Football: Northwestern aims to rebound after down year and tough offseason


Daily file photo by Carly Schulman

Junior running back Evan Hull is a key member of a rejuvenated Wildcat backfield.

Russell Leung, Copy Chief

Northwestern has adopted a Jekyll-and-Hyde persona in recent years.

The Wildcats capped off a nine-win season in 2018 with a victory in the Holiday Bowl, followed by a dismal 3-9 campaign in 2019. NU regained its spark in 2020, adding a 7-2 season and Citrus Bowl win to its ledger — before falling flat on its face in 2021 and going 3-9. 

All signs point to another challenging year for the Cats. For the second-consecutive season, the quarterback room is in flux. Former Clemson transfer Hunter Johnson left the program to return to Clemson, while four-game starter Andrew Marty graduated. At the end of spring practice, coach Pat Fitzgerald said junior Ryan Hilinski and sophomore Brendan Sullivan are the main contenders to start under center. 

The defense also suffered key losses in the offseason: former All-American safety Brandon Joseph transferred to Notre Dame, and linebacker Chris Bergin, the Big Ten leader in solo tackles last season, graduated. 

The team will see several breakout stars and veteran leaders return. Junior left tackle Peter Skoronski earned All-Big Ten honors in 2021 and is a projected first-round pick in next year’s NFL draft. Senior Malik Washington and junior Bryce Kirtz should be NU’s go-to receivers. Junior running back Cam Porter returns with a vengeance after missing all of 2021 with an injury, though junior Evan Hull performed admirably in his absence and should receive plenty of touches.

On the other side of the ball, senior defensive lineman Adetomiwa Adebawore, who led the team in sacks and tackles for loss, anchors up front. Junior Bryce Gallagher leads the linebacker corps. The secondary unit remains mostly intact: Starting cornerbacks junior Cameron Mitchell and senior A.J. Hampton Jr., are back, as is junior safety Coco Azema.

The Cats also bring in the 48th-ranked recruiting class in the country. Four-star freshmen Reggie Fleurima — a wide receiver who will help offset the loss of Stephon Robinson Jr. — and edge rusher Anto Saka headline the 16 newcomers. Fitzgerald also waded into the transfer portal to bring in players like Stanford graduate transfer defensive end Ryan Johnson and UCLA junior punter Luke Akers. 

With a mix of new talent and experienced leadership, which version of NU football will show up this year? Cats fans should find out quickly when NU plays Nebraska in Dublin on Aug. 27. The Cats shut down the Cornhuskers 21-13 in 2020 before getting demolished 56-7 the following year. The season-opening contest for both teams will go a long way toward determining whether 2022 will provide the highest of highs for NU — or the lowest of lows.

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