Northwestern football players warm up before a preseason practice. While 2020 may have been one of the best in recent memory, 2021 may be a bit more difficult. Photo courtesy of Northwestern Athletics

One of the most important experiences of college is the hangover. Whether it be the college freshmen after their first “excursion” or the sleepy glow over campus after Dillo, Northwestern is no stranger to headaches after an experience that will never be forgotten.

Unfortunately, now their football team must experience the same headache.

After a season that saw them finish with a 10th place national ranking by the Associated Press, Northwestern experienced a mass exodus of talent, losing some of their best players to the NFL pastures or graduation. While the team prides itself on being slept on for their work with underrated and under-scouted players, the Wildcats have spent the offseason filling a lot of roster holes… some more prominent than others.

Now, with head coach Pat Fitzgerald left to pick up the confetti, the ’Cats go into the 2021 season with plenty of questions. Have they found a solution at quarterback? What will the second season under offensive coordinator Mike Bajakian look like? Can the defense remain the no-nonsense squad that has thrilled Northwestern fans for the past five years? And where will the ’Cats end up come holiday season?

It is my honor as NBN Sports Editor to try and answer these questions. Let’s start with the offense:

The Return of the King

Senior quarterback Hunter Johnson looks to throw during a preseason practice. Johnson is earning his second chance at being the starting quarterback, and hopes this stint goes better than the last. Photo courtesy of Northwestern Athletics

When he first arrived at Northwestern, senior quarterback Hunter Johnson was labeled as the program’s savior. A top high school prospect who had just left a stacked offense at Clemson University – one of the top football programs in the country – Johnson was just the ninth five-star prospect to play in the Big Ten since 2000. Much to Wildcat fans’ chagrin, however, Johnson never delivered in his only season of starting action, throwing just one touchdown and four interceptions in the 2019 season, before being relegated to a backup role in 2020.

Despite the ’Cats adding sophomore transfer quarterback Ryan Hilinski from South Carolina – who threw for 11 touchdowns, 2,357 yards and just five interceptions in 2019 – Fitzgerald shocked many when he announced that Johnson would be the week one starter against Michigan State.

Why the sudden change? Two key reasons. One, Hunter Johnson’s 2019 season was mired by both injuries and personal issues, as he battled both immense expectations and his mom getting sick with cancer during the season. Two, Johnson never got the chance to fully develop into the Northwestern offense and struggled under offensive coordinator Mick McCall, who was fired in 2019 after posting the 126th best offense in the country … out of 130 teams.

As a result, all eyes are on offensive coordinator Mike Bajakian, in his second year with the Wildcats, to see if he’s turned Johnson back into the five-star fable that was destined for greatness. If anyone could do it, it would be Bajakian. As quarterbacks coach for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers from 2015 to 2018, he helped quarterback Jameis Winston turn into a Pro Bowl-caliber player.

In short? Perhaps after a disappointing season dwelling in conflict and some time to settle into a high-flying, pass-heavy offense again, Hunter Johnson could put the Wildcat offense back on the map.

That is, if he can get any help.

All the King’s Men

Northwestern sophomore running back Evan Hull looks for a hole during a 2019 game against Massachusetts. Hull will be the starter for the 'Cats Friday night, filling in for injured star Cam Porter. Photo credit: Brandi Simpson / North by Northwestern

On the same day that Fitzgerald confirmed Johnson would be starting the season opener, the ’Cats released two critical injury reports: the team would be without sophomore running back Cam Porter and sophomore offensive lineman Zachary Franks for the entire season.

The blow stings. While he did not make a first impression on the ’Cats until late in the season, Porter was a rising star, leading the team in rushing yards and scoring five touchdowns in the process, including touchdowns in both the Big Ten Championship and Citrus Bowl. His success led to the departure of other running backs on the squad – hoping to get starting jobs in other schools – including 2018 breakout star Isaiah Bowser to the University of Central Florida, and perennial talent Drake Anderson to Arizona.

Now, the ’Cats are scrambling for his replacement. It’s likely sophomore back Evan Hull will receive the starting nod, as he holds the most experience of the remaining players, with 13 games played and six touchdowns in the process. He doesn’t avoid big performances either. Against the University of Massachusetts in 2019, he scored four touchdowns and rushed for 220 yards.

With a quarterback who threw just one touchdown in 2019 and a running back who’s seen sparse playing time during his tenure at the school, maybe the ’Cats are hoping their wideout talent will bolster their scoring and push them over the edge. Unfortunately for Northwestern, the ’Cats lost several senior receivers following the 2020 season, leaving them searching for a starting slot.

The biggest name for the ’Cats will be graduate wideout Stephon Robinson Jr., arriving as a transfer from the University of Kansas. Making several All-Big 12 teams – given to the top players in the conference – Robinson is a ball hawk in the best way, scoring eight touchdowns and notching 727 yards in 2019 before being limited by injuries a year later.

On the other side will be senior Berkeley Holman, a veteran receiver who’s seen some of the most playing time in the for the Wildcats, and will likely be used as a deep threat for Bajakian’s offense. He’s someone who can both catch down the field, and fight for the first down.

The two will be flanked by junior “slot” receiver Bryce Kirtz, who will work on the interior to provide a threat down the middle. Both Jefferson and Washington have not seen much game action due to the loaded talent at the top, but now fans and coaches alike will hope their lengthy development period was worth the wait.

Men in the Middle:

Northwestern offensive lineman Charlie Schmidt smiles during a preseason practice. Northwestern's offensive line, blocking and setting up holes, may be the key to this offense's success.

You’re probably wondering right now if there’s any optimism in this preview. With an unproven quarterback, an unstable running back room and unknown wide receivers, it’s almost impossible to understand how this offense will click.

Key word being “almost.” After all, the foundation of Northwestern football is not built on flash, but on grit. The anchor of this offense – both metaphorically and literally – is the offensive line.

With sophomore left tackle Peter Skoronski fresh off being named All-Big Ten Second Team in 2020, and a returning veteran squad of senior center Sam Gerak, junior right guard Charlie Schmidt and senior right tackle Ethan Wiederkehr, the ’Cats are hoping to replicate what they accomplished in 2020: allowing just 1.29 sacks per game, third in the Big Ten, 21st in the nation.

As a result, some things start to make sense. With a decent offensive line, Johnson time to develop as a pocket passer and a place for Hull to push through for big rushing gains. The speedy slot receivers Washington and Jefferson can be used for running screens on the side – dumping the ball off quickly to pick up a few yards – and the ’Cats will chug along, slowly but surely.

Despite a hangover definitely on the horizon, it might not be time to finish partying in Evanston just yet … After all, the best parties are the ones that carry on into tomorrow.