by P. Carl Giordano, Managing Editor

“Chicago’s Big Ten Team” is selling more tickets, has gone to four straight bowl games and has been very competitive under alum Pat Fitzgerald over the past six seasons. However, there’s a glass ceiling for programs such as those at Northwestern. The academic demands preclude the Wildcats from recruiting a certain segment of athletes. The competition for recruits is fierce, as perennial Big Ten kingpins Ohio State, Michigan, Michigan State, Penn State and newcomer Nebraska push Northwestern down the list on many players’ wish lists. In the era of ultra-competitive super conferences, NU will never be in the national championship conversation.

This year Fitzgerald brought in his biggest recruiting class (21), and the word is many will become instant contributors, which can be interpreted two ways. The optimist would say it’s a quality group, drawing players from recruiting hotbeds Florida, California, Texas and Ohio. The pessimist would point to the skimpy list of returning starters and say the freshmen will be force-fed the playbook and shoved into the lineup. The truth is somewhere in between.

Although Fitzgerald has produced a bowl-quality program, everyone knows being invited to a bowl game in the bloated postseason scene these days only means you have a football program with a pulse and you finished the regular season with six wins. The Wildcats have only had two quality wins in the last two years, at Nebraska last season and against a good Iowa team in 2010. On occasion, they’ve turned in some very disappointing outings under Fitzgerald. Yielding 118 points against Illinois and Wisconsin in the last two regular-season games in 2010 was one lowlight, and an example of what has ailed NU the last few seasons...poor defense. It must be frustrating for Fitzgerald (a standout Wildcat defender in his time whose name is on the Butkus-Fitzgerald Award awarded to the Big Ten’s best linebacker) to have fielded teams that yielded 28 ppg and 4.8 ypc the last two seasons. Last season the Wildcats were last in the conference in pass defense, last in sacks and 11th in total defense. The really bad news is that it’s not clear that any improvement can be expected. The team lost six of its top nine tacklers, including first-team all-Big Ten safety Brian Peters and all-league CB Jordan Mabin plus both defensive tackles. Returning DE starters Tyler Scott (above right) and Quentin Williams had just 4 sacks between them, and Williams was injured in the spring. Things don’t look great, despite reports that the stop unit looked much-improved and held the upper hand against the offense in spring workouts.

The offense will be tricky to forecast. The Wildcats graduate the most accurate passer in NCAA history, Dan Persa, who completed 72.7% of his throws. Normally, it would be impossible to speculate that a player of that level could be replaced very easily, but that might be the situation for Northwestern this season. Athletic junior Kain Colter (left) is a very different type of quarterback from Persa, but he has the potential to be just as productive. Colter completed 67% of his passes last season (55 of 82) for 673 yards and a 6-1 touchdown to interception ratio, led the team in rushing with a 4.8 ypc mark and 9 TDs on the ground and also ranked third on the team with 43 catches. Colter is a special athlete who can beat opponents in any number of ways.

Questions pop up almost everywhere one looks in the remainder of the offense, however. Jr. RB Mike Trumpy (right), who showed promise in spots in his first two seasons by rushing for 4.7 ypc and 5 TDs in 14 games for the Wildcats, missed the last nine games a year ago and all of spring due to an ACL injury. It’s expected incoming frosh Malin Jones will make a serious bid for the starting running back spot immediately. Jones is an unusually high-quality recruit for NU who committed early and turned down several big-time offers after a stellar prep career.

New receivers must be developed, as the loss of lead WR Jeremy Ebert, TE Drake Dumsmore and the shifting of Colter to full-time quarterback duties removes the team’s top three receivers from a year ago, a trio that combined for 163 receptions, 2,048 yards and 20 TD catches. The new lead wideout is senior Demetrius Fields, who snagged 32 catches last season, but the biggest potential impact on the offense will come from a decision by the NCAA. Junior Kyle Prater transferred from Southern California in January and petitioned for immediate eligibility. The 6-5 wide receiver was a major hit in spring workouts, and if he’s eligible he will become the team’s best weapon on offense aside from Colter.

Fitzgerald put an emphasis on recruiting in the offensive line this season, as three of his five projected starters will move on after in 2013. The present standouts up front are soph center Brandon Vitabile, who seems on a collision course for the all-conference team after starting 13 games last season, and sr. guard Brian Mulroe, who was mentioned on the all-Big Ten squad in 2011. However, the word is that the five incoming frosh offensive linemen are the future of the team up front, and since NU players tend to graduate on-time, some might play right away.

Summary: Pat Fitzgerald was hand-picked by the late, revered Randy Walker to take over the program. He’s delivered four straight bowl bids and is under contract through 2020. The Wildcats are doing very well at the gate, up 58% over a year ago despite a price increase. Fitzgerald is very secure at Evanston. If he can manage to win a bowl game (something the Wildcats haven’t done since 1949) Northwestern will truly be embraced as “Chicago’s Big Ten Team.”


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