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DEVELOPMENTAL DEEP DIVE TABLE OF CONTENTS
Cut Line: 7 players
2014: Cut Grade B/B+ True Grade B-/C+
2015: Cut Grade B+/A- True Grade B-/C+
2016: Cut Grade B+/A- True Grade B/B-
2017: Cut Grade B+ True Grade B/B+
As the kids would say, DAT TRUE GRADE THO.
Our true grade rankings don’t account for the fact that some positions have more players than others. In most seasons, Northwestern has 12 defensive linemen on scholarship. That means over all four of our windows, the AVERAGE Northwestern defensive lineman graded out at a B-. In 2017, a unit 12-guys deep graded out at B/B+. This is flipping nuts.
Northwestern won the Big Ten West this year mainly because of its defensive front 7. We could quibble position by position, game by game, but you know and we know that this is basically true. That front 7 starts with a front 4 that for years has a had a clear identity and awesome depth.
Northwestern doesn’t get sacks. We all know this. This isn’t a failure of coaching or recruiting. It’s a choice. We recruit a type of defensive lineman, and Marty Long’s unit is designed to collapse the pocket and control the line of scrimmage. Our line rattles lesser quarterbacks and shuts down rushing attacks.
The first 2 years of the 2014 window (2010/2011) were actually a little disappointing. There were several players with major recruiting profiles who developed minimally or not at all. The highlight of this period was probably Will Hampton, a very major recruit who developed into a decent though injury-plagued tackle.
Then comes 2012. Maybe the greatest defensive line class in Northwestern history. The 2012 class is so good that it features a major recruiting miss and it is STILL the best class ever. Why? Ifeadi Odenigbo and Dean Lowry. This duo is so ridiculous that Ifeadi is our all-time sack king, and Lowry was probably the better Wildcat. They are both currently being paid to play football.
The following two years were a little leaner on the recruiting front…except that 2013 brought us Tyler Lancaster. As we mentioned in our introduction, Rivals had Lancaster rated very highly, because, I mean, look at the guy. But for whatever reason (raw player, small high school, etc.) Big Lanny didn’t have many offers. Long made him into a offensive line vacuum.
And then we come to 2015, a.k.a “The Defensive Line class that is mad we called 2012 maybe the best class ever.” Joe Gaziano, Trent Goens, Jordan Thompson. GazTown just may have Ifeadi’s sack record when everything is said and done. The fact that Goens hasn’t technically been a starter up to this point tells you about everything you need to know about our D-Line. One interesting thing to remember: Thompson was a MAJOR recruit. He had an Alabama offer among many others. So a real Debbie Downer might say he didn’t quite live up to his billing. Except we’ll call BS, because Thompson was a very good DT who was Pro Football Focus’ top-graded lineman in the Big Ten against the run as a senior.
2016 and 2017 brought us the Miller Brothers and Ernest Brown. So…yeah.
If we’re picking nits, we would circle back to the whole “no sacks” thing. Sacks are very useful and very fun. Northwestern hasn’t exactly had a true edge rushing terror, a pin-your-ears-back third down stud. We say “exactly” because…sigh…we had one, except when we didn’t.
Ifeadi earned an A- from us. He is, BY FAR, the biggest recruit in Northwestern history. Too many traditional-football-power offers to count. Two sacks in the Under Armour All America Game. Finished his career with an NU-record 23.5 sacks, highlighted by 10 as a senior. But we will forever wonder how the same guy who looked at 6’8’’, 330-pound Wisconsin tackle and Future NFL Pro Rob Havenstein and said “I’m going to spend an entire game Kalima-ing your soul out of your body” had 8 combined sacks as a sophomore and junior. Ifeadi had 3 CAREER tackles for loss that weren’t sacks. We loved him dearly for his entire 4-year career. He made our hearts race on every 3rd down. We root like crazy for him in the NFL, and we wonder what might have been.
BOTTOM LINE: Marty Long is the man. He’s just cranking out big-powerful D-linemen year after year. The defensive line NU trotted out in 2018 was 8-deep, at least. Ohio State, Michigan, Wisconsin, Notre Dame, Iowa and just about everyone else had major trouble pushing these guys out of the way on running plays. Long’s performance is the model for all other Northwestern position groups that give out double-digit scholarships. THIS is how you stock a big cupboard.
DEVELOPMENTAL DEEP DIVE TABLE OF CONTENTS
Cut Line: 8 players
2014: Cut Grade B *TRUE Cut Grade B-
True Grade C+
2015: Cut Grade B *TRUE Cut Grade B-/C+
True Grade C+
2016: Cut Grade B *TRUE Cut Grade B-
True Grade C+
2017: Cut Grade B *TRUE Cut Grade C+
True Grade C+
Brandon Vitabile. Ian Park. Brad North. Tommy Doles. Jared Thomas. Rashawn Slater.
These six players have two things in common.
1.They are all excellent football players.
2.They were all recruited in different classes.
We’ll go deep on this in a second, but the root of the problem is right here. Northwestern almost always recruits one impact lineman in every class. Northwestern doesn’t recruit two.
Now again: That’s an impressive group of players. If this was the running back position, that level of talent would be more than enough, for the reasons we covered in that section. But offensive line is a different animal.
Take the 2014 window. At the same time that there were 10 running backs on scholarship, there were NINETEEN offensive linemen on scholarship. The reason for this is simple: Offensive linemen aren’t normally expected to play until they have been in the program for several years.
There are several reasons for this. First of all, offensive line is a very difficult position to play, and it can take years to learn the ins and outs of pass pro, pull blocks, and working as a unit. Second, offensive linemen often need several years to pack on weight and finish growing. This leads us to the parenthesis in the OL Cut Grade we issued.
We established a cut line of 8 players because offensive linemen tend to get banged up. You need one back up at center, guard, and tackle, and most likely, you need guys who can slot in at either guard or center in reserve. But a regular 8-man cut line doesn’t go far enough. We established a second TRUE Cut Line that can only include players who are entering at least their 3rd year in the program. We did this because true and redshirt freshmen can’t be expected to factor into this equation. We literally know this to be true.
Shall we remind you? Let’s take a trip back to summer 2017. Based on raw cutline, Northwestern would theoretically have been in great shape. Doles, North, Thomas, and Slater forming the core of a strong, deep unit.
Here is what was happening in the real world: Northwestern was looking at starting Doles but also two other juniors, one at guard, one at tackle. We know these other two players well. Through no fault of their own, they symbolized Northwestern’s depth issues on the offensive line–because NU tried, and failed, to find other starters.
The most notable of these efforts came in summer 2017. Northwestern coaches knew that in truth, the line was Doles, North, an open tackle slot, two other spots in need of improvement, and a dearth of seasoned players who could challenge for those roles. So NU coaches rolled the dice and grievously violated our True OL Cut Line. Thomas, a true center who could certainly play guard, was pressed into service as a redshirt freshman TACKLE. Our left tackle was pushed over to left guard, and Slater manned the other tackle spot as a true freshman.
The result was a disaster. After several weeks of chaos, NU effectively reverted to the exact same line-up that had started the Pinstripe Bowl months earlier, plus Slater. Of course, by the end of the season, Slater was excellent. But he certainly wasn’t at the start of his true freshman year.
Now, for anyone applying everything we have said here to the 2018 offensive line as a whole: I think we can agree that this past offensive line season was filled with peaks and valleys, and that our line was better at the end of the year than it was for the first half of the year. Now, go game-by-game, and look at the starting five linemen NU put out there. That’s right: It’s the same five guys, week after week. The same five guys who were manning those spots when our line organization course-corrected midway through 2017, with the exception of Thomas replacing the graduated North.
Eventually, that kind of stability can build results. But you know what has to happen? EVERYONE has to stay healthy. We were very, very lucky down the stretch with the health of our offensive line. In fact, you can look at 2018 games in which banged-up linemen started, played a few snaps, and then left the field, and immediately see a drop-off in production.
Basically, your opinion of Northwestern’s offensive line in a given year depends on your opinion of Northwestern’s second best offensive lineman in each class that year. We’re not saying there haven’t been decent #2 players in some classes. We’re saying that Northwestern has certainly not minted 2 stars in the same class. This is a big deal. 18-20 scholarships at a clip of 3-4 per year is a lot of darts to be throwing at the board without 2 bulls-eyes in the same year.
Understand, this doesn’t need to happen every year. It’s just needs to happen occasionally. But the impact of hitting on multiple players even once can be seismic. Look at the Secondary, which, for a different set of reasons, also offers a huge amount of total scholarships. The Matt Harris/Godwin Igwebuike/Kyle Queiro class set Northwestern up for years. A similar situation would produce the same result on the line.
And if the Wildcats could pull this feat off in CONSECUTIVE years? Well…look at Wisconsin’s 2018 line, the one that had roughly 50 preseason features written on it. The makeup of that line? 2 seniors, 2 juniors, 1 sophomore. Of the four upperclassmen, two were big-time line recruits, and 2 were converted tight ends. That’s the Badger line machine at work, spitting out development year after year.
BOTTOM LINE: The offensive line has been a mix of interrelated problems. First of all, we’re producing less top talent here than at any other position other than running back. Second, there’s a disappointing stability to this production–exactly one great player per year. Third, it’s much more easy to see developmental shortcomings on the offensive line: One Justin Jackson can’t ride in and save the day here.
The flip side is that we may be only a single class away from turning all of this around. Adam Cushing’s last gift to the incoming Kurt Anderson as Line Coach was a very solid 4-player 2019 recruiting class at OL. One player, Zach Franks, was a major recruit who flipped to the Cats from Penn State. The other three are more developmental types. If Franks plays to his potential and just one of the other three turns into a special player, Northwestern’s offensive line could finally take the next step we have all been waiting for.
COMING THURSDAY: PARTS 7 & 8: DEFENSIVE LINE, LINEBACKERS
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 Los Angeles 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: