, grit and punch. No more. This has the makings of a solid front, with Ian Park at center, Eric Olson at right tackle and Blake Hance at left tackle as anchors. Shane Mertz, a sixth-year guy, can play guard or tackle, while Brad North can play both inside spots. Keep an eye on youngster Jared Thomas.
5. Stay hungry. As noted, the last time Northwestern won 10 games—in 2012—it went 5-7 the next two season. Off-field issues played a role in that in 2014 with a union movement based in Evanston. The Wildcats put all of that behind them last year in a season of glory that was marked by many close wins. Eight of the wins came by 10 points or less. Can NU keep that glean in its eye?
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