Head coach Paul Chryst and his program then kickstart their 2017 Big Ten Conference schedule against Pat Fitzgerald and the division rival Northwestern Wildcats. The Badgers exorcised their losing ways in a 21-7 win at Evanston last season.
Looking to start their Big Ten slate off on a winning note, UW’s defense will probably have to contain the likes of running back Justin Jackson and quarterback Clayton Thorson.
What’s the general feeling for this Northwestern team heading into the 2017 season, and what major changes (if any) could help/hinder their pursuit of a Big Ten West division title?
The expectations are very high for this team, and rightfully so. The Wildcats return nine of their 11 starters on offense and eight of 11 on defense while also returning cornerback Keith Watkins II after an ACL tear. There’s no reason why they shouldn’t be expected to compete strongly for the Big Ten West crown. The Wildcats have the exact same coaching staff for yet another year; this staff has the longest continuity of any in the nation.
Who are the key contributors coming back for the Wildcats?
Justin Jackson should surpass the school’s career rushing yards mark by the time conference play starts, and he’ll look to finish his career in Evanston with a strong senior year. Junior quarterback Clayton Thorson showed major improvement last year and should take yet another step forward. The Wildcats also return four of their five offensive linemen. Defensively, there’s some attrition in the front seven, but Jordan Thompson and Tyler Lancaster should plug up the middle well, and Nate Hall will be required to step up as a junior. In the secondary, all four starters return, led by senior safety Godwin Igwebuike.
From last year’s team, who will they have to replace?
The most obvious answer is Austin Carr, who was the conference’s best wide receiver. He had a tremendous rapport with Thorson, and someone will have to step up and establish themselves as the top wide receiver. On defense, linebacker Anthony Walker Jr. left early for the NFL and Ifeadi Odenigbo, who led the Big Ten in sacks, has exhausted his eligibility.
Which players could be breakout candidates?
On offense, Flynn Nagel will be looked to as the guy to replace Carr. Nagel is a quick slot guy who can work all areas of the field. He had 40 catches as a sophomore after he caught just four in an injury-shortened true freshman season. Other guys, such as Solomon Vault and Bennett Skowronek, will have to step up outside as well, but Nagel would be the main guy to pay attention to. On defense, I think Joe Gaziano will become a household name among Northwestern fans and eventually Big Ten fans. He garnered some attention for this massive hit on Brian Lewerke, but mostly he was stuck behind Odenigbo and C.J. Robbins. He can play against the run and the pass, and he has a great build for a defensive end.
Which position battles are worth watching this spring?
Linebacker will be a place to watch with Walker, Jaylen Prater, and Joe Jones all gone. As mentioned above, Hall figures to slide in as a starter, but who lines up with him at that second level of defense is to be determined. Brett Walsh saw some time as a starter when Prater got hurt, Nathan Fox played a lot as a primary backup at middle linebacker, and Paddy Fisher has drawn rave reviews in practice. It will be interesting to see who emerges as starters there.