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An early look at the 2018 Northwestern Wildcats offense

Northwestern faces life without Justin Jackson for the first time since he burst on to the scene in 2014. What doe the Wildcats have in store for 2018’s offense?

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Clayton Thorson, Blake Hance, Rashawn Slater

While the admittedly ugly, controversial officiating and coaching riddled 2017 Music City Bowl brought Northwestern its 10th win, it came at a potentially high cost to their 2018 campaign. Next season’s expectations, offensively even more so, hinge on star quarterback Clayton Thorson’s recovery from the ACL tear suffered to his right knee in the second quarter of Cats’ bowl win.

The diagnosis was not a total shock as Thorson was carted off, and a replay of the play (a Pat Fitzgerald signature trick reverse WR/RB-throwback) from behind showed the quarterback’s knee hit hard from the side while planted. Surgery is tentatively scheduled for mid-January, and it is unlikely the school will release much information over the offseason.

NU’s spring practice agenda will focus heavily on the QB position, as all options – from Thorson being ready for the Aug. 30 opener at Purdue, to missing the whole season, will likely still be in play during spring ball. Fitzgerald’s 2017 spring schedule went from Feb. 21 to April 8. Depending on how classes are scheduled, it may make sense to push it back to prep for such an important spring.

Biggest Question Mark

Who Replaces Clayton Thorson?

If there’s a positive spin to a replacement for Thorson currently on the roster (Music City winner Matt Alviti having graduated), it’s that Purdue and the rest of NU’s early 2018 opponents won’t have film on him. Barring a yet-to-be-named grad transfer (highly unlikely given Fitzgerald’s preference for developing players within the program), if Thorson is not ready for the opener, the Cats will be starting RS Jr. TJ Green (the only QB besides Thorson and Alviti to see any action in 2017), RS Fr. Andrew Marty, RS Soph. Aidan Smith, or incoming true Fr. Jason Whittaker (MI).

By the time Fitz actually has to make a decision on one of these four options, he will probably know whether he is plugging a starter in for a few weeks as Thorson is just weeks away come the opener, or whether he is looking to find a starter for the 2018 season and potentially beyond. If it is just a very short-term plug-in, Green would fit the mold as a potential August and September game-manager, hoping a more conservative game plan can get NU through at Purdue, and home versus Duke and Akron, leading to a bye week before the conference schedule resumes against Michigan in Evanston.

If the Cats are looking to establish a young quarterback with the best chance to carry 2017’s momentum through 2018, even if it means a more untested game plan to fit that QB’s strengths, Smith and Whittaker become more likely, with Marty being a mix of totally untested on the field, yet more familiar with OC Mick McCall’s scheme.

Spring ball and training camp will ultimately determine Fitz’s decision, and it is the purest of speculation to lean one way or another this early. The bottom-line is that Thorson’s anticipated unavailability is a significant amount of adversity dealt to the Cats, but unlike something midseason, they have 8 months to prepare for his absence, and fill the void to the best extent possible. While the 2018 starter will be very deserving of credit, a fast start to 2018 may be looked back upon as one of Pat Fitzgerald’s finest accomplishments in his NU coaching career.

Reason to be Optimistic

NU’s offensive line

Northwestern’s calling card on offense during the current 3-year bowl stretch, which includes two 10-win seasons (besides Thorson, and dearly departing workhorse RB Justin Jackson), has been a strong running game. Controlling the line of scrimmage, forcing defenses to grossly overload upfront if they are determined to stop the run, which in turn opens up the passing game (2017 OT win vs. Michigan St, case in point), has become the template for NU under McCall. Gone are the days of short passing to avoid getting dominated in the trenches. It is no coincidence that over Fitzgerald’s 12 years as coach, his top three seasons of rushing yards per game, were also his three 10-win seasons of 2012, ’15 and ’17.

NU returns basically every offensive lineman on their 2-deep, aside from starting center Brad North. Based on his stellar freshman campaign, right tackle Rashawn Slater has All-B1G hopes already.  Alongside Slater on the right side of the line will be 3-year starter and team leader Tommy Doles. Provided everyone stays healthy, you can expect a lot of runs to the right side in 2018.

The Cats have four experienced offensive linemen returning for the remaining three spots. Blake Hance figures to be making his fourth season as a starter, very possibly moving outside to left tackle. Despite more experience at guard, Hance is the best player available for the all-important blindside tackle position, and moving him outside would allow J.B. Butler to play left guard. Butler has started a year and half worth of games going into 2018, and is well prepared for a full 13 games, likely at guard, but potentially at left tackle or even center. The most likely replacement for North at center is RS Jr. Jared Thomas. He was listed by Fitzgerald as the backup center several times on the 2-deep, and has more experience than the other backup, RS So. Nik Urban. Making a decision on center appears to be the second most vexing offseason task facing Fitz on the offensive side of the ball. Assuming whoever he does plug-in at a minimum gains confidence with experience, the offensive line looks to be a bright spot in 2018.

Reason to be Pessimistic

Replacing Justin Jackson won’t be easy

Justin Jackson’s record breaking career at NU was an example of what durability and consistency can do, despite never jumping off the page in a given play, game or even season. Now obviously, Jackson had some great runs, and certainly his career-high 224 yard, 3 TD performance in the Cats’ 2016 Pinstripe Bowl win will not soon be forgotten by the NU faithful, but his most impressive achievement truly is his four straight 1,000+ yard seasons.

You could literally pencil him in for 1200-1500 yards in August, and move on to the next item on the offensive agenda. Replacing this production will most likely require a group contribution, despite Jeremy Larkin looking to be a promising heir apparent. Fitzgerald snagged former NU RB-turned-DB, Lou Ayeni as RB’s Coach, from Iowa State early in the offseason. Having earned high marks working under Matt Campbell at Toledo, then going to Iowa State in 2014, before Campbell followed two years later, maintaining high-level running back production in the post-Ball Carrier era is foremost on his agenda.

RS Freshman Jeremy Larkin shined in his backup/change-of-pace role in 2017, averaging an impressive 6 yards/carry, and surpassing 100 for a season-high in the Music City Bowl win. That performance put a bow on Larkin’s season, in which he got better as it progressed. Larkin averaged 7.7 yards per carry on his 43 attempts in November and December, compared to just 4.2 yards per prior. Larkin hasn’t shown the strength that allowed Jackson to finish his runs and pile up hidden yards, but he did show an impressive burst, with a very quick first two steps. As is the case with most NU RB’s, the game breaking speed is not what he is known for. Instead, Larkin relies on his low center of gravity two provide shiftiness and elusiveness, avoiding the first one or two tacklers and getting 4-5 yards downfield before the rest of the defense can rally.

Backing up Larkin looks to be an assembly of John Moten IV, a redshirt junior who was JJ’s backup before Larkin saw the field in 2017. Without having seen the incoming true freshman, Moten looks to be the Wildcat RB with highest top-speed for a third straight season. The other RB from the 2017 roster with a shot at increased production is RS So. Jesse Brown. Not be discounted are two of Fitzgerald’s top recruits for 2018 – Isaiah Bowser (OH), and son of all-time NU great Damien Anderson, Drake Anderson (AZ). Both are undersized in the typical NU-mold. It would be a surprise to see both redshirted, but with Fitzgerald, assuming either is guaranteed to play, would be a mistake, especially with a clear starter in Larkin already in place.

Among pass catchers (NU trademark super back included), NU does not lose much at all. In fact, a full season of Jalen Brown, who was lost for the year in the Bowling Green game, may offset the loss of departing possession WR Macan Wilson (crucial to the win at Nebraska). The Cats return leading receiver Jr. Bennett Skowronek, who served as Thorson’s big play target on most downfield throws. Second-leading receiver Flynn Nagel will also be back for his senior year. As promising as these pieces would be with Thorson healthy for another offseason of workouts, it is only more important that these experienced skill position players build a rhythm with the new starter, so the Cats are no more one-dimensional than necessary without their offensive leader.

The biggest loss among receivers is SB Garrett Dickerson. After his older brother Cam left in 2015, Garrett grew into his role as forceful run blocker who consistently made himself available to Thorson in the red zone, catching 9 TD’s over the last two seasons. The leading candidate to replace Dickerson as SB-1 is Cam Green. He is going into his redshirt junior season, and showed signs of potential at Maryland, filling in for Dickerson, and against MSU, where the Cats were forced to use the air, notching 76 yards and a TD to tie it in the 1st OT. It’s no coincidence that neither Green nor Dickerson played in the bowl game, when NU ran for over triple the yards they gained passing. Two TE/SB’s are part of the 2018 recruiting class, and given the lack of experience on the roster, I expect either or both Charlie Mangieri (Dunlap, IL) and Brian Kaiser (Winnetka, IL) to play a role. At 6’7”, if Kaiser can get the system, he will be a useful target, especially in the red zone.

Projected Starting Lineup

WR: Bennett Skowronek
WR: Jalen Brown
WR: Flynn Nagel
SB: Cam Green
SB: Brian Kaiser
RT: Rashawn Slater
RG: Tommy Doles
C: Jared Thomas
LG: J.B. Butler
LT: Blake Hance
RB: Jeremy Larkin
QB: Aidan Smith

Overall Outlook

Any sober outlook at the 2018 Northwestern Wildcats offense has to prepare for a full campaign without the leader, Clayton Thorson. I hope, more than anything, that Thorson has a speedy recovery, and all the talk of his replacement is for naught when he takes the field in West Lafayette on August 30. But to assume that to be the case, is a recipe for disaster.

There could be no greater compliment to the program Fitzgerald has built, than to lose both Justin Jackson and Clayton Thorson, and somehow not skip a beat. Coming off a 10-win season, and with a home schedule full of heavyweights like Michigan, Nebraska, Wisconsin and Notre Dame, there will be no under the radar 8-game winning streaks like they ended 2017 on. The lights will be bright in 2018, and the Cats have an offseason to prepare for it. It will be a season with a target on their back, and neither of their 2015-2017 offensive leaders there to save the day.

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