2012 Northwestern Preview - The Makeover
Northwestern QB Kain Colter
Northwestern QB Kain Colter
Posted Jun 4, 2012

CollegeFootballNews.com 2012 Preview - Northwestern Wildcats

Northwestern Wildcats

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By Pete Fiutak

Head coach: Pat Fitzgerald
7th year: 40-36
Returning Lettermen:
Off. 30, Def. 25, ST 4
Lettermen Lost: 25
Ten Best Northwestern Players
1. QB Kain Colter, Jr.
2. S Ibraheim Campbell, Soph.
3. OG Brian Mulroe, Sr.
4. WR Demetrius Fields, Sr.
5. LB David Nwabuisi, Sr.
6. DT Chance Carter, Soph.
7. RB/KR Venric Mark, Jr.
8. C Brandon Vitabile, Soph.
9. DE Tyler Scott, Soph.
10. LB Ifeadi Odenigbo, Fr.
2012 Schedule

Sep. 1 at Syracuse
Sep. 8 Vanderbilt
Sep. 15 Boston College
Sep. 22 South Dakota
Sep. 29 Indiana
Oct. 6 at Penn State
Oct. 13 at Minnesota
Oct. 20 Nebraska
Oct. 27 Iowa
Nov. 10 at Michigan
Nov. 17 at Michigan State
Nov. 24 Illinois

Northwestern needs a little bit of a makeover.

Head coach Pat Fitzgerald is going into his seventh year, and in that time he has made the Wildcats a regular on the minor bowl circuit and has done just enough to think that one monster season could be just around the corner with the right breaks at the right time. However, the program still hasn't won a bowl game since beating Cal in the 1949 Rose Bowl and Fitzgerald's unwavering mantra that Big Ten titles should be expected hasn't exactly translated into wins. If want-to from a head coach and desire could bring titles, Northwestern would've had several under Fitzgerald.

A hot prospect, it might be tempting to think Fitzgerald has hit a ceiling at a program with too many limitations and restrictions. As intense and committed as any coach in a sport full of intense and committed people, it's asking a lot for Fitzgerald to keep up the fire year after year.

But now it seems like Fitzgerald has settled in a little bit and is able to figure things out a little better. Rah-rah is nice, but that only goes so far. Northwestern has to get more athletic, more talented, and more importantly, a whole lot nastier.

All of that appears to be coming.

The 2011 Wildcats showed the heart to come back from a 2-5 start to get to a bowl game, but there was no pass rush, the disappointing offensive line got its clock cleaned on a regular basis, and when push came to shove, the team was shoved.

That's going to change, but it's going to take a while in what should be a step-back 2012 before potentially taking a giant leap forward in 2013.

This is a really, really young defense with plenty of good athletes and loads of upside. The line is far quicker and more athletic than the one that generated a mere 17 sacks, while the back seven has gotten faster over the last few recruiting classes. The idea is for the D to become more disruptive and far more productive, and while there might be problems against the more powerful teams, the improvement should come week after week.

The offense has to undergo massive changes on the line and in the receiving corps, but there are plenty of speedy targets to get excited about for the passing game and the line might be the tallest in college football, for what that's worth. Several underclassmen will play key roles for both units, while most of the top rushing prospects still have a few years left to grow. Quarterback Kain Colter is only a junior with all the top backups young enough to develop for the near future, and more so than in past seasons, there are options to play around with if something happens to Colter.

In many ways Northwestern is maturing as a program under Fitzgerald while at the same time getting a whole lot younger. No, being a perennial powerhouse probably isn't going to happen under Fitzgerald's watch, but winning records on a regular basis and being in the hunt for the Legends is an attainable goal. Fitzgerald and his staff are building things up again, and if nothing else, it's going to be an exciting team to watch over the next few years.

What to watch for on offense: The development of the offensive line. Kain Colter is one of the nation's most athletic quarterbacks returning as the team's leading passer, rusher and receiver, but it would be nice if he had more time to work. It would be even nicer if there was a steady push from the line for the running backs who were non-existent for long stretches last season. The line was ripped apart by the defensive front far too often this offseason, and after giving up a whopping 42 sacks, being more consistent and more productive is the key to the season. The basketball team should look into bringing in the 6-7, 310-pound Patrick Ward; 6-8, 295-pound Shane Mertz; and 6-8, 315-pound Neal Deiters as rebounders, but the football team needs them to start blocking someone first.

What to watch for on defense: Get … to … the … quarterback. Pass rush was a problem and concern going into last season, and it turned out to be worse than the coaching staff could've ever imagined. That should all change in a hurry with a slew of athletic options ready to step up and shine. Sophomore Tyler Scott is a nice-looking end with a big future and redshirt freshman Deonte Gibson has the potential to be a dominant sack artist if he doesn't win the starting job right away. Both starting defensive tackles are gone, but sophomore Chance Carter might be an upgrade with tremendous upside and interior pass rushing skills. However it happens, the secondary desperately needs as much help as possible and needs hurried quarterbacks.

The team will be far better if … the running game works. Colter doesn't have a big enough arm to stretch the field on a regular basis, and while he'll be a good dinker and dunker, his real worth will be as an all-around playmaker who takes off time and again. The hope is for former top running back recruit Treyvon Green to grow into a bigger role and for Mike Trumpy to finally stay healthy. But no matter how it happens, the Wildcats have to run to win. Last year they were 4-0 when running for 200 yards or more and 5-2 when running for 150 yards or more. When rushing for fewer than 150 yards they were 1-5.

The schedule: The Wildcats have a manageable schedule, but they have to win all the games against the teams they're able to beat. They can win at Syracuse, and they're good enough to beat Vanderbilt, Boston College, South Dakota and Indiana. Does that mean a 5-0 start? No – 3-2 is more likely - but it wouldn't be crazy.

Getting Indiana, Illinois, and Penn State from the Leaders is a nice break, missing both Ohio State and Wisconsin, but the payback comes late in the year with back-to-back road games at Michigan and Michigan State to erase any dreams of taking the division. Can NU beat Penn State and Minnesota on the road? It's possible, and home wins over Nebraska and Iowa wouldn't be stunning, but those could easily be losses, too. In other words, there will be several toss-ups, and the Wildcats can't afford to give away any games.

Best offensive player: Junior QB Kain Colter. How many quarterbacks in the history of college football can come into a season saying he's the team's leading returning passer, rusher, and receiver, and not in some fluky everyone-else-left sort of way? Not only did he throw for 673 yards and six scores with one pick as the starting quarterback when Dan Persa was still recovering from an Achilles heel injury, but he was the team's top rusher with 654 yards and eight scores and the third-leading receiver with 43 catches for 466 yards and three touchdowns. Ultra-athletic, smart and with the experience to step in and shine right away, he could be the X factor in the Legends division.

Best defensive player: Sophomore S Ibraheim Campbell. He went from being a promising prospect to the team's leading tackler making 100 stops with 3.5 tackles for loss and two picks. With good size and terrific hitting ability he's the sheriff in a green secondary that needs to do a ton of work after losing three starters. The hope is for the front seven to be better so he doesn't have to make so many tackles and can focus more on pass coverage, but he's good enough to do whatever is needed.

Key player to a successful season: Junior DE Quentin Williams. Throw redshirt freshman Deonte Gibson and sophomore Tyler Scott in the mix, too. Again, the Wildcats have to get to the quarterback more and Williams has the potential to be the one to make that happen. He made three sacks and 5.5 tackles for loss last season, but he has the quickness, burst and experience to do far more. Considering the line is more athletic across the board, if Williams is hot early on then the other parts of the puzzle should be able to produce.

The season will be a success if … the Wildcats get to a bowl and win it. There's no reason to not get off to a hot start with four home games in a row after the trip to Syracuse. They're always good for coming up with an upset or two along the way, and 7-5 isn't an unattainable goal even in a rebuilding year. Getting the bowl monkey off the program's back would be really, really nice. 1949 was a long time ago.

Key game: Sept. 1 at Syracuse. It's hardly a lock that the Wildcats are going to sweep the four game September homestand against Vanderbilt, Boston College, South Dakota and Indiana, but it wouldn't be a stunner if they did. If they can pull off a win in the Carrier Dome to kick things off, all of a sudden, 5-0 doesn't look out of reach before going into winnable road games at Penn State and Minnesota. For a young and talented team, a road win to kick things off might do wonders for the mindset and the early momentum.

2011 Fun Stats:
- Sacks: Opponents 42 for 276 yards – Northwestern 17 for 109 yards
- Interception Return Average: Opponents 25.8 yards – Northwestern 6.6 yards
- Red Zone Scoring: Opponents 42-of-49 (86%) – Northwestern 47-of-61 (77%)
- 2012 Northwestern Preview | 2012 Northwestern Offense
- 2012 Northwestern Defense | 2012 Northwestern Depth Chart