Football: Writers talk new offense, replacing talent on both sides of the ball

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Daily file photo by David Lee

Riley Lees is tackled by two Purdue defenders. The senior receiver, who recorded 430 yards and two touchdowns last season, figures to have a large role in Mike Bajakian’s offense this year.

Andrew Golden and Peter Warren


Football


It has been a whirlwind offseason for Northwestern football, but for the first time since last November, there is a Wildcats game on the calendar for the current month. With a little over three weeks until NU opens against Maryland, Daily senior staffers Andrew Golden and Peter Warren try to answer some of the biggest on-field storylines of the forthcoming season.

1. Other than starting quarterback — where it appears Peyton Ramsey has an edge — what most interests you about the Northwestern offense?

Andrew Golden: The most intriguing position group to watch heading into this season is wide receiver. New offensive coordinator Mike Bajakian has stressed the importance of getting the ball to playmakers and allowing them to create in space. I’m interested to see which wideouts step into that playmaker role. Riley Lees showed last season that he was reliable regardless of who was in at quarterback. The Wildcats slotted a lot of players at the second wide receiver last season — Ramaud Chiaokhiao-Bowman, JJ Jefferson and Berkeley Holman, to name a few. With those players, as well as Genson Hooper Price, Bryce Kirtz and Malik Washington from the 2019 recruiting class, it should be interesting to see which players separate themselves in camp.

Peter Warren: We know the offense is going to look different this season, from a faster pace to the return of tight ends. But I am curious how much of Bajakian’s new-look offense will be installed by the season starts. The loss of many in-person practices throughout the pandemic — whether in the spring, summer or early fall — has meant less time for the entire offense to get in sync. Sure, the team has had ample time to study the playbook and memorize many plays. But running a play is a coordinated dance. All 11 players have to be in step with each other for the play to work the correct way. I wonder if NU will be ready to have an open playbook by Week 1, and if not, when it will happen.

2. How much of an impact will the loss of Rashawn Slater have on the offensive line?

Peter Warren: Slater is one of the most talented players to suit up for Northwestern over the last few years, and his loss on the line — both from a talent and experience level — will be tough to replace. But one player in particular should give the Wildcats faith that there shouldn’t be a significant decline at the position. Junior Ethan Wiederkehr started when Slater was injured against Nebraska and was named NU Offensive Player of the Week after the performance. He also started after Gunnar Vogel was injured at the end of the season. Whether Wiederkehr or Vogel start at left tackle, there will be some growing pains. But the spot won’t be a turnstile for opposing pass rushers to bypass on their way to the quarterback.

Andrew Golden: Slater is going to go down as one of the greatest linemen in school history, and it’s going to be hard for the Cats — let alone any team — to replace a first-round talent like him. But if there’s any silver lining for Kurt Anderson’s group, it’s the fact that they only allowed 23 sacks last season, which ranked fourth in the Big Ten. They are returning three starters from last season and adding Wiederkehr and elite recruit Peter Skoronski into the mix provides the Cats with some continuity and talent heading into the season. Bottom line: it’s certainly a big loss, but NU has the pieces to make it work.

3. The defense returns eight starters from last season. Who is one player who didn’t start last year you’d expect to make a big impact on that side of the ball?

Andrew Golden: Last season, sophomore A.J. Hampton started a game last season as a result of injuries in the secondary and struggled when he played, which makes me think he’s going to be a really crucial player for NU this year. Two years ago, Greg Newsome was thrown into the fire as a true freshman alongside senior Montre Hartage and went through growing pains himself before becoming the Cats’ premier corner last season. The same can happen for Hampton. With a year of playing time and experience, Hampton has the opportunity to step up for the Cats at corner, a position they’ve struggled to get consistent play from in recent years. Hampton and junior Cameron Ruiz will both compete for the starting cornerback job, but regardless of who wins, Hampton has the opportunity to leave his mark defensively.

Peter Warren: Ever since arriving on campus three years ago, senior Earnest Brown IV has been in the mix on the defensive line. And while he has shined over the last two years as a pass rusher, Brown has never had a chance to be a three-down lineman. Now, with Joe Gaziano off to the City of Angels, this is Brown’s season to shine as a starter opposite Samdup Miller. Brown has big playmaker potential rushing off the edge in passing situations, with his scoop and score against Nebraska in 2018 the current top highlight of his career. The Texas native hasn’t played in many running situations over his three years, but has the skills to be an effective defender against the run. And even though he has never started a game in his career, he is a Preseason All-Big Ten honoree by college football guru Phil Steele.

Email: [email protected] and [email protected]
Twitter: @andrewcgolden and @thepeterwarren

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