Quarterbacks: A- Though Dan Persa never fully returned to his electrifying form from last year, he still orchestrated some beautiful drives through the air, and has already surpassed his passing touchdown total from last season. While the senior led the Big Ten in completion percentage, sophomore Kain Colter showcased his mobility, compiling a team-high 589 rushing yards this season. Add redshirt freshman Trevor Siemian’s moments of precision passing, and it’s clear that all will not be lost when No. 7 takes off the purple and white for the last time.
Running Backs: B- The running back unit was dealt a severe blow when starter Mike Trumpy tore his ACL versus Illinois, forcing him to miss the rest of the season. The motley crew which attempted to replace him did an adequate job, but no single back seized the spotlight as Northwestern was forced to work with a running-back-by-committee ground game for the third straight season. Though having a dual-threat quarterback is certainly a valuable luxury, the Wildcats should not be forced to rely on their signal callers for rushing yards.
Receivers: A Senior Jeremy Ebert once again rose to the top of a NU receiving crew that showed a penchant for making game-changing plays (including Ebert’s 90- and 81-yard touchdown receptions). Ebert topped the 1,000-yard mark in 2011, and if not for the incredible talent level at the position across the Big Ten, he surely would have earned a First Team All-Big Ten selection for the second consecutive year. Colter emerged as a promising young receiver, proving why he was recruited out of high school as an athlete rather than simply as a quarterback. His diving catch against Iowa provided more than enough evidence. Though Drake Dunsmore seemed to disappear from the offense at times, the senior superback still put tougher a solid season and picked up the second-most receiving yards on the team.
Offensive Line: C+ Highly touted to begin the season due to its 137 combined career starts going into 2011 – good for second best in the nation – the Wildcats’ offensive line failed to put its experience to good use. NU surrendered 34 sacks, costing the Cats 211 yards, despite featuring two mobile quarterbacks who managed to avoid several sacks with their feet. Twice this season NU gave up six or more sacks, a truly unacceptable figure. The offensive line fared much better with its run blocking, allowing Colter to pick up yards in the option offense. The blocking that allowed NU to march down the field using only run plays for its winning score against then-No. 9 Nebraska cannot be overlooked.
Defensive Line: C- NU’s front four started on a good note, but the unit couldn’t maintain its early pace. The Cats picked up 10 sacks in their first four games but finished the season with just 16, good for last in the Big Ten. Senior defensive end Vince Browne was a preseason first-team All-Big Ten honoree but couldn’t even hang on to his starting spot, after failing to make much of an impact after bringing down Boston College quarterback Chase Rettig to secure NU’s first win of the season. At least, the Cats discovered the potential of sophomore defensive end Tyler Scott.
Linebackers: C No unit experienced as many highs and lows this season as NU’s linebacker corps did. The Cats’ linebackers played a pivotal role both in NU’s most embarrassing loss – Army rushed for 381 yards in its 21-14 victory over NU – and its biggest triumph – Nebraska was held to a season-low 122 yards on the ground in the NU victory, including just 69 from star running back Rex Burkhead. The Cats should be set at linebacker next year with starters Collin Ellis, Damien Proby and David Nwabuisi all returning.
Secondary: D No unit was more responsible for NU’s five-game losing streak midway through the season than the secondary as the Cats spent nearly the entire campaign trying, and often failing, to find a second cornerback and safety to play opposite seniors Jordan Mabin and Brian Peters. Though redshirt freshman Ibraheim Campbell eventually settled in at safety and earned first-team freshman All-American honors from Yahoo! Sports, he was repeatedly picked on early in the season for big gains. Memories of A.J. Jenkins, Junior Hemingway, Marvin McNutt, Keenan Davis and Devon Smith burning the Cats deep will haunt NU fans for weeks to come.
Special Teams: B+ That Venric Mark never broke a kick or punt return for a touchdown this year is among the biggest surprises of the season. Still, the versatile sophomore was always a threat on the return and put together some nice sprints that gave the Cats great field position. Though sophomore kicker Jeff Budzien converted on just 6-of-10 field goal tries and was given fewer and fewer opportunities as the season went on, his perfect success rate on extra point attempts, nailing all 48 tries, deserves credit. NU had previously missed at least one extra point every season for the past 12 years.
This article is the first in our 15-part Road to Meineke series. We will be posting an article every night, except for Christmas Eve and Christmas, to help prepare you for Northwestern’s matchup with Texas A&M in the Meineke Car Care Bowl of Texas. Join us again tomorrow night as columnist Rohan Nadkarni provides his effusively positive grade for Wildcats coach Pat Fitzgerald.