Football Notebook: Northwestern confident about offensive production following spring practices

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Daily file photo by Joshua Hoffman

Northwestern players celebrate a touchdown. On Saturday, offensive coordinator Mike Bajakian spoke about the Wildcats’ pass catchers, including tight end Charlie Mangieri (89).

Drew Schott, Sports Editor


Football


Heading into the 2021 season, Northwestern will be without its top four pass catchers. 

Wide receivers Ramaud Chiaokhiao-Bowman and Riley Lees declared for the NFL Draft with tight end John Raine, while receiver Kyric McGowan transferred to Georgia Tech. The wideouts combined for 1,321 of the Wildcats’ 1,781 receiving yards during the 2020 season.

But offensive coordinator Mike Bajakian is not concerned about offensive drop-off. Rather, he said he’s thrilled about the future of NU’s passing attack following the Cats’ spring practices. 

“Those guys had a lot of production on the field,” Bajakian said. “But that’s the beauty of a place like this. The guys we have waiting in the wings are highly intelligent, highly competitive.” 

Receivers returning to Evanston include redshirt sophomores Bryce Kirtz and Wayne Dennis and junior Malik Washington. Each player notched at least two receptions last season and caught at least one pass of 20 or more yards, demonstrating an ability to make plays downfield. 

Seniors Berkeley Holman and JJ Jefferson and redshirt sophomore Genson Hooper-Price will also be members of the receiver room in 2021. Holman caught two passes for 27 yards last season before suffering an injury against Michigan State and Jefferson — who did not play in 2020 — caught 12 passes for 155 yards and two touchdowns in 2019. Like Jefferson, Hooper-Price did not play last season. 

“All of them bring a good skill set that I don’t think will necessarily miss a beat when it comes to replacing all that production that left,” Bajakian said. 

NU’s second-year offensive coordinator also praised the Cats’ tight ends, a group that includes senior Charlie Mangieri, redshirt sophomore Thomas Gordon and junior Jason Whittaker.

According to Bajakian, Mangieri — who caught two touchdowns last season — had a strong spring practice and is poised for success in the offense. The Peoria native has thrived as a blocker and was complemented by his offensive coordinator for his “great catch radius.” Even though Mangieri has only caught 74 yards over three seasons —  Raine caught 233 during his one year in Evanston — he showed promise by setting career-highs in catches (7) and yardage (53) in 2020.

Despite Gordon, Whittaker and sophomore Marshall Lang having yet to register a catch for NU, Bajakian is optimistic about the unit’s depth. Lang played in five games last season and Whittaker, who previously played quarterback and superback, returns to Evanston after opting out of the 2020 season. Additionally, Bajakian believes Gordon can have a breakout season similar to Mangieri, saying he is “playing the best football since I’ve been here.” 

While the starting lineup will not be set in stone until the fall, Bajakian is looking forward to seeing the growth of NU’s pass catchers when camp resumes this summer. 

“The philosophy is always get your playmakers the ball,” Bajakian said. “You have to identify who those playmakers are and figure out what they do best.” 

Bajakian provides insight on quarterback competition 

Following Peyton Ramsey’s decision to declare for the 2021 NFL Draft, four quarterbacks remained on the Cats’ roster: seniors Hunter Johnson and Andrew Marty, redshirt sophomore Zac Krause and sophomore Carl Richardson. Freshman Brendan Sullivan then early-enrolled at NU in the spring and sophomore Ryan Hilinski transferred in from South Carolina. 

Following the conclusion of spring practice, Bajakian complemented the work of the six signal-callers. 

“The guys are doing a great job,” Bajakian said. “They have a capacity to learn quickly and to absorb a lot of information. We threw a lot at them this spring and they handled it really well.” 

Only three of NU’s current quarterbacks have seen playing time, and most of it came during the 2019 season. Johnson played in six games during the Cats’ 3-9 campaign, while Marty saw the field in five. In 2019, Hilinski played in 11 games and threw for 11 touchdowns for the Gamecocks, but only tossed six passes the following season.

Bajakian added the quarterback competition is far from over. 

“We didn’t anticipate leaving spring ball with a starter named,” Bajakian said. “It’s a competition that started on the first day of spring ball and will continue through the end of training camp.” 

O’Neil concludes first spring practices as defensive coordinator 

After the retirement of longtime defensive coordinator Mike Hankwitz, veteran NFL assistant coach Jim O’Neil took the reins of NU’s defense — a unit that allowed less than 350 yards per game and only 15.89 points per game in 2020.

Following his first spring practices with the Cats, O’Neil shared how his defense is making strides ahead of the 2021 season. 

“I thought we took some big steps,” O’Neil said. “As far as spring ball, I’m happy with how it ended today. The players have exceeded my expectations. I tried to break them down mentally with all the install that we threw at them and they didn’t let me do it.” 

With players such as linebackers Blake Gallagher and Paddy Fisher, cornerback Greg Newsome II and safety JR Pace departing for the NFL Draft, O’Neil has been impressed by various players this spring vying for an increased role. 

He said redshirt sophomore Bryce Gallagher — Blake’s younger brother — sophomore Cullen Coleman and junior Khalid Jones are improving members of a linebacking corps led by graduate Chris Bergin.

Regarding the secondary, O’Neil has been impressed by the performance of sophomore defensive backs Garnett Hollis Jr. and Jaheem Joseph and redshirt sophomore defensive back Rod Heard. A unit that returns players such as sophomore All-American safety Brandon Joseph and junior cornerback AJ Hampton, NU’s defensive coordinator has high expectations for the defensive backs. 

“It’s going to be one of our most competitive position groups,” O’Neil said. “In the game of football, you gotta earn it every year. Just because you were an All-American or just because you were a starter last year, that doesn’t mean anything. You gotta earn every single day at practice, you got to earn it every game.” 

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