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Position superlatives: Northwestern

Posted by ESPN.com's Adam Rittenberg

The superlatives series finishes up with Northwestern, which will look to restock its skill positions on offense when spring drills open March 30.

For the first time since head coach Pat Fitzgerald finished playing, Northwestern enters the spring with more answers on defense than offense. The Wildcats made a dramatic turnaround on defense under coordinator Mike Hankwitz last fall, and eight starters return on that side of the ball.

Strongest position -- Defensive back

Key returnees: Senior safeties Brad Phillips and Brendan Smith, senior cornerback Sherrick McManis, sophomore cornerback Jordan Mabin, sophomore safety Brian Peters

Key departures: None

The skinny: The idea that the secondary would be Northwestern's strongest unit seemed laughable two years ago, but no other group returns as much experience and talent. The hard-hitting Phillips will enter the fall as one of the league's top safeties, and McManis also could contend for all-conference honors after recording two interceptions and 14 pass breakups last year. Smith continues to be a playmaker, as Minnesota found out last season, and Northwestern has some young talent in Mabin and Peters. Other strong positions include defensive end and offensive line.

Weakest position -- Running back

Key returnees: Junior Stephen Simmons, sophomore Jacob Schmidt, sophomore Scott Concannon

Key departures: Tyrell Sutton (184 carries, 890 yards, 6 touchdowns, 35 receptions, 2 touchdowns), Omar Conteh (73 carries, 235 yards, 3 touchdowns)

The skinny: Northwestern hasn't had this many questions at running back since Sutton won the job as a true freshman in 2005. Things worked out pretty well that season -- Sutton took home Big Ten Freshman of the Year honors -- but the Wildcats might not have a feature-type back on the squad heading into spring ball. Simmons has excellent speed but not much size, and the others are unproven. Several freshmen join the mix this summer, but running back will be an area of concern. Same goes for wide receiver and defensive tackle.