1. Will Dan Persa ever be 100 percent?
Plenty of ink has been spilled over whether senior quarterback Dan Persa is a viable Heisman candidate this season. The more relevant question, however, may be whether he will be anywhere close to the quarterback we saw before he injured his Achilles this past November.
Persa will have an experienced offensive line (four of five starters return) and perhaps the most dangerous receiving corps in the Big Ten (remember that standout sophomore wide receiver Venric Mark only really saw playing time after Persa was injured). Northwestern also has a more seasoned rushing attack. Dan Persa pre-injury would surely be a Heisman contender. But signs out of training camp have hardly been so rosy.
Odds are Persa will take a few weeks to get going, serving primarily as a pocket-passer for the first few weeks of the season. If backup Kain Colter can spell him effectively and bear some of the burden, then Persa may be able to use his mobility when the Big Ten conference schedule begins in October
2. Will the defense remember how to tackle?
Northwestern fans have spent the last nine months trying to forget that the Wildcats allowed an average of 56 points in their final three games. The defense will be better this season (after all, how could it get any worse?) — but just how much more can the unit improve?
The good news is that the defense has a nice blend of experience and youth. The biggest losses were linebacker Quentin Davie and tackle Corbin Bryant, who both graduated and jumped to the NFL. With plenty of line depth, Bryant’s departure will create a bigger void in terms of leadership than on the field, but Davie will be difficult to replace at linebacker.
The biggest returning star is defensive end Vince Browne, a sack-machine senior (seven sacks in 2010) who is a genuine threat to crack the first round of next spring’s draft. Senior Niko Mafuli and junior Jack Dinardo are also primed to break out on the defensive line. In the secondary, senior cornerbacks Jordan Mabin and Jeravin Matthews are both poised to help improve the Wildcat pass defense.
The difficulty this year, as it was last year, will be stopping the run. The defense is healthy and rejuvenated on the line and in the secondary, but the linebackers remain a question mark. Can seniors Bryce McNaul and Ben Johnson finally patch up the gigantic holes that allowed Illinois and Wisconsin to gain over 800 rushing yards combined? Remember, the same defense that allowed 70 points against Wisconsin held the Iowa Hawkeyes to 17 points just two weeks prior. If the linebackers get their groove back, the defense has the potential to be an asset this year, not the liability it has been in the past.
3. Will the running game improve?
Northwestern in the ‘90s and early ‘00s reliably produced quality running backs, including Darnell Autry, Damien Anderson and Tyrell Sutton. For the past few seasons, however, the running game has taken a back seat to a more Texas Tech-ian spread passing offense. Last season, despite being gifted with perhaps the most talented quarterback in school history, Coach Fitzgerald desperately tried to jumpstart the long-dormant running game by plugging in a number of backs. While then-freshman Mike Trumpy eventually emerged from the pack as the best option (before injuring his wrist), the season ended with the only consistent ground game emanating from the quarterback position.
It’s been a full offseason and little has changed. While Trumpy and fellow sophomore Adonis Smith look to have the most talent, Fitz has questioned their commitment in camp and named senior Jacob Schmidt his starter for the time being. With three players competing for carries, the ‘Cats are no closer to consistency in the running game than they were this time last year. If Trumpy or Smith does not step up, and Jacob Schmidt does not flash some unforeseen ability, it will be another year of stagnant rush offense and frequent two-yard carries.
4. How will Northwestern fit in to the new Legends Division?
The Big Ten’s first season of division play will see the ‘Cats take on the Legends Division slate. The division — which consists of Northwestern, Michigan, Michigan State, Nebraska, Minnesota and Iowa –- will send its champion to Indianapolis in December to face off against the winner of the Leaders Division in the inaugural Big Ten Championship game. On this year’s schedule, Northwestern avoids playing Wisconsin and Ohio State –- two top teams from the Leaders.
But the Legends Division is difficult. Michigan and Minnesota both have new coaches, and both are already making big changes to their respective programs. (Michigan still has electric quarterback Denard Robinson as well.) Michigan State, coming off a co-Big Ten championship, brings back enough starters to be a real threat to win the division. Meanwhile, Iowa lost some key players but should be strong again. And don’t forget about newcomer Nebraska might be the team to beat in the entire conference, and maybe even a national title contender. In a word: yikes.
5. Who will emerge as a future star?
With the large amount of starters returning to this team (particularly on offense), this season does have the potential to be something special. But what about next year? With Persa, Browne, Matthews, Mabin and Ebert among the many seniors, is the football program about to fall off a cliff? Part of the challenge of this year’s team will be to find tomorrow’s leaders.
Perhaps the most important battleground will be the quarterback position. Kain Colter seems to have won the job to replace Persa over Evan Watkins and Trevor Siemian, but highly touted recruit Zack Oliver is looming large in the background. Elsewhere on offense, Mike Trumpy, Adonis Smith and Venric Mark have the opportunity to emerge as explosive playmakers and add another facet to the Northwestern attack. Defensively, redshirt freshman safety Ibraheim Campbell is a player to watch as he tries to crack the rotation and become a defensive presence for years to come. If these players live up to their potential, then the anticipated drop in 2012 may never come to pass.