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An early look at the Northwestern Wildcats

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We start our “way-too-early” previews by looking at the reigning Big Ten West champs.

NCAA Football: Clemson Spring Game Adam Hagy-USA TODAY Sports

It’s never too early to write about next season!

With spring football completed for college programs, and with what feels like a long offseason until late July/early August, B5Q wanted to check on the Wisconsin Badgers’ 2019 opponents—with the help of some of our SB Nation friends.

Note: These previews will not be in the chronological order of the games, but we hope to get through all of them at some point before fall camp rolls around.

On Sept. 28, Wisconsin hosts the Northwestern Wildcats inside Camp Randall Stadium in what will be an early, significant Big Ten West division showdown. Pat Fitzgerald’s program will have to replace its standout quarterback, but it appears they have a former five-star signal caller awaiting his turn after transferring to Evanston.

Joe Weinberg from Inside NU graciously answered all of our questions about the Wildcats’ potential this upcoming season.

What are your overall thoughts about Northwestern heading into the 2019 season?

Northwestern fans have to feel pretty excited about their team. The Wildcats are coming off their most successful season of the Pat Fitzgerald era, finally achieving their ever-elusive goal of winning the Big Ten West in addition to winning their third-straight bowl game in dramatic fashion.

Simply put, Northwestern is in uncharted territory as a program that is in the midst of its most consistent stretch in school history. One could rationally expect some sort of 2018 hangover after an unprecedented season and the departure of a four-year starting quarterback, but the arrival of five-star Clemson transfer Hunter Johnson gives Northwestern fans reason to be even more excited about NU in 2019.

We should know relatively early on in the season what this 2019 Northwestern team is made of as the Wildcats face the brunt of their schedule in the first half of the season. Northwestern plays Stanford/Michigan State/Wisconsin/Nebraska/Ohio State in 5 of its first 6 games.

Who are the main players returning, and how could they help Northwestern next season?

We’ll start on the defensive side of the ball, where the Wildcats return many key parts of a front-seven that highlighted their run to the Big Ten Championship Game. Joe Gaziano, who had eight sacks last year, returns at defensive end, and Paddy Fisher/Blake Gallagher return at linebacker as the team’s two leading tacklers from last season. Fisher forced four fumbles last season. Northwestern’s run-defense was the team’s anchor last season and should continue to experience success with the Fisher-Gallagher duo returning as well as Gaziano continuing to pressure quarterbacks from the edge.

Offensively, the Wildcats return breakout freshman running back Isaiah Bowser and one of their top receivers from 2018 in Bennett Skowronek. Bowser burst onto the scene as a freshman in the middle of 2018, running for over 100 yards in games against Wisconsin and Iowa. He proved to be a bruising downhill back that rushed for 866 yards and six touchdowns while only experiencing significant playing time in the final eight games of the season.

Who are the critical departures from 2018, and has anyone stepped up to be potential replacements?

The program’s statistically best quarterback of all-time in Clayton Thorson is onto the NFL, and the Wildcats also lose their top receiver from 2018 in Flynn Nagel. Cameron Green, one of Northwestern’s “superback” (essentially a tight-end), medically retired from football this offseason as well. NU will also be without three starting linemen from last season’s squad, including Tommy Doles and J.B. Butler who recently signed with NFL teams as undrafted free agents.

While head coach Pat Fitzgerald is being quintessential Pat Fitzgerald and refusing to name a starting quarterback and insisting it’s a wide-open battle to replace Thorson, all signs point to Clemson transfer and former five-start recruit Hunter Johnson being the guy to lead the Northwestern offense next season. We’ve only seen limited action of Johnson in college thus far, but he has received nothing but praise from all scouts and coaches that have worked with him in the past.

Defensive tackle Jordan Thompson could also prove to be a big loss for the Wildcats when it comes to stopping the run. Thompson was a leader on the defensive front in his final two seasons and was rated the second-highest Big Ten interior defensive lineman by Pro Football Focus. His hole-plugging and run-stopping capability will be tough to replace as the Wildcats are also losing their second and third defensive tackles against the run as well.

Who is your “way-too-early” breakout player-of-the-year candidate based on the spring?

With Northwestern’s pass offense poised to spread the field more with a guy like Johnson under center, I’d keep an eye out for a few young Northwestern receivers who will have a chance to shine next season. First, there’s sophomore J.J. Jefferson, who started his freshman season quite well before settling down. Jefferson flashed moments of brilliance with touchdown catches against Michigan State and Nebraska, but was ultimately held to just 10 catches and 181 yards on the year. He’ll be a guy likely tasked with replacing Flynn Nagel and his production in the slot.

Another name to look out for his incoming freshman Genson Hooper-Price, a 6-foot-4 track star from Houston and top-50 wide receiver prospect who turned down Notre Dame to come play for Northwestern. Hooper-Price is set to bring a build and athleticism that the Wildcats haven’t seen on the outside in a while. He’s sure to be a deep ball threat in what’s promising to be a revitalized Northwestern passing offense under Johnson.

What is your “way-too-early” prediction of the Northwestern/Wisconsin contest on Sept. 28? What is your prediction for Northwestern’s season?

I’ll take Northwestern, because why not. Johnson and this new Northwestern offense will be tested early with games against Stanford and Michigan State, so I’d expect any initial start of the season blips and kinks to be worked out by the time Northwestern heads to Camp Randall. I’m not going to pretend to know a whole lot about this 2019 Wisconsin team, so based solely off of Wisconsin’s dismal offensive performance at Ryan Field last season, I’ll pick the Wildcats to win 21-17.