Football: Where does Northwestern stand at the conclusion of spring practice?


Daily file photo by Jonah Elkowitz

Junior lineman Josh Priebe surveys the field. Northwestern looks to rebound from a 3-9 campaign in 2021.

Gabriela Carroll, Sports Editor


After following up its second Big Ten West title in three years with a challenging 3-9 season where the team struggled on both sides of the ball, Northwestern went into spring practice with a lot of unanswered questions.

The Wildcats returned just eight starters from that 2020 division-winning team for the 2021 season, and the inexperience was on full display.

While coach Pat Fitzgerald said he is still finalizing the depth chart, he said the young position groups showed significant improvement over the 34-day spring practice period, which ended April 15.

One of the NU’s most prominent areas of concern is at quarterback. In 2021, the Cats started three different quarterbacks — graduates Hunter Johnson and Andrew Marty and junior Ryan Hilinski. Junior Carl Richardson also saw on-field action. Despite that, no quarterback solidified himself as next year’s starter.

Fitzgerald said the competition is primarily between Hilinski and sophomore Brendan Sullivan, with sophomore Cole Freeman and Richardson also in the mix.

“There’s four young guys in that room,” Fitzgerald said. “Their leadership and their ability to influence others was pretty strong. But I would say we walk out with (Sullivan and Hilinski) fighting for that number one job going into training camp.”

New cornerbacks coach Ryan Smith enters the program this year after a weak defensive year overall for the Cats, allowing 29 points per game and 429.5 yards per game, the second worst in the Big Ten.

But the defensive back group was one of NU’s stronger units, allowing 216.5 passing yards per game, eighth in the Big Ten. With former All-American safety Brandon Joseph transferring to Notre Dame in January, the group lost one of its most experienced players, but senior defensive back A.J. Hampton Jr. believes the group’s depth is still there.

“We have a lot of good healthy young guys and older guys, so that’s really good for competition,” Hampton Jr. said.

Senior lineman Adetomiwa Adebawore broke out last season, with 4.5 sacks and 8.5 tackles for loss for a combined 65 yards, leading the team in both categories. Defensive line coach Marty Long said Adebawore was “the leader of the group.” But NU still struggled significantly last year on the defensive line, allowing a Big Ten-worst 213 rushing yards per game, over 50 yards more than the next worst team.

To address this issue, the Cats brought in graduate transfers Henrik Barndt from Indiana State, Taishan Holmes from UMass and Ryan Johnson from Stanford to bring more veteran experience to the group.

Fitzgerald also said he saw improvements in the young wide receiver room, and expects to see senior Malik Washington and junior Bryce Kirtz play large roles.

Losing graduate linebacker Chris Bergin the year after losing Paddy Fisher leaves NU without a standout linebacker, but Fitzgerald said sophomore Mac Uilhein and junior Greyson Metz raised their games in spring ball. Those two, along with returners like junior Bryce Gallagher, senior Khalid Jones and junior Xander Mueller will compete for spots in the fall, Fitzgerald said.

Before 2018, NU had been to a bowl game in eight of Fitzgerald’s 12 years as head coach, and lost fewer than six games only three times, with their worst season a 4-8 season in his first year.

Since then, volatility has defined the NU program, with two Big Ten West titles and two 3-9 seasons. Fitzgerald said he believes this spring’s roster development will help bring back that consistency.

“There’s some times when you’re like, alright, once we hit the fall, the road is gonna start down either that path or this path,” Fitzgerald said. “Sometimes you try to turn the dial, and it doesn’t work. I’m the one responsible for that … It drives you up the wall, but I think there’s been a pretty high level of consistency in my approach.”

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Twitter: @gablcarroll

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