DEVELOPMENTAL DEEP DIVE TABLE OF CONTENTS
We feel like this massive exercise has done a couple of important things:
1.We feel like we now have a clearer understanding of why the Offensive Line has been bringing up the rear when it comes to Northwestern’s position groups.
2.Our eyes have been opened to the problems within the the Running Back position and the need to address these issues going forward.
3.We are now able to appreciate just how good Randy Bates and Jerry Brown were and just how good Marty Long, Bob Heffner, and Dennis Springer continue to be at recruiting and developing talent.
4.Finally, we’re able to double down on the good feelings coming out of the Holiday Bowl by considering this fact: Kurt Anderson and Louis Ayeni have a chance to make real impacts at Northwestern by strengthening the overall development within their respective positions. There is every chance that one or both of these groups can improve going forward. At the same time, the linebacker corps needs to continue the level of quality that Fitz embodies and that Bates built.
Ayeni, Mcgarigle, and Anderson have vital work to do going forward. Their ability to do that work will be hugely important to laying the foundation on which future Big Ten Championships are built.
We hope you have all enjoyed our Developmental Deep Dive. Give No Quarter!
–The West Lot Pirates
DEVELOPMENTAL DEEP DIVE TABLE OF CONTENTS
Cut Line: 8 players
2014: Cut Grade A-/B+ True Grade B/B-
2015: Cut Grade A-/B+ True Grade B/B-
2016: Cut Grade A-/B+ True Grade B-/C+
2017: Cut Grade A- True Grade B/B-
This is arguably the trickiest position group to evaluate, for a couple of reasons.
First, across the windows in our model, the amount of cornerbacks and safeties on scholarship varied from 18 to 20 players. Even factoring in a nickelback, this blows away the amount of players needed to actually start or play at a given time. The reason for this disparity is that these scholarships are actually stocking two separate entities: The Secondary, and Special Teams units.
Second, there’s the cornerback/safety conundrum we talked about in the introduction. What we decided to do is lump everyone together for our grades, but discuss the positions individually.
When looking at the true grade, understand that we probably rounded up a little bit. There were a TON of Cs given out, and it’s tough to know what to do with those. This is clearly the one area where NU coaches are saying “You know what? This guy’s ceiling is probably special teams, but we need him to fill that spot, so he gets a scholarship.” We tried to account for that a little bit, but not TOO much, for a major reason: The better the secondary is, the better special teams will be. This is the massive hidden advantage that teams like Ohio State–which, at times this year, had as many as four 5-star cornerbacks NOT STARTING–have over everyone else. All of that recruiting talent may not make the starting lineup, but it’s certainly available on kick and punt units.
Northwestern doesn’t recruit like OSU, but the reality is absolutely the same. If, for example, you’d like to see a hot-shot reserve cornerback block a punt in a nationally televised game against Notre Dame, you need to recruit very well in the secondary.
NOW, with all of that out of the way:
We set a deep cut line here: 8 players. We figured NU needs 4 starters, plus a nickelback, plus guys to account for injuries across those 5 positions. If anything, we threw an extra guy above the cut-line, and you could read that as accounting for the value that a deep roster brings to special teams.
Let’s just get this out the way right here. Yes, the cut grade is awesome, and yes, that is all about Northwestern’s unreal recruiting and development of safeties. But here is a very important note to add: Safety is by far the position Northwestern RECRUITS most effectively. In other words, just about every guy crushing it back there from 2010-2017 was a major recruit.
Ibraheim Campbell picked NU over Stanford and Michigan State. Traveon Henry picked NU over Florida State. Godwin Igwebuike picked NU over Nebraska, Wisconsin, and many others. Kyle Queiro picked NU over half of the ACC. Travis Whillock (B+ for now, but let’s put a fat pin in that grade) was slightly less highly rated but was still part of “Katy Triplets” and still had a Wisconsin offer. JR Pace (GIANT ditto on the pin front) picked NU over at least 20 other schools.
Jared McGee (who earned a B+ from us but seemed determined to raise that grade during the Holiday Bowl) is really the only player to log significant minutes at safety during our four windows who WASN’T a major recruit. Hey, no complaints from us! Jerry Brown & Co were crushing it out on the road!
In terms of raw recruiting potential, Northwestern’s safeties match up with just about any school in the Big Ten. To the now-retired Brown’s credit, they have all played the way they were supposed to. Above all, this is Brown’s legacy; few coaches have done a better job with the safety position.
As far as Northwestern’s Cornerbacks are concerned: Cornerback is a fascinating position to look at for the ways in which it is similar to the Offensive Line, and the ways in which it is different.
The main similarity is that Northwestern has shown the ability to produce top talent at cornerback, but never enough of it.
Hey, it’s not like Northwestern hasn’t had awesome cornerbacks. Nick Van Hoose, Matt Harris, and Montre Hartage (who BARELY missed an A+) were all fantastic. You know what else they were a lot of the time? HURT. That’s not weird, it’s normal. Weird is having an entire offensive line start for a full season, or having a single running back carry the hopes of a fanbase for 4 full years. In real life, guys get hurt a lot in football. Cornerback has had the same depth issues as Running Back and Line, but none of the luck. And what we have seen is that, until relatively recently, there has been a big dropoff between Van Hoose/Harris/Hartage and everyone else at corner.
The main difference between corner and line comes in the actual development of players. By and large, the top performers in the OL were usually also the top recruits at OL. This hasn’t been the case at all at cornerback. Northwestern has had some devastating misses here on the recruiting front. Multiple 4-star recruits at corner failed to ever crack the starting rotation, and several high 3-star recruits also didn’t pan out. The saving grace is that Brown was phenomenal in turning TWO 2-star cornerbacks into All-Big-Ten players, and that doesn’t include Harris, whose recruiting didn’t pick up until midway through his senior year and who was still a mid 3-star recruit. This was fantastic work by Brown, but we do find it a little puzzling that a unit so successful at grooming top-shelf safeties didn’t repeat the same success with top-shelf corners.
Pulling back to look at the secondary as a whole compared to the offensive line, there is one other notable difference: The presence of “bonanza” classes in the secondary. In 2012, Igwebuike, Queiro, and Harris signed on in a single class. 2017 brought us Pace AND Cam Ruiz (he of the aforementioned blocked punt), and the jury is still out on other players in that class. As we said when discussing the OL, this doesn’t need to happen every year, but it sure is great when it DOES happen.
BOTTOM LINE: In 2018, Northwestern’s cornerbacks continued to absorb most of the rotten injury luck for the rest of the team. Still, what we saw for the first time was two major recruits–Ruiz and Greg Newsome–immediately playing at a high level. If these two guys can stay healthy going forward (a big if) and if NU can continue this new trend of bringing the best out of top CB recruits, we could turn the corner here. Northwestern’s safeties have been, are, and will continue to be flat ridiculous. If Matt MacPherson can build on the excellent foundation that Brown laid, WATCH OUT, BIG TEN.
DEVELOPMENTAL DEEP DIVE TABLE OF CONTENTS
Cut Line: 4 players
2014: Cut Grade A True Grade B+
2015: Cut Grade A True Grade B
2016: Cut Grade A True Grade B/B+
2017: Cut Grade A True Grade B
Welcome to the crown jewel of the Northwestern program, the Linebackers. 8-10 players just oozing class from every pore. A group of players who were led prior to 2018 by perhaps the greatest position coach Northwestern has ever had: Randy Bates.
We set the cut line at 4 players here. You could certainly argue that Northwestern plays more backers than that over the course of a year, but understand that 4 players often represents half of the total linebackers on scholarship. If we set the cut-line for any other position at “half of the total players”, positions like running back, offensive line, and secondary would see their ratings devastated. But if we had wanted to go crazy and make the cutline 5 players–which would often mean more players were above the cutline for linebacker than below it–it wouldn’t have really affected the grade much. Bates just put too many thoroughbreds in the stable.
Consider this: We gave Blake Gallagher–he of 127 tackles this season–an A-. (This grade may very well go up). In the 2016 window, a A- puts Gallagher BELOW THE CUTLINE.
Above the cutline?
Anthony Walker, Paddy Fisher, Nate Hall, and Joe Jones.
If you want to be the sourpuss arguing that Jones doesn’t deserve his A because he was never a full-time starter, we don’t know what to tell you. The guy had 1 scholarship offer. He picked up 70 tackles and 6.5 TFL as a reserve on an awesome unit, and he’s now a Denver Bronco.
The better argument is whether Hall and Fisher deserve A+s instead of As. Look, we didn’t want to run wild here. But if anyone who didn’t get the top mark has an argument, it’s Hall. 2-star recruit at wide receiver. Offers from Pitt and 5 MAC schools. Ends his career with…
30.5 Tackles for Loss.
As for Paddy…he’s on pace for 450 career tackles. So there’s that.
It’s probably going to be hard to keep Fisher away from the top mark is he keeps this up. We haven’t given it to him yet because although he was a mid-3 star recruit, he was certainly a known commodity (as part of the “Katy Triplets”) with offers from Washington and Wisconsin. He was supposed to be good…just not THIS good.
Which brings us to Anthony Walker.
The list of most successful NFL players Northwestern has produced in the past 20 years probably looks like this: Zach Strief, Luis Castillo, Barry Cofield, Napoleon Harris, Kevin Bentley, Sherrick Mcmanis. Walker is in his second year in the league, and he has more tackles this season than Bentley had in any season of his career, and more than Harris had in any season except his 2007 season with the Kansas City Chiefs. Since the Indianapolis Colts are still in the playoffs as of posting, Walker is almost certainly going to fly by that season as well. By some metrics, Walker is currently one of the top 25 players at his position in the NFL right now.
None of us are surprised by this. Walker was an All-American and multiyear All Big Ten selection. He’s most likely the best sideline-to-sideline linebacker the Cats have ever had, and, um, we had another guy who was pretty good at linebacker once. What was Walker’s recruiting profile coming out of high school? Well, he’s from Florida. One Florida college offered him a scholarship: Florida International.
So yeah, that’s an A+.
You know what’s funny about Bates’ tenure at Northwestern? Of all of the stars he minted from 2010-2017, there was really only one bonafide major recruit: Chi Chi Ariguzo, who had Stanford and Wisconsin offers among many others back in 2010. Walker, Gallagher, Hall, and Jones could have all been had by any major program that came calling. But those programs didn’t see what Bates saw, and they might not have developed those players like Bates did.
As for the other names we haven’t mentioned already, there aren’t actually that many. Remember, there are only 8-10 backers on scholarship in a given year. But we could throw out Brett Walsh as an example of a non-starring Bates disciple. Walsh finished his career with 107 tackles. He had six scholarship offers coming out of high school, and two of them were South Dakota and South Dakota State. There have also been a handful of misses along the way, but I think we can give Bates a break for not turning ALL of his players in As or A+s.
BOTTOM LINE: It’s fitting that Linebacker would be the top position group at a program led by one of the greatest NCAA linebackers of all time. But Pat Fitzgerald was not the man presiding over this unit for the past decade. That man was Randy Bates.
Bates, of course, is at Pitt now. In his place is another former star NU Linebacker, Tim McGarigle. Suffice to say that McGarigle has massive shoes to fill. But with a several big recruits waiting in the wings and an awesome group of players already out on the field, McGarigle has a lot to work with.
Thanks again, Randy.
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.