WNUR 4-on-4: Northwestern Spring Football Preview

Justin Jackson took the football to the house frequently this season, and he took home two WNUR football awards as a result. Photo credit: Nam Y. Huh, AP.

Justin Jackson took the football to the house frequently this season, and he took home two WNUR football awards as a result. Photo credit: Nam Y. Huh, AP.








The WNUR 4-on-4 is back, and this time four WNUR staffers are answering the major questions for Northwestern football going into the spring. Josh Burton (@Josh_Burton1), Ari Ross (@aross50), Ryan Fish (@RyanMFish) and Ben Goren (@BenG412) break down the Wildcats’ quarterback situation, decide which player has the most to prove in 2015 and look at NU’s receiving corps.

Northwestern has a lot of positions to fill for this upcoming season, with quarterback probably being the most important. Who steps up and takes the job?

Josh Burton: I really like Clayton Thorson (who will be a true sophomore next season) and think his pure talent helps him overcome the more experienced Zack Oliver and Matt Alviti, who was also a highly touted recruit coming into Northwestern. Oliver got his chance filling in for Trevor Siemian last season and just didn’t get the job done while Alviti doesn’t seem to have the size necessary to be a pocket passer in offensive coordinator Mick McCall’s system. Thorson spent his freshman year learning the offense, and by all indications, has impressed the coaching staff. To me, it looks like his job to lose.

Ari Ross: Pat Fitzgerald usually defers to upperclassmen, but in this case I almost think he can’t. If Northwestern wants to compete in the Big Ten over the next few years, they must have better play at the quarterback position and Zack Oliver isn’t that guy. He showed some flashes against Illinois, but was pretty brutal for much of that game, against the worst defense in the Big Ten. Fitzgerald needs to find his quarterback for not only this season, but the next few years as well. Northwestern wants to compete in the Big Ten, not put up another 5-7 season and that’s why I think Clayton Thorson will be that guy. He lit it up in practice this past season and seeing as Matt Alviti didn’t show anything in limited time last season, I think Thorson wins the job.

Ryan Fish: This decision comes down to the struggle between Pat Fitzgerald’s trend of starting seniors with experience (i.e. Zach Oliver) and the hype and physical upside surrounding Clayton Thorson. As much as fans would like to believe that Oliver’s disastrous performance in the season finale—against a bad Illinois defense—will keep him from the job, I think Fitz and the coaching staff will lean in his favor if he shows serious improvement in camp. I think Thorson inevitably wins the job going into this season, but it’ll be closer than many think.

Ben Goren: Everyone is super high on Clayton Thorson, and no doubt for good reason.  He’s huge, he’s mobile, and he’s highly touted.  But as the Thorson hype train keeps chugging along, it’s worth it to maybe look back at how Northwestern quarterbacks were being talked about last year.  I remember a highly touted true freshman lighting it up in practice, throwing the ball all over the yard and running around people.  That was Matt Alviti.  Alviti ended up being the third stringer last year and looked pretty unimpressive when he did come into the game (even if a lot of that was due to playcalling).  It’s one thing to torch the third stringers in practice.  It’s a whole other animal to go up against Big Ten defenses.  I’m not saying that Thorson isn’t going to be a good quarterback, I just don’t think this is going to be his year, at least not on day one.  Sure, Zack Oliver had an absolutely brutal game against Illinois, but he looked pretty good against Purdue and, perhaps more importantly, he is a senior. Pat Fitzgerald traditionally has been super loyal to his upperclassmen (see Schmidt, Jacob).  I’m still betting on Oliver starting against Stanford.

2. Which player has the most to prove this spring and why?

Josh: This might be a surprise choice, but I’m going with Justin Jackson. He burst onto the scene in his freshman season, dominating non-conference and Big Ten opponents alike, to the tune of 1,187 yards and 10 touchdowns with almost five yards per carry. He eclipsed 100 yards in six of Northwestern’s nine conference games, starting with a breakout 162-yard performance in the Wildcats’ upset of Wisconsin. The problem is, though, he needs to prove last year wasn’t a fluke and that he actually belongs in the top-tier of Big Ten running backs. In a tough, physical conference, it’s easy to break down. That didn’t happen in the 2014 season, but if it does in his sophomore campaign, the success of his debut one in Evanston may be somewhat forgotten.

Ari: In the same vein as the last question, I think it’s Alviti. Alviti was pegged to be the next starting quarterback and lit up practice as a redshirt freshman. However in limited time last season, Alviti didn’t really show anything. At this point, Alviti might be behind both Thorson and Oliver and if he wants to win the starting job, he’s really going to have to prove himself this spring.

Ryan: I also think it’s Matt Alviti. The starting quarterback competition is “wide open” and everyone seems to think it will come down to Oliver and Thorson; not too long ago, however, it was Alviti who was making some noise in practice as a redshirt freshman. That hasn’t yet translated into success on the field. It’s now or never if Alviti is going to prove himself as a serious offensive weapon. If he can show improvement and put this past season’s underwhelming play behind him, Mick McCall and co. must consider a special package on offense for him even if he doesn’t win the starting job. Otherwise, he’ll be seeing a lot more of the bench this year.

Ben: Christian Jones.  Last year, Northwestern’s wide receivers were a mess.  With Jones missing the whole season with a knee injury, Northwestern relied on wide receivers who were at best inconsistent.  Kyle Prater had a pretty good year, but he’s gone.  Tony Jones had his moments, but he’s gone too.  Northwestern’s returning starters from last year all have their issues.  Miles Shuler got hurt, but when he did play he showed high-end speed, but he didn’t show high-end hands.  Cameron Dickerson is a massive target with pretty good speed, but he also dropped a ton of balls.  After those two, no other returning Wildcat wideout had double-digit receptions.

Jones has to be Northwestern’s number one target if the wide receiver group is to succeed this year.  Coming back from knee surgery isn’t easy.  Jones needs to prove that he has his speed and quickness back.  Hopefully the Northwestern medical staff did a good job.  I’d love nothing more than to see Jones get loose for a 60 yard touchdown in Northwestern’s spring game.

3. Two of Northwestern’s top three receiving targets from last year have now since graduated. How is that production going to be replaced?

Josh: The Dickerson brothers, senior Cameron and sophomore Garrett, will be looked upon to be forces in the passing game, with Cameron as a wide receiver and Garrett as a tight end/superback. Also, senior Christian Jones will return this season after missing all of 2014 due to injury. Add in Dan Vitale’s return and the receiving prowess of the Wildcat backfield, and the Wildcats are actually in better shape on the receiving front than one would expect from a team losing two key seniors wide receivers in Kyle Prater and Tony Jones.

Ari: At the end of the day, you can’t replace a 6’5’’ 225 lbs receiver. Northwestern doesn’t get Kyle Prater-type receivers every year. Although he didn’t come on till the end of the season, Prater is going to be tough to replace. As the roster stands there is nobody, unless someone emerges in the spring or as a freshman, similar to Justin Jackson last season, who can replace Prater. So instead, Northwestern will look to replace Prater and Jones’ production in different ways. They’ll turn to Christian Jones first, coming off an injury, and if fully healthy he’ll be a huge help to this receiving core. Dan Vitale and Cameron and Garrett Dickerson will be used more, as will Jackson and Solomon Vault out of the backfield. Northwestern won’t be able to singularly replace Jones and Prater but they may be able to match their production from last season with a combination of the current options.

Ryan: Northwestern’s depth at superback and wide receiver Christian Jones’ return will make replacing senior leaders Kyle Prater and Tony Jones an easier task than it initially seemed. Dan Vitale and Garrett Dickerson are both dynamic athletes and should see plenty of action at the superback position. At wide receiver, Miles Shuler and Garrett’s brother Cameron will also contribute, but both need to become more consistent receiving options than they were in 2014. Heck, even Justin Jackson and Solomon Vault provide effective receiving options out of the backfield. Jones is the key, however. If he can stay healthy, Northwestern’s passing attack should have enough potent weapons to be effective.

Ben: Northwestern is bringing in a host of wide receiver prospects, headed by Charles Fessler and Cameron Green.  Northwestern brought in 4 wide receivers total, and expect one or two to get some run as a true freshman.  Still, that’s not where the replacement for the lost production should come from.  Northwestern’s superbacks are loaded.  Dan Vitale is a monster, Garrett Dickerson is a physical stud, and Jayme Taylor is a useful piece too.  Vitale is every bit as good as Drake Dunsmore, and has to be one of the best tight ends that Northwestern has ever had.  Garrett Dickerson had head-turning offers out of high school.  Nabbing him was a massive recruiting coup.  Last year, Dickerson was mostly just in as a blocker, but his role should expand entering his sophomore season.  Taylor is a big body who can catch.  He won’t catch 20 balls, but he’s useful.  Mick McCall historically doesn’t like leaning on superbacks for pass catching, but if the introduction of the I-formation and 2 TE sets last year shows anything, it’s that he’s willing to try to get the superbacks on the field.  Now they need to be dangerous.

4. Kicker Jack Mitchell–outside of his heroics at Notre Dame–was inconsistent last season. Is the job his to keep or does a newcomer take his spot?

Josh: Mitchell certainly had his moments in 2014, but I ultimately think his inability to consistently make extra points and field goals will cost him his job. Sophomore Hunter Niswander is unproven but the Northwestern coaching staff like his frame (6’5”, 210 points) and potential. I see him getting the placekicking job over Mitchell out of camp yet still think if he is ineffective to start the season, then Mitchell will quickly assume the kicking duties.

Ari: If Hunter Niswander is healthy, the job is his. Jack Mitchell may have been the hero against Notre Dame, hitting a season high four field goals including one to send the game into overtime and one to win it in overtime, but he only hit 14 of 18 field goals and few from longer than 30 yards. Northwestern can’t have Jeff Budzien back, but it needs someone who can make it from longer than 30 yards. Too often Northwestern was forced to punt, rather than kick a long field goal. If Niswander is healthy and can kick it, he’ll win the job.

Ryan: Jack Mitchell’s right leg delivered Northwestern fans the upset of Notre Dame and, coincidentally, the team’s best moment of 2014. That being said, his inability to consistently make field goals and extra points last season, as well as his lack of range hurt his chances of winning the job again this year. While unproven, sophomore Hunter Niswander should win the job heading into this season if he’s healthy, especially if he can find either the consistency or range that Mitchell lacked. If the Cats ever find themselves in need of a game-winning kick in overtime in South Bend, however, they know whom to call.

Ben: Not a lot of kickers reach cult hero status, but Jack Mitchell certainly did by sinking Notre Dame.  The problem is that on the season, Mitchell only attempted 10 kicks from longer than 30 yards and made just 6 of them.  His leg strength is not great, and his accuracy is a little shaky.  Going into last year, Hunter Niswander looked like he was going to be the starter until he got hurt and never really got back to full strength.  Going on hype alone, Niswander is probably the camp favorite.  If he can add some leg strength in the weight room and just stay healthy, I’d expect Niswander to at least get some kicks next year.  He already took over some punting, so clearly the coaching staff has some faith in him.

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