Northwestern Wildcats 2022 Football Preview

X and O or Jimmies and Joes? I’ve always been an opponent in this debate because I’ve long believed that coaching is far more important than talent. Nebraska has led the Big Ten’s western division in recruiting almost every year … but has only won one season since Bo Pelini was fired.

Then there’s the counterexample: Northwestern. The Wildcats have finished no better than 10th in the Big Ten in recruit rankings since 2011, yet NW has played in the Big Ten championship game in two of the last four seasons. Northwestern doesn’t outperform their opponents, they just outplay them because Pat Fitzgerald outperforms and coaches them. For this reason, NFL teams continue to inquire about Fitzgerald’s interest in risking a “coach for life” position at Evanston and taking a chance on big bucks in the NFL.

Development isn’t a thing of a year, and in 2021 Northwestern only had eight returning starters, meaning plenty of inexperienced players entered the field… and unsurprisingly, NW fell to 3-9. (Yes, that’s the same record as NU, but the Huskers beat NW 56-7 for what it’s worth.)

This year, Northwestern returns on offense to eight starters who finished 116th overall in offense and 125th (out of 130 teams) in rating offense in 2021. A major reason for this was the inability to replace Indiana Grad transfer Peyton Ramsey at quarterback. Five-Star Clemson Transfer Hunter Johnson struggled again, leading to another revolving door at the quarterback. South Carolina’s Ryan Hilinski (6’3″, 235 lbs.) started in five games, completing 54% of his passes for 978 yards, three touchdowns and four interceptions before playing for most of the rest through senior walk-on Andrew Marty was replaced season. Only Hilinski is returning, although redshirt freshman Brendan Sullivan (6’3” 212 lb.) is reportedly in the mix despite not snapping in college.

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At receiver, junior Malik Washington (5’9, 192 lbs.) returns after catching 44 passes for 578 yards and two touchdowns last season. Sophomore Bryce Kirtz (6’0” 180 lbs.) played just five games but caught 19 passes for 203 yards. Sophomore tight end Marshall Lang (6’4”, 235 lbs.) caught 11 passes for 68 yards and three touchdowns last season. Illinois transfer Donny Navarro (5’11” 185 lbs.) caught 52 passes for 600 yards in his three-year Illini career.

If Northwestern succeeds offensively in 2022, it will likely be led by the running backs. Sophomore Evan Hull (5’11” 210 lbs.) rushed for 1,009 yards and seven touchdowns last season, averaging 5.1 yards per carry, and earned an honorable mention in the All-Big Ten Honors. In limited action in 2019 and 2020, Hull rushed for nearly 495 yards and averaged 7.0 yards per carry. Redshirt rookie Cam Porter (5’10” 220 lbs.) returns after missing last season; Late in the 2020 COVID season, he rushed for 358 yards and five touchdowns. Bowling Green transfer Andrew Clair (5’11” 202 lbs.) ran 349 yards and a touchdown behind Hull last season.

At the top, Northwestern is bringing back four starters and adding VIncent Picozzi, a graduate transfer guard who has seen 42 games at Temple and Colorado State. Peter Skoronski (6’4” 315 lbs.) sophomore earned second-team All-Big-Ten honors last season. Junior Charlie Schmidt (6’4” 305 lbs.) slides off right guard to center.

When Northwestern was good, it was defense that led the way, but that wasn’t the case in 2021 as NW finished 12th in the Big Ten in goal defense (29.0 points/game) and 13 yards/game ). And with only five returning starters on defense, any expectation of a substantial defense improvement is probably a reach. On the front lines, junior defensive end Adetomiwa Adebawore (6’2” 280 lbs.) totaled 36 tackles, including 4.5 sacks and 4 tackles for loss in 2021 as the team leader, earning him an All-Big Ten honorable mention. But the Wildcats need to replace three other starters who sent NW into the transfer portal to find replacements. Stanford transfer defensive end Ryan Johnson (6’4″ 275 lbs.) started in four games in four seasons with 26 tackles, while junior UMass transfer defensive tackle Taishan Holmes (6’3″ 310 lbs.) had 6 starts with 18 tackles last both seasons.

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Likewise, only one linebacker is returning from last season: sophomore Bryce Gallagher (6’2″, 235 lbs.), who finished second with the Wildcats with 89 tackles. NW again has to replace their lead tackler as well as their fifth, leaving a 209 tackle gap. Pitt graduate transfer Wendell Davis (6’2” 240 lbs.) may be part of the answer; Davis started with 44 career tackles in five games during his Panthers career.

Three starters are returning to secondary school, but the hole left by All-American safety Brandon Joseph’s transfer to Notre Dame is huge. Second cornerbacks Cameron Mitchell (6’0″ 195 lbs.) and AJ Hampton (5’11” 180 lbs.) were named All-Big Ten honorees last season. Mitchell had 48 tackles and six pass breakups while Hampton had 40 tackles and 13 pass breakups. Sophomore safety Coco Azema (5’11” 185 lbs.) added 72 tackles and four pass breakups. Northwestern’s pass defense was their forte last season, ranking 8th in the Big Ten in pass defense and 10th in pass efficiency defense. With the loss of Joseph, it’s hard to expect much improvement – especially when the new defenders are unable to apply more pressure.

Will Northwestern 2022 be better? Probably… but in my view, the Wildcats are too far behind to catch up this season. An improvement in 2022 could mean bowl eligibility. However, never count a Northwestern team coached by Pat Fitzgerald.

And NEVER miss one.

opinion poll

What’s happening in Dublin?

  • 13%

    There’s not nearly enough Guinness to erase the pain of Husker fans from a loss to NW.

    (8 votes)

  • 28%

    It’s close, but Big Red narrowly wins.

    (17 votes)

  • 58%

    Irish eyes light up at Nebraska’s season-opening win.

    (35 votes)

A total of 60 votes

vote now

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