Tom Dienhart, Senior Writer, February 22, 2016

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?

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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, as NU was outgained 420-261.

Here are three key areas to watch this spring.

1. Defensive line. Two big holes at end with Dean Lowry and Deonte Gibson gone. 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. NU is loaded at tackle with C.J. Robbins, Tyler Lancaster and Jordan Thompson back along with Greg Kuhar, who will be another year removed from an ACL tear. End is a concern. Ifeadi Odenigbo, Xavier Washington and redshirt freshmen Joe Gaziano and Trent Goens need to step up.

2. Receiver. This spot disappointed last season for an offense that too often plodded along. Who will step in to fill the gaps at wide receiver and create some big plays? From a group that was bad last year almost across the board, Cam Dickerson, Christian Jones and Mike McHugh are moving on. Can a healthy Flynn Nagel continue to improve on the promise he showed as a true freshman last year before a season-ending injury? He may be a breakout guy. Can Charlie Fessler and Cam Green–both big targets–get an inside track to being on the field next year? Will RB Solomon Vault, who moved to receiver for bowl prep and the Outback Bowl, stay there? Jelani Roberts also must be a factor. Former walk-on Austin Carr needs to be a leader. Is there a true No. 1 wideout in the bunch?

3. Quarterback. Last year Clayton Thorson won the job. But it took a while before he got used to being ?the quarterback. ?It?s a short list of teams that have won 10 games with a redshirt freshman under center, but what type of progress has he made in getting his body healthy over the winter and how comfortable will he get this spring to springboard into next season? Zach Oliver graduating means there will be more practice reps. Thorson needs to take the proverbial next step in his development.


Record: 10-3 overall; Big Ten: 6-2/T2nd West (lost to Tennessee in the Outback Bowl)
Spring ball starts: Feb. 23
Spring game: April 9

Key players gone: G Matt Frazier; DE Deonte Gibson; S Traveon Henry; WR Christian Jones; DE Dean Lowry; OT Shane Mertz; WR Miles Shuler; LB Drew Smith; CB Nick VanHoose; SB Dan Vitale

Key players back: WR Austin Carr; SB Garrett Dickerson; LB Nate Hall; OT Black Hance; CB Matthew Harris; S Godwin Igwebuike; RB Justin Jackson; DT Tyler Lancaster; K Jack Mitchell; P Hunter Niswander; C Brad North; DE Ifeadi Odenigbo; OT Eric Olson; LB Jaylen Prater; DT C.J. Robbins. QB Clayton Thorson; WR/RB Solomon Vault; LB Anthony Walker


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