With plenty of vacancies, Northwestern feels ready to reload
Northwestern is waving the disrespect flag as it races into the 2021 season.
The Wildcats have won the Big Ten West two of the last three years, so why is no one picking them to win again? What will it take to convince the perpetual nonbelievers?
Then again, there's a valid reason outside expectations are lower. Northwestern lost a ton of production from last year's squad.
Gone are the starting quarterback, the top four rushers, top six receivers and eight of the 14 leading tacklers.
"Respect is earned, and us having the least amount of returning production in college football, we haven't earned respect," linebacker Chris Bergin said. "It's as simple as that. Last year's team, we earned it. This year's team, we're going to earn it.
"So am I surprised? No. Do I think we should have it? No. Do I think we're going to earn it? Yes. So we're excited for the opportunity."
Northwestern had two first-round draft picks in 2021 for the first time, although one of those, tackle Rashawn Slater, opted out of last season. The other first-rounder was former Glenbard North cornerback Greg Newsome.
There are some star-caliber players returning, namely All-America safety Brandon Joseph. But the idea that Northwestern will compete again for the West title requires a belief that recruiting and depth have improved to the point where the Wildcats are able to reload better than Wisconsin and Iowa.
"We've recruited very well," coach Pat Fitzgerald said. "I think our guys have developed incredibly well. We're a better-looking team, we're a stronger team, we're a more explosive, athletic team than we were last year. Now we've got to go out and make it happen."
The Wildcats will get a good test right away when they host Michigan State in the Friday night season opener. NU's lone regular season loss last year was to MSU. Considering Northwestern led Ohio State at halftime of the Big Ten title game, the Cats were a few plays away from joining the College Football Playoff.
Fitzgerald announced Hunter Johnson as the starting quarterback about two weeks ago. The Clemson transfer beat out South Carolina transfer Ryan Hilinski is a battle of two of the highest-rated recruits to ever play at Northwestern. Johnson had no success as a starter in 2019, but he stuck around and backed up Peyton Ramsey last fall.
Leading rusher Cam Porter was lost for the season with an injury in camp, leaving sophomore backup Evan Hull the primary running back. Kansas transfer Stephon Robinson figures to be a top receiving target.
Among the incumbent running backs, Drake Anderson transferred to Arizona and Isaiah Bowser to Central Florida.
The offensive line, with three starters back, should be a strength. The group includes Maine South grad Pete Skoronski, who started every game at left tackle as a true freshman, and Libertyville's Charlie Schmidt at right guard.
On defense, Bolingbrook's Cameron Mitchell will step in for Newsome. Lakes grad Cameron Ruiz transferred to Temple.
The defensive line got a boost from the return of Samdup Miller, a 35-game starter who opted out of the 2020 season.
"I'll start by saying it's the best having Sam back," said defensive tackle Joe Spivey from Montini. "He's absolutely an unbelievable dude. So having him back is unbelievable, and the camaraderie that comes with him has just permeated through the whole D-line room."
Bergin, the team's third-leading tackler last year, said he believes the Wildcats have the talent to make another trip to the Big Ten title game.
"Wholeheartedly and then some," he said. "Words mean nothing. It's all going to come down to how we play and how we execute come Friday night and every Saturday after that. Time will tell, but I feel like we have every piece we need."
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