The superlatives series marches on with Northwestern, which comes off of consecutive bowl appearances for the second time in team history. The Wildcats once again lose a productive starting quarterback in Mike Kafka, and also must replace three starters in the secondary and two solid receivers. But they look good on both lines and at linebacker.
Here are the spots to watch during spring practice, which begins March 29.
Strongest position: Linebacker
Key returnees: Quentin Davie (90 tackles, 11.5 tackles for loss, 5 sacks, 4 forced fumbles, 1 interception, 6 quarterback hurries); Nate Williams (86 tackles, 7 tackles for loss, 1 sack, 2 interceptions, 1 forced fumble, 6 passes defended); David Arnold (34 tackles, 4.5 tackles for loss, 2 sacks, 1 forced fumble); Ben Johnson (28 tackles, 3.5 for loss, 1 interception, 1 forced fumble, 1 fumble recovery).
Key losses: None
The skinny: The easy pick here would be offensive line, as Northwestern returns all five starters up front. But until that group shows a better ability to run block, I'll hold off on giving high praise. Davie, much like Ohio State's Ross Homan and Brian Rolle, was overshadowed last year in the Big Ten by guys like Greg Jones, Pat Angerer and Navorro Bowman. But he has been very productive for several years now and will be on the NFL radar as a senior. Williams did some nice things in his first year as the starter, and both Arnold and Johnson bring a lot of athleticism to the table. Northwestern is both experienced and deep here.
Weakest position: Running back
Key returnees: Arby Fields (82 attempts, 302 rushing yards, 5 TDs); Scott Concannon (68 attempts, 241 rushing yards, 2 TDs); Stephen Simmons (59 carries, 233 rushing yards, 2 TDs); Jacob Schmidt (64 carries, 217 rushing yards, 1 TD).
Key losses: Kafka played quarterback but led the team in both rushing attempts (150) and rushing touchdowns (8), while finishing second in rushing yards (295).
The skinny: Everyone returns from 2009 and several new players join the mix, but until someone emerges as a Big Ten-caliber feature back, this group raises some red flags. The committee thing just isn't going to work. Simmons looked good before sustaining an ankle injury in Week 2, and both Fields and Concannon showed promise at times. But Northwestern needs to restore its tradition of producing 1,000-yard rushers, especially with a new starting quarterback taking over this fall. The offensive line boasts ton of experience and should do a better job of creating gaps. Another potential weak spot is safety, where Northwestern loses multi-year starters Brad Phillips and Brendan Smith.