Will Northwestern rebuild or reload in 2021?
That’s really the question as Pat Fitzgerald’s squad comes off a 2020 season where they went 7-2 overall capped off by a win against Auburn in the Citrus Bowl.
Here’s a look at the Wildcats coming out of the spring, as they will play in Lincoln on Oct. 2. That game has already been set for a 6:30 pm CST kickoff.
WildcatReport.com’s Louie Vaccher provides his insight and analysis on Northwestern.
If Northwestern is in contention to win the West again in 2021, it may be one of Pat Fitzgerald’s best coaching jobs in Evanston, and that’s saying something.
The Wildcats lose just about everyone from a year ago, as Greg Newsome, Paddy Fisher and Blake Gallagher are gone on defense, and quarterback Peyton Ramsey chose to end his college career.
The good thing is Northwestern has a very favorable stretch to open the season, as they play Michigan State, Indiana State, Duke and Ohio before they take on the Huskers. Their other cross-division games are Rutgers and Michigan.
Northwestern returns just three starters on offense and four on defense. On offense, they return three of their five starting offensive linemen, along with running back Cam Porter, who took over the job late in the year.
Defensively, they lost several key players to the NFL, but return All-American candidate Brandon Joseph in the secondary. They also return two starting defensive linemen and one linebacker.
Both kicker Charlie Kuhbander and punter Derek Adams also return for the Wildcats in 2021.
Offensive star: RB Cam Porter
There’s a reason why so many Northwestern running backs went into the transfer portal this off-season – Cam Porter.
The sophomore running back will be the key piece in the Wildcats offense this season, as he rushed for 333 yards on 81 carries and five touchdowns in 2020. He took over the position for Northwestern late last season, as both Drake Anderson and Isaiah Bowser have moved on.
Defensive star: DB Brandon Joseph
Nobody could have seen a year like 2020 for Northwestern safety Brandon Joseph.
He heads into 2021 as the league’s preseason player of the year on defense, after having 52 tackles and six interceptions a year ago.
Spring surprise: WR Stephon Robinson Jr.
Northwestern lost all of their top receivers from 2020. Expect Kansas transfer Stephon Robinson Jr. to step right in and start at the slot receiver position for the Wildcats.
In two seasons at KU, Robinson had 75 catches for over 1,000 yards and he will essentially be plugged right into Northwestern’s offense.
Biggest question: Quarterback
Replacing Peyton Ramsey will be the biggest question Northwestern must answer in 2021.
Since four-year starter Clayton Thorson graduated, the Wildcats have gone through five different quarterbacks. Ramsey finally gave them the stability they were looking for in 2020.
South Carolina transfer Ryan Hilinski is expected to be the starter for Pat Fitzgerald over Clemson transfer Hunter Johnson.
Hilinski played in 11 games as a true freshman for South Carolina. He completed 58 percent of his passes for 2,357 yards and 11 touchdowns.
Early outlook: Northwestern vs. Nebraska
Vaccher: “Interestingly, in this whole series, the road team plays better than a home team, traditionally. Northwestern has always played pretty well there at Nebraska. They lost one on the Hail Mary, and then in 2019, even that game was in the balance there in the fourth quarter.
“I think Nebraska got an interception late in the game, cashed it in, and that was the difference. I anticipate another game like that. I think it’s going to be close. Nebraska’s got a lot of question marks on the defensive side of the ball. I think Northwestern has got them on the offensive side of the ball. It’ll be an interesting match-up, as always.”
Overall 2021 win-loss expectations
Vaccher: “To me, this season is really a good litmus test of where Northwestern is as a program. They lost a lot of key players on both sides of the ball. Offensively, we talked about defense. Greg Newsome was a first-round Draft pick, Paddy Fisher, a four-year starter and middle linebacker, JR Pace was a three-year starter at safety. They’ve lost a lot of key personnel on both sides of the ball, but, with improved recruiting, they got some key transfers. They’ve got a lot of talented newcomers that are ready to step in. We’ll see, with that much of a loss of talent, can the Wildcats remain in the hunt and as possibly repeat as a West champion, or will the personnel losses be too big to share?
“I think this is really a state of the program season that shows you where they are. To me, I think a good season would be if they can get to a pretty decent bowl game if they win eight games. That would be a pretty good year. If a couple of things go right, maybe you can contend in the West again, but Northwestern still has those ups and downs. They’ve had some big years, 10 win seasons, and then they drop back down to a losing record.
“You look at 2018, they won the West, 2019, they went 3 and 9, and then 2020, they won the West again. They will see if they can level things off a little bit and at least make a decent bowl game if they can win eight games. I think that would be a pretty good season for them. If they don’t make the bowl game or fall to a losing record, I think that’s obviously a disappointing season.”