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March 28, 2010
Few Big Ten programs have played better the past two seasons than Northwestern, which was 17-8 overall and 10-6 in conference play. Expect the Wildcats to continue to be an upper-echelon Big Ten team in 2010.
Last season may have been coach Pat Fitzgerald's best yet. Northwestern ended Iowa's 9-0 start with a stunning 17-10 victory in Iowa City. The Wildcats closed out the season by toppling Illinois and Wisconsin before dropping a wild 38-35 overtime decision to Auburn in the Outback Bowl. It makes you wonder how Northwestern lost games to Syracuse and Minnesota last season.
There are problems to solve this spring, but none is glaring. Chief among them is finding a replacement for quarterback Mike Kafka. Also, a running game that ranked eighth in the Big Ten (117.5 ypg) needs to improve. Better blocking would cure the team's woes in the red zone and short-yardage situations. Defensively, the secondary has to be overhauled.
Nonetheless, Fitzgerald has this program in good shape.
Here's a look at the Wildcats as they prepare to open spring drills.
POSITIONS OF STRENGTH
The defense will be paced by a strong linebacker corps that returns every player from the 2009 two-deeps. The offensive line looks solid with all five starters back, but they need to improve their run blocking. Netter is the star and leader. Davie will be one of the top linebackers in the Big Ten, and Browne will look to become a premier pass rusher off the edge this spring.
HELP IS NEEDED
Junior Dan Persa must take command at quarterback with the departure of Kafka, who led the Big Ten with 3,430 passing yards. Who will catch passes with WRs Andrew Brewer and Zeke Markshausen gone? The Wildcats have work to do in a secondary that lost three starters, including all-league CB Sherrick McManis and standout FS Brad Phillips. A playmaker off the edge is needed with the graduation of E Corey Wootton. The rushing attack also needs to be bolstered. Sophomore Arby Fields led the team with a meager 302 yards rushing, and the Wildcats didn't have a player eclipse the 100-yard rushing mark in a game last season.
THREE GUYS TO WATCH
FS David Arnold: The coaches feel good about junior Brian Peters taking over at strong safety. Arnold, a redshirt junior, is moving back to safety after a year at outside linebacker. He needs to quickly get re-acclimated to his new position to show that he's capable of starting opposite Peters. Arnold played safety for two years before moving to outside linebacker and starting five games there in 2009.
RB Arby Fields: Is he ready to assume the role as Northwestern's go-to running back? He averaged just 3.7 yards per carry in '09, when he was one of three true freshmen to play for NU.
QB Dan Persa: He is the heir apparent to Kafka, the Big Ten leader in total offense last season (286.5 ypg). Persa is an explosive runner but needs to become a more refined passer this spring. He played in 10 games last fall, going 20-of-34 passing for 224 yards with two touchdowns and two interceptions. Persa is the Wildcats' lone veteran option, so it's vital that he plays well this spring.
THE PRESSURE IS ON
G Keegan Grant: Grant, a fifth-year senior, is a former walk-on who needs to play well this spring to retain his starting job with younger players nipping at his heels. Grant is a physical blocker, but he lacks athletic ability and quickness for a line that needs to improve.
These are exciting times in Evanston for the Wildcats, who have gone to consecutive bowls and played in five of the last 10 postseasons. To keep the momentum rolling, Fitzgerald needs to find a quarterback, improve the rushing game and retool the secondary.
Tom Dienhart is a national senior writer for Rivals.com. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.