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DEVELOPMENTAL DEEP DIVE TABLE OF CONTENTS
Cut Line: 2 players
2014: Cut Grade A/A- True Grade B/B-
2015: Cut Grade A/A- True Grade B
2016: Cut Grade A/A- True Grade B
2017: Cut Grade B+ True Grade B
If you don’t know this name, you should. He just may be the best position coach at Northwestern.
In relative anonymity, Heffner has spent the past decade crafting one of the best position groups in the conference. In any given window in our model, here is what Heffner was asked to do: Find at least one star player and at least one very good back-up. In any given window, here is what Heffner was given to accomplish that goal: 6 to 7 total scholarships.
Dan Vitale–>Garrett Dickerson–>Cam Green. Done.
But to simply say Heffner has found the guys to get the job done isn’t giving him enough credit. Vitale’s choices coming out of high school were Northwestern, Central Michigan…and that’s it. Now he’s an NFL journeyman and walking Met-Rx ad, after putting in a fantastic 4-year shift for the Cats. A+.
Dickerson, meanwhile, was a high school phenom at defensive end who wanted a college that would let him play on offense. Heffner molded him into a New York Giant Tight End. Cam Green, as we often say on the pod, was the best player on the best team in the state of Illinois…as a wide receiver. Heffner bulked him up and turned him into a hugely important member of a Big West Champion. And we’ve only mentioned the headliners. Heffner has also crafted reserve cogs out of guys like James Prather, a converted 2-star linebacker with no other offer remotely as good as his Northwestern one.
Simply put, Heffner has turned every kind of player imaginable into a star, and he has done just fine with the guys he doesn’t make into stars. Heffner is why we can look at Trey Pugh, who caught a total of 3 passes in 2018 backing up Green, and KNOW Pugh will be great next year. Unlike just about every one of Heffner’s other stars, Pugh was actually a monster recruit AT SUPERBACK. For Heffner, that’s like slow-pitch softball.
BOTTOM LINE: The superbacks don’t often get the glory, but no aspect of the offense has had more success. Heffner’s stable is always deep, talented, and diverse, and he accomplishes this year after year with 40% of the total scholarships that the next position group we will discuss is working with. We should thank our lucky stars that Heffner is content to keep doing such blue chip work behind the scenes.
DEVELOPMENTAL DEEP DIVE TABLE OF CONTENTS
Cut Line: 5 players
2014: Cut Grade B/B+ True Grade B-
2015: Cut Grade B+ True Grade B-/C+
2016: Cut Grade B+/A- True Grade B
2017: Cut Grade B/B+ True Grade B
First off, the cut line: Obviously, Northwestern plays more than 5 receivers regularly. In 2018, for example, 6 receivers made significant statistical contributions. This line is more meant to represent how many guys Northwestern would NEED to play regularly. When you factor in the facts that a superback is almost always on the field for NU and that Northwestern does not exclusively play spread football, 5 should do it. The fact that NU dips below that cut line with regularity, of course, is a testament to the position group itself.
Second, the West Lot Pirates have one rule, and it is this: When a walk-on receiver known mainly for his skills on the Ivory and Ebony develops to the point that he (1)Becomes the best receiver in the Big Ten, (2)Finishes 3rd in the Biletnikoff voting, and (3)Is currently catching Thanksgiving Day touchdown passes from Drew Brees in the NFL, that player gets an A+ from the West Lot Pirates.
If there was an A++, Austin Carr would get it.
Carr is on the books for three of the four seasons in our window, which has the effect of jacking up the cut grade of the whole unit. But there are a couple of important points here. First of all, we don’t want to hear any belly-aching to the effect of “Carr had ONE good season, and you’re crediting him for three”. To begin with, that’s a lie: Carr was our second-best wide receiver statistically as a junior. Second of all, Dennis Springer & Co absolutely get to log multiple years worth of credit for Carr. HE WAS PAYING TO GO TO NORTHWESTERN DURING SOME OF THIS TIME.
Carr basically took the Northwestern model relative to receivers and pumped it full of a mixture of PCP and Gummy Berry Juice. But we can look at Carr as the peak example of what Northwestern does well at receiver: Provide a deep group of playmakers through across-the-board development. This is the second thing about Carr jacking up the cut line: You shouldn’t be focusing on the cut grade anyway. You should be looking at how close the cut grade is to the total grade in any given year.
Regardless of what goes into the Northwestern receiver corps, what tends to come out is reliable, heady playmakers with moderate to…moderate athleticism. This is both the positive and the negative of the unit: We tend to think of this as a group of interchangeable lunch-pail guys. They weren’t all thought of that way coming out of high school.
Rashad Lawrence, the greatest run-blocking receiver the West Lot Pirates have ever seen, was a key role player at NU, but he was a star coming INTO NU: A top-75 player from Florida with offers from Stanford, UCF, and USF. Of Drew Scanlan and Macan Wilson, one was a noted receiver from Texas with an offer from Cal, and one had only moderate interest from the MAC and the FCS. The fact that you can’t tell us which resume belongs to which guy is kind of the point. We tend to field a decent unit devoid of stars.
With that said, if we take Carr out of the equation, what we see is a steady upward trend across the four windows. Historically, our receiver corps hasn’t regularly had guys like Bennett Skowronek, Flynn Nagel, and Kyric McGowan at the same time. These guys are not game-breakers, but they are bona fide upper-shelf Big Ten players, and they have made and will make enormous plays. And if we keep digging into the depth chart of the 2017 window, we get the Notorious RCB, Riley Lees, Charlie Fessler, etc. Understand: There are only 10 receivers on scholarship IN the 2017 window, and we’ve already gone through most of them. IF YOU FIND YOURSELF TAKING THIS DEPTH FOR GRANTED, GO READ THE RUNNING BACK SECTION AGAIN.
The one thing the receiver corps–that one monster Carr year excepted–has not had is that “they can’t cover him” receiver. I.E. a Justin Jackson-level multi-year dominator. Every year, we all look at the latest recruiting class and tell ourselves “THIS will be the guy.” We’ve all already done it with Genson Hooper-Price. One day, it will be true.
BOTTOM LINE: Depth is the name of the game in our receiver corps. What we lack in on-field separation and marquee stars, we make up for with a next-man-up unit with very few major misses and some real developmental success. We’re always waiting for the next evolution at receiver, but the run we’re on has been pretty darn good.
DEVELOPMENTAL DEEP DIVE TABLE OF CONTENTS
Cut Line: 3 players
2014: Cut Grade A True Grade C
2015: Cut Grade B+ True Grade C/C-
2016: Cut Grade B+ True Grade C
2017: Cut Grade B+ True Grade B-/C+
This whole exercise may have started because of the offensive line, but the big story ended up being the running backs. The 2014 window is the perfect place to sum the situation up. Here we go…
In theory, here are the #1, #2, and #3 backs Northwestern could have trotted out that year: Venric Mark, Justin Jackson, Solomon Vault. That’s a FANTASTIC lineup. Mark earned an A/A+ from us, and he missed A+ only because of what played out at the end of his career. In all other respects, Mark is the perfect story of recruiting and development. A mid-level recruit who turned into one of the most exciting players in the country as well as an All-American.
As for Vault, he earned a B/B+: Incredibly valuable on special teams, a danger on the field at multiple positions, has battled injuries, and most likely did not hit his ceiling. It is certainly worth noting, though, that a big part of Vault’s grade comes from special teams play and that he was a receiver for part of his career–because he’s above the cut line for all four windows. We will talk much more about Jackson later.
But here’s the big buried lede: In the five-year 2014 window, in addition to those 3 players, Northwestern put SEVEN other running backs on scholarship. Included in that group are:
-Four running backs with offers from Notre Dame, Texas, Stanford, and Utah.
-Three players who eventually transferred out or left the team.
-More than one player with notable discipline/legal issues (in a program that ALMOST NEVER has these issues).
Including Mark, four of the 10 running backs Northwestern recruited over this five year period didn’t finish their careers at Northwestern. Another two eventually ended their careers at other positions, and that doesn’t include Vault, who basically only came back to the RBs in 2018 because we needed him to. That leaves a grand total of THREE running backs who went wire-to-wire at the position they were brought to Northwestern to play. One of these three had 26 career carries.
Finally, the running back who actually began the 2014 season as Northwestern’s starting running back was neither Mark, nor Jackson, nor Vault, nor any of the four players with major Power Five offers listed above. Furthermore, this player was Northwestern’s primary running back for most of the previous season.
From a top-to-bottom perspective, things actually get worse in our model in the 2015 window. The drop certainly isn’t the fault of John Moten, who now arrives in our model. However, though his time at NU has been admirable, dependable, and Big Ten Championship Game-tacular, it is not a like-for-like replacement for Mark, who now leaves the model. Northwestern also removes an additional 2010 running back from our model (a player who, like Mark, had in fact long since transferred by that point), and replaces him with another player: A diminutive wing back utilized exclusively in an sporadic jet-sweep package that is telegraphed to opposing defenses by his presence on the field.
In the final two windows, only two running backs were added. One was Jeremy Larkin, who we gave a B. This might seem like a “heart rather than the head” decision given that poor Larkin’s career lasted barely longer than a season, except: Thanks to the eye-opening lack of depth covered above, Larkin immediately became our de facto #2 running back in 2017. That season was by far the one in which the actual Cut Line within the running back corps most mirrored the theoretical one. In other words, we fielded a great starting backfield in 2017. Larkin gets points for that, for being a major recruit who looked like one, and for his excellent showing to start 2018.
By this point, however, several things should be clear to you:
1.Northwestern’s top level running back talent is as good as or better than what has been generated at any other position. The Cats have also often had a very capable backup RB.
2.Beyond those guys, this position has been a roller-coaster. Between injuries and developmental/fit issues both on and off the field, Running Back was all over the place across our model.
In other words:
THANK THE SWEET HEAVENS ABOVE FOR THE BALLCARRIER.
Running back can be a much more forgiving position to recruit and develop than offensive line. A single impact back who can stay healthy might be all you need. Thanks to Jackson’s ability to stay on the field and carry a massive load in terms of carries and receptions, the backfield often carried itself like the B+ cut grade we gave it for this entire period. Matt Macpherson absolutely gets credit for developing Jackson throughout his four years into a player who could shoulder that load and become a San Diego Charger.
But heaven help us if Jackson had gotten hurt.
BOTTOM LINE: Our analysis makes it very apparent that we need to reexamine the moving parts of Northwestern’s run game overall. Beyond the simple need for a deeper stable of backs, let’s juxtapose the running back corps with the linebackers or the defensive line–two positions that regularly mint excellence with nearly the same amount of available scholarships:
How much better are Joe Gaziano and Paddy Fisher because who knows how many other guys are breathing down their necks for reps in practice every week? Let’s hope that Louis Ayeni makes sure that the next generation of running backs gets a similar level of competition.
DEVELOPMENTAL DEEP DIVE TABLE OF CONTENTS
Cut Line: 1 player
2014: Cut Grade A/A- True Grade B/B+
2015: Cut Grade A/A- True Grade B
2016: Cut Grade A/A- True Grade B/B-
2017: Cut Grade A/A- True Grade B-
Yes, the cut line for quarterbacks is one player. Which, yes, means that the A/A- you see for all 4 time windows is Clayton Thorson. We explored the possibility of a 2-quarterback cutline, but honestly, high profile injuries tend to mask the fact that most teams go coast-to-coast with one guy under center. Ask Matt Alviti.
Speaking of Alviti: How do you account for a quarterback like Alviti? A 4-star prospect who basically never plays over the course of his college career? Our answer was: Very favorably.
First of all, it wasn’t Alviti’s fault that a future NFL player came in the year after him. That’s not misspent potential; it’s great recruiting. (As an aside, the same situation at Clemson has led to us getting Hunter Johnson, so don’t bite the hand that feeds you!) Secondly, Alviti DID get a chance to play: The 2017 Music City Bowl. You might remember that game. How did YOU feel when you realized Matt Alviti would be finishing the game? Pretty great, right? Exactly. Alviti earned a B/B+ from us. There’s no reason to assume he wouldn’t have done a fine job under center if given the chance.
In case you’re wondering, Kain Colter and Trevor Siemian were each given a B/B+. If you want to argue that the tandem should have received an A, we’re listening. If you want to argue they each should have received a B, we’re listening. Climb on board the Mick McCall rollercoaster, everyone! (One other important thing to remember about both players: They were both big recruits. Expectations were high from the get-go. Those expectations–at times–were met in spades.)
More recently, depth has become a bit of an issue for the position. TJ Green deserves kudos for earning the #2 spot as a walk-on, but it’s a bit concerning relative to the rest of our quarterbacks (at least one of whom was a major recruit) that a scholarship player wasn’t able to win the backup role. There are couple of quarterbacks on our roster who didn’t project to see the field while at Northwestern even in a Hunter Johnson-less scenario.
Circling back to Thorson: Yes, that’s an A-/A. We think that accurately sums up Thorson’s career. Massive recruit, all-time winningest Northwestern quarterback (by far), pro potential from the moment he stepped on campus. And yet…we can all agree he didn’t reach his ceiling while at Northwestern. We were sometimes left wanting more.
In this sense, we could call Clayton…WAIT FOR IT…Ifeadi Odenigthrow. Thank you, thank you, we’ll be here all week! Try the veal!
BOTTOM LINE: Quarterback hasn’t been quite as good as it could be, but it’s been more than fine. We have almost always had the top quarterback we needed under center, and often had a top player in reserve. Hunter Johnson may be bailing us out next year, but this is the program of Persa, Siemian, Thorson, and Alviti…and that’s just recent history. A position of strength.
DEVELOPMENTAL DEEP DIVE TABLE OF CONTENTS
The idea for this piece came about when Adam Cushing left to take the Eastern Illinois job.
As we were discussing Cushing on our podcast and with each other, the question of Cushing’s ability to develop offensive line talent came up repeatedly. We all confessed to a belief that this development had been sub-standard. We realized, however, that we didn’t have something concrete to pin that belief on.
Sure, we could point to specific games or, ahem, specific months of the year, and easily highlight struggles on the offensive line. But could we actually quantify the strength of the Offensive Line as a position group? Between recruiting and the development of players, what was really happening within NU’s O-Line year to year? For that matter, what was happening year-to-year with ALL of Northwestern’s positions groups? Where is the most talent being recruited, and where is he most talent being developed? Where IS Northwestern the most successful then it comes to personnel?
We, the West Lot Pirates, have decided to take a shot at figuring that out.
Here’s what we did:
From 2010-2017, we examined every single Northwestern recruiting class. Notable walk-ons were considered as well. We examined every single player in terms of A.His recruiting profile coming out of high school and B.His production once he got to Northwestern.
After examining these things, we issued each player a letter grade.
A COUPLE OF NOTES ABOUT THE GRADES
1.YOUR MILEAGE MAY VARY.
Understand that we were looking at well over 150 players! You could sit with us for hours and argue over whether or not Joseph Jones deserved his A grade relative to Justin Jackson’s A grade. We get that. We don’t claim to be perfect, but we know that you know that we watch a LOT of NU Football. We may be off in one spot or another, but we believe the overall trends represented within our grades our correct.
2.WE’RE NOT HERE TO BADMOUTH OLD PLAYERS.
We gave out plenty of low grades during this process. Those players are not going to be named here. A guy who busted his butt for 4-5 years and gave his all for our beloved program doesn’t need to google his name some day and find this article with that name next to a bad grade. If we mention a player by name in this piece, it’s because that player had a successful on-field career at NU.
3.WE’RE NOT SHOWING YOU EVERY SINGLE GRADE.
First, see entry #2. Second, the point here is evaluate the position groups as a whole, not specific individuals. Trust the process!
1. Eight recruiting classes were examined: 2010-2017. Split grades are possible, i.e. C+/B-.
2. We considered two things when evaluating recruiting profile: A player’s grade in stars and scale according to Rivals.com, and the offers that player received from other schools.
We felt this was the most holistic way to view things, because between Rivals and college coaches, someone tends to be right. Ibraheim Campbell was a upper-mid 3-star prospect according to Rivals, but Michigan State and Stanford understood the extremely high level of prospect they were looking at. On the other hand, Rivals knew how good Tyler Lancaster could be when few others saw a future Packer in Big Lanny.
3. A “C” generally represents a player who was lightly recruited and didn’t produce much on the field while at NU.
To paraphrase the David Pumpkins skit from SNL, when you’re recruiting 100s of players, they’re not all going to be winners! We’re not giving out Ds and Fs to every guy who didn’t play. Teams need to fill rosters, and they also know (Alabama excepted) that every one of those players is not going to be a marquee recruit. With this said…
4. Assuming that two different players produced at a level in-line with expectations coming out of high school, the more highly-recruited player gets the higher grade.
We have a player on our roster who is mainly known–to this point–for performing a fantastic sideline Macarena. We also have Holiday Bowl Offensive MVP Clayton Thorson. Thorson’s production has been roughly in line with what was expected of our biggest quarterback recruit ever. The other player, dance moves excepted, was not expected to start and dominate on the field. Both players have basically matched expectations. Thorson gets the higher grade. We need to account for our coaches’ ability to land the Big Fish in the recruiting world. HOWEVER…
5. A grade below “C” represents a player who did not have on-field success at Northwestern despite higher expectations.
This is a key part of our overall goal here. How many times did Northwestern recruit a major player, then fail to get commensurate production out of that player? For the record, D+ was the lowest grade any player received.
6. Injuries CAN be the cause of low grades.
The least fun aspect of the this process. This is another reason we aren’t showing the grades. Injuries are no one’s fault, but over time they should affect all position groups relatively evenly. What we found is that no single position group was particularly decimated relative to the rest…but that certain groups were hurt by injuries more BECAUSE they failed to develop healthy players enough.
7. Grades above “C” correspond to a player who was better coming out of high school (and played like it), a player who developed well at Northwestern, or both.
The very highest grades tend to be players who became household names amongst NU fans or players who became stars despite a low (or nonexistent) recruiting profile. The highest of the high did both. A total of three A+ grades were given out. (Here’s a hint: All three players are in the NFL now, one is the best at tackling, one is the best at classical piano, and one is the best at having negative-12% body fat.)
This also seems like a good place to revisit the Jones/Jackson argument we mentioned above. Literally every Northwestern fan knows Jackson. Fewer know Jones. Obviously, Jackson’s production at Northwestern exceeded Jones’ by a wide margin. But here’s the thing: Jackson was a monster recruit. Jones had literally ONE FBS offer, Northwestern’s. Now, both players are playing in the NFL. One has blocked a punt, and that guy can credit his own perseverance and Northwestern’s coaches for getting him to that point. And he was a darn good player on the field for the Wildcats! That’s an A. (As for the “+” missing at the end of Jackson’s grade? We thought he was going to be awesome. He was awesome. That’s also an A in our book.)
8. In the case of players who still have multiple years of football left at NU, we tried to err on the positive, particularly if we thought this player was going to be seeing a lot more of field in the future.
Pete McIntyre would a be random example of a guy who will probably have a big role in the linebacker corps down the road, and we tried to make his grade reflect that without going overboard.
9. After we tabulated all of the individual player grades, we grouped them by position. In the case of players with multiple positions, or who were listed at a different position coming out of high school, the position they primarily played with at NU was where they were grouped.
This was mainly a cut-and-dry process, with the exception of a few players, like Solomon Vault. Ultimately, we slotted Vault at running back. AND THANK GOODNESS FOR THE RUNNING BACKS THAT WE DID. MORE ON THIS LATER.
10. Once we had the position groupings, we started averaging data based on four 5-year periods: 2010-2014, 2011-2015, 2012-2016, and 2013-2017. Each period represented a 5-year window in which all players on the team at that time could theoretically have been available.
Obviously, these guys weren’t all actually available at once, and obviously, a guy who was a true freshman in 2010 wasn’t yet playing a the final grade level he might display in 2014. Still, on a macro level it’s a useful way to look at everyone at once. In areas in which guys REALLY aren’t ready to play as underclassman, our data can actually become MORE useful, as you will see later.
11.After compiling our data for the four time periods listed above, we averaged them together to create FINAL GRADES for each position that covered 2010-2017.
These grades were broken down into these subcategories:
Cut Grade basically works like this: With a given year, how many guys should actually be reasonably expected to play at that position? This grade represents the top players Northwestern would be expected to play to fill that need.
In other words, basically: How good are our top guys?
This is the raw average of the grades of all players at a position.
Within any given position, what percentage of the players brought in:
B.Undergo fantastic development relative to recruiting profile?
Understand that we were tough graders here. To make this list purely on performance, a well-regarded high school player had to be a bona fide star at NU. There are plenty of beloved Wildcats who did not make the cut. The goal here is to highlight how successful Northwestern is at finding, recruiting, and developing peak talent.
On to the Rankings!
FINAL GRADE RANKINGS BY POSITION, 2010-2017.
CUT GRADE RANKINGS
5.Defensive Line B+
6.Running Backs B+
8.Offensive Line B-/C+ (B)
TRUE GRADE RANKINGS
4.Defensive Line B-
7.Offensive Line C+
8.Running Backs C
HIT PERCENTAGE RANKINGS
2.Defensive Line 45%
7.Offensive Line 21%
8.Running Backs 21%
Here are three notable questions/reactions you may have relative to these lists that we want to address right here:
1.So you didn’t split secondary up into cornerbacks vs safeties? No, we didn’t. It was going to be a little tricky given some of the positional overlap here. But yes, we know as you know that our safeties tend to be better overall than our corners. We will talk about this and other things when we discuss the secondary later.
2.What’s up with the parenthetical grade next to the Offensive Line? We’re glad you noticed! This is very important, and we’ll discuss it when we get to the Offensive Line section.
3.What the heck is up with the Running Backs? RIGHT?!?