BLOOMINGTON — Northwestern has won the Big Ten West division in two of the last three seasons under head coach Pat Fitzgerald.
That led to another offseason in which Fitzgerald’s name was tossed around in NFL coaching opening rumors. But Fitzgerald is back for his 16th season in Evanston, where he has built a program that consistently overachieves. Northwestern has made 10 bowl trips in Fitzgerald’s first 15 seasons and is coming off a 21-20 win over Auburn in the Citrus Bowl.
This will be another season that tests the development skills of Fitzgerald and his coaching staff, as the Wildcats return just seven starters from last year’s 7-2 squad. Three starters return on the offense line, including All-Big Ten left tackle Peter Skoronski, who started 11 games as a true freshman. With a hole to fill at starting quarterback, Northwestern will likely lean heavily on the run game, led by returning starting running back Cam Porter (333 yards, 5 TDs).
All-America safety Brandon Joseph (6 interceptions) returns for the defense. Fitzgerald hired Las Vegas Raiders defensive backs coach Jim O’Neil as Northwestern’s new defensive coordinator to replace long-time DC Mike Hankwitz, who retired at the end of the 2020 season.
Here’s an early look at Northwestern heading into the 2021 season:
WHAT THEY LOST
Starting quarterback Peyton Ramsey, who passed for 1,733 yards and 12 TDs, declared for the NFL Draft and signed with the New Orleans Saints as an undrafted free agent. Cornerback Greg Newsome III, who posted a team-high 9 pass breakups last season and 1 interception and 71 tackles in his three-year Northwestern career, declared for the NFL Draft, where he was taken in the first round by the Cleveland Browns. Linebacker Paddy Fisher, a four-year starter, was a leader on Northwestern’s defense, finishing his college career with 404 tackles, 11 forced fumbles and four interceptions.
NEWCOMERS TO WATCH
Ryan Hilinski, a transfer from South Carolina who passed for 412 yards and 11 TDs in two seasons with the Gamecocks, will battle for the starting job at quarterback with Hunter Johnson and Andrew Marty. Incoming freshman wide receiver Jordan Mosley, a four-star recruit from Mobile, Ala., could end up an immediate playmaking threat for the Wildcats in the passing game. Jeremy Meiser, a transfer defensive lineman from Old Dominion, recorded 11.5 tackles for loss in three seasons and could contribute immediately on Northwestern’s defensive front.
PROSPECTS FOR 2021
Breaking in a new starting quarterback and new defensive coordinator in the same year isn’t easy. This could be a season where Northwestern takes a step back. But never count out Fitzgerald, who often does more with less than any other coach in the conference.