March 31, 2005
EVANSTON, Ill. -- In the second of three previews, NUsports.com breaks down the offense, led by fifth-year senior Brett Basanez.
Only four other Division I-A quarterbacks have started more games in succession than Brett Basanez, who begins his senior season with a 28-game consecutive streak. Walker says you cannot minimize the amount of experience the Wildcats have with Basanez.
"He has logged a lot of plays during his career, and has experienced both the highs and lows of the position. I expect Brett to have his best season yet. With another year of improvement and a healthy shoulder, he will be one of the Big Ten's best quarterbacks."
Basanez earned consensus honorable mention All-Big Ten honors last year after ranking second in the conference in total offense, passing yardage and completions per game. Basanez is on the cusp of setting Northwestern career marks in those three categories as well.
In addition, he is just five victories away from becoming the program's winningest quarterback of the modern era.
Backing up Basanez will be redshirt freshman C.J. Bachér and a host of talented freshmen.
A year ago, Northwestern's staff wondered if there was a 1,000-yard rusher waiting to replace Jason Wright. The answer came in the form of Noah Herron, who emerged as one of the Big Ten's best running backs. Herron finished with 1,381 yards, the fifth-best mark in school history.
One of the Wildcats' biggest off-season question marks will be determining who replaces Herron and his production. Senior Terrell Jordan, who has totaled 568 yards and averaged 5.1 ypc the past two seasons, is the leading candidate to replace Herron.
Jordan will be pushed, however, by a number of freshmen and sophomore running backs. Sophomores Nathan Shanks, Brandon Roberson, Gerard Hamlett and Akeem Hunter, along with true freshmen Omar Conteh and Tyrell Sutton, all figure in the running back mix.
"We want to run the football and that is not a secret," says Walker. "It should be a competitive spring and fall as we figure out who's going to carrying the ball for us. I'm excited about this group."
Walker has had a 1,000-yard rusher in all but one of his six seasons as Northwestern's head coach.
Led by senior Mark Philmore, the wide receiver position is one of Northwestern's strengths in 2005. Five of the Wildcats' top seven receivers are back, led by Philmore and Jonathan Fields, who combined to catch 102 passes for an 11.7 ypr average and six touchdowns.
"I think the passing game will be one of our strengths with a four-year starting quarterback and experienced receivers," says Walker.
Philmore led the Wildcats in receptions (54) and yardage (633) last year, despite missing the last four games with a knee injury. He has caught a pass in all 28 career games played and has 108 all-time catches. Fields, who had the breakout game against TCU last year (202 yards and three touchdowns), finished with 48 catches and a team-best four TD's.
Junior Shaun Herbert led the Wildcats in yards per reception with a 14.5 average. Other key returnees include Brandon Horn (24 receptions, 8.5 ypr, 2 TD) and Kim Thompson (11 receptions, 11.1 ypr, 1 TD).
Two key players--All-America tackle candidate Zach Strief and center Trevor Rees--return, but the Wildcats' other three starting offensive line positions will be manned by new faces. After the graduation of left tackle Trai Essex, left guard Ikechuku Ndukwe and right guard Matt Ulrich, Northwestern has some work to do in rebuilding an offensive line that helped the 2004 'Cats rank 29th nationally in total offense.
Expected to replace those three starters are sophomore Dylan Thiry at left tackle, junior Joe Tripodi at left guard and junior Ryan Keenan at right guard.
"I have a lot of confidence in our younger guys--they've been preparing for this opportunity," says Walker. "As always, we want to develop some quality depth at offensive line this spring."
Tight End and Fullback
Starting tight end Taylor Jones is not returning for a fifth year, leaving this position open for either Erryn Cobb or Frayne Abernathy to inherit. Cobb played fullback last year, but will get a shot at the tight end position this spring.
The Wildcats' hybrid R-back (fullback) position will see Abernathy and former quarterback Chris Malleo taking snaps here.
Chicago Bears' offensive coordinator and former Illinois head coach Ron Turner stopped by Trienens Hall to observe today's practice ... The Wildcats have one more practice before they dress in full pads on Saturday.