Team countdown: No. 50 Northwestern

Mike Huguenin
Yahoo Sports

The days of Northwestern being a Big Ten doormat are long gone. Still, the Wildcats seem to have plateaued.

While they have gone to a bowl in each of the past four seasons, their victory total has decreased by one each season in that span – from nine in 2008 to six last season. This season seems more likely to feature six wins than nine, with questions at tailback and, especially, in the secondary.

While Northwestern's overall recruiting class is almost always in the bottom third of the Big Ten, coach Pat Fitzgerald and his staff annually seem to reel in two or three big-timers. The coaches need some heretofore undistinguished guys to become playmakers this fall if the Wildcats are to reach their potential.

The particulars

Last season: 6-7 overall, 3-5 in Big Ten (5th in Big Ten Legends)
Coach: Pat Fitzgerald (40-36, 7th season)
Returning starters (minimum 7 starts last season): Offense (5)—WR Demetrius Fields, WR Christian Jones, G Brian Mulroe, C Brandon Vitabile, T Patrick Ward. Defense (5)—S Ibraheim Campbell, LB Collin Ellis, LB David Nwabuisi, LB Damien Proby, DE Quentin Williams. Special teams (2)—K Jeff Budzien, P Brandon Williams.
Fast fact: Northwestern has made four consecutive bowl appearances, the longest such streak in school history.

Offense

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QB Kain Colter's running ability will be a big plus. (AP)

The Wildcats will miss QB Dan Persa, who has graduated. His replacement, Kain Colter, started three games last season when Persa was injured. Colter is an excellent athlete; he played extensively at wide receiver last season, and as far as we can tell, he is the only projected starting quarterback in the nation who also is his team's leading returning receiver (43 receptions, 466 yards, three touchdowns). Colter also is Northwestern's leading returning rusher. While he is an able runner, Colter's passing ability is a question. It's unlikely he will be as productive as Persa was throwing the ball.

Colter's running ability should come in handy, as Northwestern has no proven tailback. The Wildcats likely will use a committee approach at the position, with Mike Trumpy and Treyvon Green getting the bulk of the work.

The receiving corps is young but talented. There are some playmakers at the position, and coaches are high on sophomore Tony Jones, who missed last season with a knee injury.

The line looks OK. Three starters return, headed by G Brian Mulroe. One potential sticking point: Northwestern had mobile quarterbacks last season, but the line still allowed 42 sacks, fifth-most in the nation. That's an embarrassing number that must come down.

Defense

There are some questions on this side of the ball, which has to perturb Fitzgerald, a former All-Big Ten linebacker for the Wildcats.

The unit's best player probably is sophomore S Ibraheim Campbell, who started as a redshirt freshman last season and led the Wildcats with 100 tackles. He also had two interceptions and four pass breakups, and proved he could cover a lot of ground.

Alas, he is the only starter returning in the secondary, and the three new projected starters have combined for one college start. The corners could be a problem all season.

The secondary's cause obviously would be helped by a consistent pass rush. But Northwestern managed just 17 sacks last season, and DE Quentin Williams (three) is the only guy returning who had more than one.

There looks to be a solid group of defensive tackles, and the Wildcats look good at linebacker, too. Senior LB David Nwabuisi, who made 84 tackles last season, should contend for all-league honors. Expect Northwestern to be much better against the run than it was last season (84th nationally, 177.3 yards per game).

Special teams

Backup WR Venric Mark is a good return man and has big-play potential. P Brandon Williams is steady, and the Wildcats' kickoff coverage was good last season.

But there are some issues. The punt coverage was awful, and K Jeff Budzien was just 6-of-10 on field goal attempts; he was 4-of-7 from beyond 30 yards.

Schedule

Three of Northwestern's four non-conference games are against Big Six opponents; thing is, none of the Big Six opponents (Syracuse, Vanderbilt and Boston College) are all that good. The Wildcats play four of their first five games at home and should get off to a relatively good start.

A positive is that the Wildcats don't play Ohio State or Wisconsin, the two best teams in the Leaders Division. They also get division foes Nebraska and Iowa at home, and play likely league bottom-feeders Indiana and Minnesota. But there are road games against Michigan and Michigan State.

Overview

The Wildcats should win three of their non-conference games and could potentially sweep. As long as they win three of those contests, they should be bowl-bound for the fifth season in a row.

The offense won't be as prolific as last season's, which ranked 34th nationally (420.9 yards per game), but it still will be productive. Colter's running ability adds an extra dimension that the coaches will gladly use.

The secondary is going to be an issue. Truthfully, though, the schedule doesn't feature too many teams that can take advantage of a weak group of defensive backs.

The recruiting side

Average recruiting ranking for past five years: 71st nationally
The buzz: The Wildcats signed one of the strongest classes in Fitzgerald's tenure, with two four-star prospects among their 21 signees. The headliner is DE/OLB Ifeadi Odenigbo (6 feet 4/210 pounds), who turned down offers from the likes of Alabama, Notre Dame, Ohio State and USC to sign with Northwestern. DT Greg Kuhar could be an early contributor for the Wildcats; he was one of the top heavyweight wrestlers in the state of Ohio during his high school career. – Josh Helmholdt, Rivals.com

Breakthrough player

Sophomore WR Tony Jones. Jones was one of five true freshmen to earn playing time for the Wildcats in 2010, catching 11 passes for 157 yards, including a 45-yard touchdown pass against Minnesota on the first snap of his college career. But he suffered a knee injury in fall camp last year and had to redshirt. Jones may be the fastest player on the Wildcats' roster and will be a tough matchup as either an outside or slot receiver in the Wildcats' spread attack. – Louie Vaccher, wildcatreport.com

For more on Northwestern throughout the season, check out wildcatreport.com

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