Column: Northwestern Football Could Be Well-Equipped for A Spring Season
By Kevin Sweeney
Northwestern football players will have a lot of free time this fall.
On Tuesday, the Big Ten became the first Power 5 conference to postpone fall sports despite strong player and coach pushback throughout the conference. Nevertheless, Northwestern AD Jim Phillips said in a press release that he “stands in full confidence” that the move was the correct one. The Pac-12 quickly joined the B1G in calling off games this fall, but the ACC, Big 12, and SEC remain steadfast in their hopes of a relatively normal season. So while much of the South gets ready for football games in a month, Big Ten administrators, coaches and fans can start looking longingly at the spring of 2021, when an alternate football season might take place. And if such a season can be done safely, Northwestern may be better-equipped than the majority of its conference peers to win big.
Perhaps the biggest reason the ‘Cats could thrive in the spring is the same reason their ceiling for success has been limited historically: NFL Draft talent. Pat Fitzgerald has proven he can lead a team to 10 wins with a strong defense, a solid running game and a well-coached unit that doesn’t make mistakes. But having more than a prayer of beating the upper echelon of the Big Ten (namely Ohio State) requires a talent level that Northwestern hasn’t had and likely won’t ever have. A spring season would likely help level the playing field. Does anyone seriously believe that lock first-round QB Justin Fields would play a spring football season that runs right up to or even past the NFL Draft? What about Shaun Wade, Wyatt Davis, and Chris Olave, who were all projected to be first rounders in Todd McShay’s most recent mock draft? Some have posited that anyone projected in the first three rounds of the draft is likely to skip a spring season, which would wipe out 3-5 more Buckeyes. Ohio State is the clearest example of this phenomenon, but it’s likely that several of the league’s top players would depart. Several already did in advance of the fall season, including Purdue’s Rondale Moore, Minnesota’s Rashod Batemon and Penn State’s Micah Parsons.
Northwestern is uniquely positioned to capitalize on all this player movement. There’s only one player on the team that would be considered a strong enough draft prospect to sit out: senior LB Paddy Fisher. Even Fisher is far from an elite NFL prospect and could elect to play one more season to prove himself. Other than Fisher, it’s unlikely the ‘Cats would lose any key pieces by waiting until the spring to play (though if other power conferences elect to push forward it’s possible some players could transfer). However, it’s not like this will be a young team: four starters should be back on the offensive line, a graduate student at QB, veterans throughout the skill positions and secondary. The ‘Cats have a chance to be one of the most experienced teams in a spring Big Ten and likely won’t deal with having to fill vacated NFL-bound spots with young players.
A spring start also gives Northwestern more time to install the new offense. Even without competition, teams are allowed 20 hours of team activities per week. A minimum of 12 extra weeks for QB Peyton Ramsey to learn OC Mike Bajakian’s offense and get on the same page with his new teammates could make the offense look much more cohesive by the time the calendars hit 2021. And if Bajakian embraces the same type of ground-and-pound offense that he deployed at Boston College, Northwestern could be more prepared than most for inclement weather should the season start during the notoriously-chilly months of January or February.
A spring season is far from ideal, and I doubt that a column like this will make the players feel much better during what is likely their first fall without football in over a decade. Details aren’t plentiful: we don’t know when a spring season would be played, the number of games or any of the other logistics. But should the ‘Cats be able to suit up at Ryan Field before September of 2021, they may find themselves at a slight advantage compared to where they would have sat this fall.