It had to eat at Northwestern coach Pat Fitzgerald – a former Wildcats linebacker – that his defense was so lax at times last season.
This spring, he and his defensive staff will try to change things.
Northwestern's offense lost some key players, but still should be fine. It's the defense that will be in the spotlight.
Coach: Pat Fitzgerald (7th season)
Last season: 6-7 overall, 3-5 in Big Ten
Spring practice dates: March 3-April 14
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, E Quentin Williams
Special teams (2): K Jeff Budzien, P Brandon Williams
The Wildcats were equal-opportunity offenders last season: They were weak against the run and the pass. While all three starting linebackers are back, the front four and the secondary will be undergoing changes. Three new starters are needed up front and the same number needed in the defensive backfield.
One issue that must be addressed is the lack of a pass rush. Northwestern managed just 17 sacks last season, and the lack of pressure gave opposing quarterbacks more time to scan the field and pick apart the secondary. The hope is that E Quentin Williams can show the coaches this spring that he can bring the heat off the edge.
S Ibraheim Campbell is a nice building block in the secondary. He was a freshman All-America selection after leading the Wildcats in tackles.
The offense has some work to do, as well. The Wildcats have to replace their go-to receiver, a star tight end, the starting quarterback and their best offensive lineman. It also would help if a feature back emerges this spring.
The biggest problem: The secondary. The Wildcats gave up an average of 230.4 yards per game through the air last season, last in the Big Ten, and that was with three seniors starting. With four-year starting CB Jordan Mabin and All-Big Ten S Brian Peters departing, NU could be even more vulnerable against the pass in 2012. The Wildcats have two young defenders who received considerable playing time in 2011 and will more opportunity this spring: S Ibraheim Campbell, a consensus Freshman All-America, and CB Daniel Jones. But one starting cornerback spot and several two-deep positions are still wide open going into spring.
On the spot: DE Quentin Williams. Williams had an impressive season for the Wildcats in 2011, highlighted by a career-best seven-tackle performance in NU's upset of Nebraska. But now Williams, a senior, has to be the leader of a defensive line that lost three starters to graduation. Northwestern's pass rush was anemic last season, finishing last in the Big Ten with just 17 sacks; that was part of the reason the Wildcats' pass was so bad. Is Williams ready to step up and be an elite pass rusher in 2012?
On the verge: S Ibraheim Campbell. It's not often that a true freshman leads his team in tackles, but that's what Campbell did last season when he had 100 stops, ninth-most in the Big Ten. While he struggled early in the season as the Wildcats routinely were victimized for big plays in the passing game, he steadily improved and may have been Northwestern's best defensive back down the stretch. He already has proven himself as a sure tackler; the next phase in his development will be his coverage skills and leadership.
General overview: Although the 'Cats lose a lot on offense – namely QB Dan Persa, WR Jeremy Ebert and TE Drake Dunsmore – scoring points probably won't be an issue in 2012. The attack has remained effective through mass departures in the past. In order for NU to compete in the Legends Division this fall, the defense must improve in spring workouts. The 'Cats were 11th in the league in total defense in 2011; had they been able to make a few more stops, they likely would have reached eight or nine wins. Quarterback also is worth watching. While Kain Colter is Persa's presumed successor and a dynamic all-around playmaker, his arm strength and accuracy have been questionable at times. Because of his versatility, Colter will be on the field, no matter what. But it will be interesting to see if sophomore Trevor Siemian, a more polished passer who played in spot duty last season, will continue to play a role in the offense.
For in-depth coverage of Northwestern athletics, go to WildcatReport.com
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