As we prepare for the beginning of the training camp, we venture to the Windy City to check in on Pat Fitzgerald and the Northwestern Wildcats. After a disappointing season, did Fitzgerald secure enough talent for Northwestern to once again become a factor in the B1G?
The season started off with a strong victory against Boston College and a lopsided victory against I-AA Eastern Illinois. However, disaster struck in the next week with a loss to Army, which precipitated 5 straight losses, including 4 within the B1G. When all seemed lost, the Wildcats reeled off four straight wins, including an impressive victory against Nebraska, which made Northwestern bowl eligible. Unfortunately for NU, they finished up with 2 straight losses, including a 33-22 loss to Texas A&M in the Meineke Car Care Bowl.
Statistically, it becomes clear that Northwestern simply did not protect the quarterback adequately enough to enjoy any sustained success. Northwestern gave up an astounding 42 sacks last season. So many sacks makes, Dan Persa's season much more impressive. Persa, the Wildcats' first string QB, completed 73% of his passes for 2,376 yards and 17 TDs. Still, it is clear that, for Northwestern to improve, it must do a better job protecting the quarterback and opening holes for the rushing game.
Ifeadi Odenigbo-DE-6'3'', 213 lbs., Centerville, OH-Odenigbo is a tall, quick pass rush specialist, who is a flat out beast. Odenigbo usually uses his quickness to get off the ball fast and into the backfield, where he is equally adept at blowing up running plays and quarterbacks. For someone who is relatively light, Odenigbo demonstrates surprising strength in bull rushing through the offensive line. However, Odenigbo, a four-star ESPN top-150 player, is also kinda light to play defensive end in the B1G, especially given the rather large offensive tackles who inhabit the conference. Thus, Odenigbo could go one of two ways: he could add about 40-odd pounds or transfer to OLB. Odenigbo has the quickness to drop back in coverage, so he could become an OLB. Still, no matter where he lines up, Odenigbo should be an impact player on the Wildcat defense.
Adam DePietro-OT-6'4'', 278 lbs., Lancaster, PA-DePietro is a very large young man who plays with a mean streak. Utilizing what appears to be superior leg strength, DePietro is able to drive defensive ends to the ground, delivering more pancakes than a Waffle Shop short order cook. As impressive as DePietro is in the run game, where he often is able to open holes at the line of scrimmage and then get to the second level, his pass protection needs work. DePietro seems to take on pass rushers high. With the exceptional defensive ends in this conference, he needs to correct that discrepancy, so as not to get his quarterback killed. Still, DePietro has the skill to be able to marry good technique with his physical abilities and nasty disposition.
Ian Park-OG-6'4'', 295 lbs., Upper St. Clair, PA-Park is also a very large young man who also plays with a mean streak. For a young man of nearly 300 lbs., Park has surprising quickness and is pretty good at pulling on sweeps and reverses. Park's pass protection is decent, as he uses his hands pretty well. However, although 295 lbs., Park needs to improve his leg drive in order to knock larger, stronger defensive tackles off the line of scrimmage. Still, Park should join with DePietro to form a good offensive line.
Overall analysis: At the conclusion of the 2011 season, it became clear that Northwestern needed to get bigger, stronger and meaner along the lines of scrimmage. Fitzgerald addressed this glaring need in the class of 2012, as the top 6 Wildcat recruits were on the offensive or defensive lines. Still, there is something to be said for recruiting the best athletes available, as opposed to recruiting for need. Nevertheless, this focus should allow Northwestern's skill position players to put up decent numbers, which would presumably allow Northwestern to once again become a factor in the Legends. Overall grade: B.