Northwestern brings stout defense into 2016 season
An injury to a key player may have shown just what kind of strength Northwestern has this season.
Keith Watkins II, who was second among Wildcat cornerbacks in tackles in 2015, was hit with a season-ending knee injury during practice earlier this month.
Coach Pat Fitzgerald called Watkins' situation “an unfortunate loss,” but added that the team feels comfortable with moving Montre Hartage, who played in 13 games last season, up the cornerback ladder – and still having depth behind him.
“A few years ago, we weren’t in a position where we had what I would call organizational depth, and we have that now,” Fitzgerald said in an email interview with Chicago City Wire. “It creates an exciting and competitive atmosphere because guys know that the guy behind them is pushing them to be better every day.”
That's a big part of what Fitzgerald called one of the most physically impressive defenses he's had in his 11 seasons in charge. That's no small feat, given that last year's defense was one of the best in the nation and the driving force behind Northwestern's 10-3 record and Outback Bowl bid.
At the end of the 2015 regular season, the Wildcats were eighth nationally in scoring defense (16.4 points per game) and 11th in total defense (310.5 yards allowed per game). Back this year is 2015 All-Big Ten first-team linebacker Anthony Walker Jr. (113 tackles, 19½ tackles for loss) and second-team cornerback Matthew Harris (four interceptions, 12 pass breakups).
On offense, the Wildcats have Justin Jackson, the conference's rushing-yards leader last season with 1,418 and a second-team all-conference pick. But a big key for the offense will be the continued development of sophomore quarterback Clayton Thorson (1,522 passing yards, seven touchdown passes, 397 rushing yards).
And not just with his on-the-field contributions, either. Fitzgerald said Thorson spoke to the team during practice and told his teammates that he has to improve for the Wildcats to take another step up.
When looking at his football team for the first time, new Illinois coach Lovie Smith said the first offensive position to look at is quarterback.
For the Illini (4-8 overall, 2-6 in Big Ten), that first look would be at senior Wes Lunt, who averaged 230.1 passing yards per game last season with 14 touchdown passes and six interceptions. This offseason, Lunt has been put on three awards-watch lists.
“Wes is very smart, has a strong arm, has earned the respect of his teammates and is a terrific leader,” Smith said in an email interview. “He and (quarterbacks coach Garrick) McGee work very well together, and I’m very confident Wes will do a great job of getting the ball where it needs to be.”
Lunt will be joined in the backfield by sophomore running back Ke'Shawn Vaughn, who had 842 all-purpose yards and six touchdowns in 2015.
Smith said the line has a mix of youth and experience, and several receivers during camp have shown the ability to catch the ball.
The defense will be led by linemen Dawuane Smoot (eight sacks, 15 tackles for loss, two fumble recoveries) and Carroll Phillips (two sacks, 4½ tackles for loss). Joining the team this season is linebacker Hardy Nickerson, a transfer from California and 2015 All-Pac-12 Conference honorable-mention selection who is on three awards-watch lists.
When driving for a seventh-straight Mid-American Conference West Division title, it helps to have an first-team All-American on board.
The Huskies (8-6 overall, 6-2 in MAC) have one in junior cornerback Shawun Lurry, who led the Football Bowl Subdivision with nine interceptions last season. And Lurry will have a good group in front of him, too.
“Defensively, I'm really pleased with our defensive line,” coach Rod Carey said. “I really am pleased with them and the progress they've made as far as coming together as a unit and a lot of bodies up there.”
The offense has three players back who earned postseason conference honors. Senior tailback Joel Bouagnon was first-team All-MAC after compiling 1,285 rushing yards and 18 touchdowns last season. Senior wide receiver Kenny Golladay (1,129 receiving yards, 10 touchdowns) and senior offensive lineman Levon Myers both made the MAC second team.
Quarterback Drew Hare had 1,962 yards passing with 14 touchdowns and four interceptions, plus 375 rushing yards, before having his season cut short by a torn Achilles tendon. Carey said there are no lingering effects from the injury, but there may be a question of being in game shape.
“I think there's some rust there, but he has certainly, in the last 2½ weeks, knocked the majority of that rust off,” Carey said.
NIU's special teams are in the capable hands of Aregeros Turner, last year's MAC Special Teams Player of the Year, and first-team All-MAC kicker Christian Hagan.
New Tigers coach Eric Hehman inherits a lot of seniors for this season – about 23 of them – and a lot of leadership.
“The seniors, they bought into what we're doing, and the underclassmen followed them as well,” he said.
However, it's a junior who will be a big leader on defense for ONU (3-8 overall, 1-4 in Mid-States Football Association). Linebacker Sebastian Swift, an All-MSFA Midwest Second Team pick last year, has already been named to this year's NAIA Starting Lineup by the College Football America Yearbook. He was seventh in NAIA last year with 12.6 tackles per game.
“Sebastian is not a only a really good football player, but he's a good leader,” Hehman said. “You want your best players to be your best leaders, and he is that guy.”
Also on the defense, Hehman anticipates the team will be deep along the line this year.
On offense, he said the wide receivers could be special. The top returner there is senior Matt McDivitt, who had 37 catches for 360 yards last season.
COLLEGE OF DUPAGE
The Chaparrals (8-2) have established themselves as one of the best junior-college defensive programs in the nation.
Last year, DuPage was No. 2 nationally in total defense – a season after finishing sixth in that category. Some key returners will lead the charge to keep that tradition going. They include defensive backs Mitch Boals (12 tackles, two interceptions) and Malik Johnson, lineman Tyler Labarbera (16 tackles, four for loss) and linebacker Shane Ratkovich (13 tackles).
“The defense is young but talented,” coach Matthew Foster said in an email interview. “Maturity will be a key component of how quickly they are a force.”
Experience will be a strength on offense, where each position has a player returning from last season or an experienced transfer. Sophomore Evan Scales is back at quarterback after completing 65.9 percent of his passes for 344 yards and three touchdowns, while also notching 164 total yards elsewhere. He has returning receivers Darian Pollian (212 yards) and Joey Fontano (117 yards) to throw to. Returning linemen include Jamaal Randle (6-foot, 330 pounds) and Kevin Spencer (6-7, 285).
“Size and speed across the field will help push the tempo with big explosive plays,” Foster said.
The Vikings (4-6 overall, 3-4 in CCIW) will be without graduated quarterback Sam Frasco, who was the College Conference of Illinois and Wisconsin Offensive Player of the Year last season.
This season, coach Stephen Bell said, the offense's strength will have to be the whole and not individual parts.
Bell has not publicly announced a starting quarterback, although he said “we are excited about this position because it is talented, but young.”
Senior Brandon Price is the leading returning rusher after getting 416 yards last season.
Experience is not a problem on defense, which is filled with seniors and juniors. Senior linebacker Jack Asquini had a team-high 108 tackles, including 12 for loss, as he claimed All-CCIW honors, while senior safety Frank Kalble (81 tackles) was the team's defensive MVP.
NORTH CENTRAL COLLEGE
There's some bad news for North Central College opponents this season.
Junior running back Austin Breunig already has a terrific season under his belt: 1,186 yards rushing last season, a school-record 18 touchdowns, and first-team All-CCIW honors. Here's where's the bad news comes in: Head coach Jeff Thorne said Breunig has improved his change of direction and added about 10 pounds of muscle.
“He's an unbelievably strong man to begin with, and he only got stronger,” Thorne said.
The Cardinals (7-3 overall, 6-1 in CCIW) will have great depth in the backfield with the return of former first-team All-CCIW pick Oshayne Brown, who played just two games last season before being injured for the rest of the year.
NCC's offense also has experience at wide receiver with two three-year starters in Ryan Kuhl and All-CCIW second-teamer Alex Ulmer. The offensive line had some big losses to graduation, but returns All-CCIW second-team pick Joe Fehrle.
The Cardinals' defense is led by two All-CCIW second-team linebackers in Tom Sora and Justin Sturrsma. The line should be deep, Thorne said, and the secondary should be healthy this year.
“We feel really good about our defense right now,” the coach said.
Junior return specialist Tyler Oakley also made the conference's second team last season.
A new coach combines with the first varsity season in school history to make this already an interesting season in West Frankfort.
The Patriots had their first season of football in 2015, going 1-4-1. This year, they play a varsity slate of nine games.
The coach in charge of this inaugural varsity campaign is Michael Popovich, who was head coach at Mt. Zion High School for three years and an offensive coach and recruiting coordinator for Army Sprint Football, according to MorthlandPatriots.com.
“I definitely feel like there is a buzz around the program right now,” Popovich said in an email interview. “Our staff did a nice job of bringing in some quality players to help make this transition a little smoother. It’s never easy getting a program off the ground, but I feel like we are headed in the right direction.”
Junior linebacker Spencer Cook will lead the defense, while the offense will feature a trio of skill-position players who transferred from College of the Sequoias in California: quarterback Dennis Chester and wide receivers Lalo Nevarez and Brandon Hudgins.
The Patriots' first varsity season starts against Robert Morris-Peoria at 2 p.m. Sept. 3, at Saluki Stadium in Carbondale.
The Salukis (3-8 overall, 2-6 in MVFC) have been picked to finish eighth in the Missouri Valley Football Conference this season in a poll voted on by league coaches, local media and sports-information directors, according to siusalukis.com.
Among the top returners for Southern Illinois is senior linebacker Chase Allen, a preseason first-team All-MVFC pick. Allen led the team with 120 tackles last season, including eight tackles for loss, and blocked three kicks.
Sophomore Daquan Isom received preseason All-MVFC honorable mention after finishing seventh in the Football Championship Subdivision in all-purpose yards per contest (158.2). He has been selected for the College Football Performance Awards Performer of the Year Watch List.
Senior receiver Billy Reed, also a preseason honorable-mention pick, had 805 receiving yards last season.
Josh Straughan, a transfer from Division II Stillman College, has been named the starter at quarterback.