Tom Dienhart, Senior Writer, August 23, 2017

Pat Fitzgerald has his program humming along at a high level. But he?s still looking for a breakthrough. Could this be the year Northwestern wins the West and plays in the Big Ten title game?

Here are five things I will be watching at Northwestern practice.

1. How does Justin Jackson look? The senior running back is a true workhorse. He will need to be tuned up and ready for another big workload if the offense wants to have success.

2. Are the linebackers OK? This group bid adieu to stud Anthony Walker Jr. He was the heart-and-soul for one of the Big Ten?s most underrated defenses last year. Can his leadership-and considerable production-be replaced?

3. Who is the go-to receiver? Big Ten Receiver of the Year Austin Carr is gone. QB Clayton Thorson needs another top target, a guy he can look for on third downs to move the chains. Who will step up? Can?t wait to see Oregon transfer Jalen Brown, who could be a difference-maker. And how do Flynn Nagel and Solomon Vault look?

4. How good is the secondary? I think this could be one of the better defensive backfields in the conference. I am eager to see S Godwin Igwebuike, one of the top players at his position in the Big Ten.

5. Is Clayton Thorson on point? He took a big jump as a sophomore last year. And he is the top signal-caller in the Big Ten West. Can Thorson continue to improve as a decision maker and a passer? If so, this offense could be very productive with a nice run-pass balance.