College football preview: Northwestern's defensive bench remains deep
An injury to a key player may have shown just what kind of strength Northwestern has this season.
Keith Watkins II, who was second among Wildcat cornerbacks in tackles in 2015, was hit with a season-ending knee injury during practice earlier this month. Head coach Pat Fitzgerald called Watkins' situation “an unfortunate loss,” but added that the team feels comfortable with moving Montre Hartage, who played in 13 games last season, up the cornerback ladder – with depth still behind him.
“A few years ago, we weren’t in a position where we had what I would call organizational depth, and we have that now,” Fitzgerald told the Illinois Valley Times. “It creates an exciting and competitive atmosphere because guys know that the guy behind them is pushing them to be better every day.”
That's a big part of what Fitzgerald called one of the most physically impressive defenses he's had in his 11 seasons in charge. That's no small feat, given that last year's defense was one of the best in the nation and the driving force behind Northwestern's 10-3 record and Outback Bowl bid.
At the end of the 2015 regular season, the Wildcats were eighth nationally in scoring defense (16.4 points per game) and 11th in total defense (310.5 yards allowed per game). Back this year is 2015 All-Big Ten first-team linebacker Anthony Walker Jr. (113 tackles, 19½ tackles for loss) and second-team cornerback Matthew Harris (four interceptions, 12 pass breakups).
On offense, the Wildcats have Justin Jackson, the conference's rushing-yards leader last season, with 1,418 yards, and a second-team all-conference pick. But a big key for the offense will be the continued development of sophomore quarterback Clayton Thorson (1,522 passing yards, seven touchdown passes, 397 rushing yards).
When looking at a football team for the first time, new Illinois head coach Lovie Smith said the first offensive position to look at is quarterback.
For the Illini (4-8 overall, 2-6 in Big Ten), that first look would be at senior Wes Lunt, who averaged 230.1 passing yards per game last season, with 14 touchdown passes and six interceptions. This offseason, Lunt has been put on three awards-watch lists.
“Wes is very smart, has a strong arm, has earned the respect of his teammates and is a terrific leader,” Smith told the Times. “He and (quarterbacks coach Garrick) McGee work very well together, and I’m very confident Wes will do a great job of getting the ball where it needs to be.”
Lunt will be joined in the backfield by sophomore running back Ke'Shawn Vaughn, who had 842 all-purpose yards and six touchdowns in 2015.
Smith said the line has a mix of youth and experience, and several receivers during camp have shown the ability to catch the ball.
The defense will be led by linemen Dawuane Smoot (eight sacks, 15 tackles for loss, two fumble recoveries) and Carroll Phillips (two sacks, 4½ tackles for loss).
When driving for a seventh-straight Mid-American Conference West Division title, it helps to have a first-team All-American on board.
The Huskies (8-6 overall, 6-2 in MAC) have one in junior cornerback Shawun Lurry, who led the Football Bowl Subdivision with nine interceptions last season. And Lurry will have a good group in front of him, too.
“Defensively, I'm really pleased with our defensive line,” head coach Rod Carey said. “I really am pleased with them and the progress they've made as far as coming together as a unit and a lot of bodies up there.”
The offense has three players back who earned postseason conference honors. Senior tailback Joel Bouagnon was first-team All-MAC after compiling 1,285 rushing yards and 18 touchdowns last season. Senior wide receiver Kenny Golladay (1,129 receiving yards, 10 touchdowns) and senior offensive lineman Levon Myers both made the MAC second team.
Quarterback Drew Hare had 1,962 yards passing, with 14 touchdowns and four interceptions, plus 375 rushing yards, before having his season cut short by a torn Achilles tendon. Carey said there are no lingering effects from the injury, but there may be a question of being in game shape.