NORTHWESTERN WILDCATS

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    Aug. 15, 1997

    Wildcats Look to "Take the Purple to Pasadena!"

    With the loss of 21 letterwinners and three marquee players, most of the preseason pundits aren't considering Northwestern to seriously challenge for the Big Ten title. However, the last two seasons should have taught people not to look past the Wildcats. During its history-making run to the Rose Bowl in 1995, no one but Northwestern thought it could vie for the Conference championship. In 1996, with most of NU's team returning, the vast majority of the experts still predicted the 'Cats to finish no better than fifth in the league. Coach Gary Barnett and his team knew what they had and went on to claim their second-consecutive Big Ten trophy and a berth in the Citrus Bowl. This season, as the Wildcats reload, they need to find a way to win their third-straight Big Ten title and, again, "Take the Purple to Pasadena!"

    Barnett, who won the Dave McClain Big Ten Coach of the Year Award again in 1996, has 15 offensive letterwinners returning, four of which were starters. In addition, several players who saw a lot of playing time are back and help add depth to the lineup. Tops on the offense is the receiving corps, which should be considered among the best in the nation. Heading the pack is senior wide receiver D'Wayne Bates. The Playboy All-American led the conference with 99.91 receiving yards per game last year and was first in the Big Ten in receptions per game with a 6.2 average. Also returning are seniors Brian Musso and Toussaint Waterman. Musso came up big time and again last year in critical final drive situations, while Waterman has matured into one of the best blockers in the conference. At tight end, sophomore Jay Tant and senior Joel Stuart will both be utilized as receivers as well.

    "This is certainly the position on offense in which we have the most depth," said Barnett. "When we are in a three wide receiver offense, we return all three starters. We look to have D'Wayne be our spark plug on offense and for him to provide a lot of leadership. Brian Musso is ready to play as a starter, and with Toussaint having a year of starting experience under his belt, we will look to utilize all three of these guys at the same time. Jay and Joel both had great springs, and if they continue to operate at a high level, it will enable us to become more of a two tight end offense. My concern at this position is depth due to the knee injury suffered by junior Mike Davis."

    The question is who will be throwing the ball to these guys. Battling it out for starting honors are veterans Chris Hamdorf and Tim Hughes. Hughes was the signal-caller for the Wildcats first eight games of 1994 and threw for 774 yards and five scores. After sitting out the 1995 season, he backed up All-Big Ten quarterback Steve Schnur last year, seeing action in five contests. Hamdorf saw action in four contests in 1995, highlighted by leading Northwestern to its first score in the win at Michigan. On that drive, he completed three passes including a 25 yarder to Waterman. Sophomore Corbett Elsen will also be in the mix.

    "Both Tim and Chris had outstanding springs," said Barnett. "Both were very productive and showed their senior experience. They were just too close at the end of spring to name a starter. They have created a friendly war between themselves and I'm anxious to see how it unfolds once we get to Camp Kenosha. I have no idea who's going to win this position." The offensive line will be anchored by seniors Paul Janus and Nathan Strikwerda. Strikwerda returns at center while Janus, who started at tight tackle in 1996, was moved to the split tackle spot. Senior Bryan LaBelle will take over at tight tackle after backing up All-Big Ten performer Justin Chabot at tight guard during the final nine games last year. Junior Brian Hemmerle will move to the tight guard position, while senior Chris Leeder will handle duties at split guard.

    "I believe our offensive line really came together during the spring and became very effective," Barnett commented. "Nathan and Paul will provide tremendous leadership and both are All-Big Ten caliber players. Bryan LaBelle is now in his fourth year and should be ready to play as a starter. Brian Hemmerle is strong enough to be a starter and looked good during spring ball, and Chris Leeder's time to be a starter has come. He is probably the most athletic lineman we have and he improved greatly during the spring. I am concerned about our lack of experienced depth as the other positions on the two-deep will be filled by our young guys."

    Senior Adrian Autry proved last year that he is more than capable of taking over the role as the Wildcats' top running back. Filling in for the then injured Darnell Autry, he came off the bench in the Wisconsin game to rush for 82 yards and two touchdowns. The next week, as the starter, Autry won Big Ten Offensive Player of the Week honors for his 128-yard, two-TD performance in the win over Illinois. Pushing Autry will be sophomore Ian Miller and junior Tyrone Gooch.

    "Obviously, Adrian has the edge in this position," commented Barnett. "I'm anxious to see how Ian Miller performs as he missed the entire spring due to a hamstring pull. Tyrone Gooch is going to get a chance to show how much he has improved. He had a great spring and performed very well in the spring game. He definitely made the most of his opportunity when Ian and Adrian were sidelined due to injury."

    Fullback has the potential to be a strong position for the Wildcats. It will be highlighted by the triumphant return of senior Matt Hartl. Hartl, who starred for NU during the 1995 Rose Bowl season, was sidelined last year after being diagnosed with Hodgkin's Disease. Although the cancer is in complete remission, the question remains how his stamina will hold up due to damaged nerves. When at full-go, Hartl is a punishing blocker who runs and receives well. Also returning is junior Levelle Brown. Brown was sidelined for six games last year due to various injuries and missed the spring practices as well. He, too, when healthy, can be a big threat for the Wildcats. His lone carry in 1996 was a three-yard TD in the win at home versus Michigan. During his freshman year, his second career rush went for a 38-yard score in the win over Wisconsin. Juniors Matt Fordenwalt and Jim McCaffrey will also be in the hunt for playing time.

    "We continued to have problems at fullback in the spring with Matt still being out and Levelle being sidelined the entire time," Barnett said. "We're not sure where that position is going to go. I do know that one of the happiest moments of my life will be seeing Matt Hartl suited up and back on the practice field this August. If he and Levelle are healthy, we should be in very good shape. If not, we may have to rely on two tight ends more than we have in the past."

    On the defensive side of the ball, the Wildcats return 15 letterwinners, six of which were starters. Leading the way on defense will be All-Big Ten honorees Eric Collier (SS) and Keith Lozowski (DE). Collier, a senior, is the 'Cats' leading returning tackler with 107 stops. Lozowski was third for NU in TFLs with nine, while racking up 44 tackles. The senior will be joined at the defensive end position by classmate and All-Big Ten candidate Casey Dailey. Dailey has started 21 games over the last two seasons and his eight quarterback sacks led the Wildcats in 1996. Another holdover is linebacker Barry Gardner. The senior emerged last season to be one of Northwestern's top defensive players. He tallied 106 stops while leading the team in tackles on five occasions. Other players returning with starting experience are juniors Josh Barnes and Mike Nelson, both of whom play in the secondary.

    "Despite the loss of two-time National Defensive Player of the Year Pat Fitzgerald and NFL draftees Tim Scharf and Hudhaifa Ismaeli, I believe we'll be better defensively than we were a year ago," commented Barnett. "I think we'll be back to the kind of defense we had in '95 when we led the nation in scoring defense."

    The Wildcats return the most depth at the defensive ends position. Joining Dailey and Lozowski is senior Thor Schmidt. He played in all 12 contests last year and got the starting nod on three occasions. Junior Dwayne Missouri also looks to contribute as does junior Gladston Taylor.

    "Dailey and Lozowski were the brightest spots for us, defensively, during the spring," said Barnett. "Both are ready to have all-star years. Thor Schmidt gave us great depth and made a lot of plays for us last year, and we are anxious to see how sophomore Dwayne Missouri plays. We have a number of guys that return and all have a good deal of experience."

    In the secondary, Northwestern returns four starters from the Citrus Bowl. Collier leads this veteran group and has started at the strong safety position for the past 24 games. Back at the left corner is Barnes, a senior who led the Wildcats with three interceptions last season and tied for second in PBUs with five. Gerald Conoway, a junior, has a good shot at holding down the other cornerback spot, while Nelson, a senior, returns to his starting free safety position. In 1996, Nelson registered the fourth most tackles for the 'Cats (79) while forcing two fumbles and intercepting two passes.

    "Returning the amount of experience we have at the defensive backs position helps a lot," added Barnett. "Mike and Eric were very consistent for us and provided a lot of leadership during the spring. Eric is a tremendous player and we are counting on him to have another All-Big Ten season. Sophomore Harold Blackmon looks to contribute at one of the corner spots and should push Gerald Conoway for a starting position. Josh Barnes improved a lot in the spring and should hold down the other corner and sophomore Rashad Morton will add needed depth at the free safety position."

    The linebacker position will continue to be strong for the Wildcats. Gardner returns to his spot at hawk linebacker while junior Kevin Buck, who backed up Gardner last year, moves over to the drop linebacker spot vacated by Tim Scharf. Sophomore Anwawn Jones, who was one of only two true freshman to play in 1996, will push Buck for playing time. The middleposition, vacated by Fitzgerald, saw inconsistent play in the spring. It will be filled by either junior Josh Kolar or sophomores Conrad Emmerich and Preston Letts.

    "I feel very comfortable with our middle linebacking positions," said Barnett. "Barry is a tremendous player and should have an all-star season and Kevin Buck and Anwawn Jones will be very solid at the drop linebacker spot. It's going to be interesting to see who really shows themselves at the middle linebacker position. Josh, Conrad and Preston all showed a great deal of talent in the spring."

    The Wildcats have three returning letterman at the interior defensive line position. Bobby Russ, who played in all 12 games last year and started in two, will take over at right tackle. Junior Jeff Dyra, who played in five games last year, will battle it out with KeJaun DuBose for the starting nod at left tackle. DuBose, who benches the most on the NU squad at 435 pounds, played in the final 11 games of 1996 backing up All-Big Ten standout Matt Rice.

    "While I'm pleased we return a lot of experience to the tackle spots, I was concerned by the inconsistency of their play in the spring," commented Barnett. "Their play was encouraging at times, but all of them must have good off-season work to make us a better defensive team."

    Special teams is an area that has been a strength for Northwestern during the past two seasons and this year should be no different. The 'Cats return one of the top kickers in the country in senior Brian Gowins. He hit game-winning field goals in the win over Michigan (twice, the first one was nullified due to an early snap of the ball) and Purdue as time expired. Gowins should challenge for the Lou Groza Award given annually to the nation's best placekicker. Sophomore Tim Long and senior Shannon Jones also return to provide excellent backup to Gowins.

    "Brian has done a great job for us since taking over kicking duties midway through 1995," said Barnett. "He performed so well in pressure situations for us last year, especially during the Michigan win. We're counting on Brian having an outstanding year. All of our kickers were very consistent in the spring."

    Returning punts for the third year is Brian Musso. One of the most exciting return men in college ball, Musso was ranked among the national leaders in 1995 (1st Big Ten, 9th nationally) and 1996 (2nd Big Ten, 27th nationally). During his career, he has returned three punts for touchdowns and ran one back a school-record 86 yards. Backing up Musso will be Bates. Barnett will have several players to choose from to handle kickoff returns. Adrian Autry, Josh Barnes, Tyrone Gooch and Faraji Leary all excel at this skill, however, a clear cut performer did not emerge during the spring.

    "Brian Musso is one of the premier punt returners in the country," said Barnett. "He probably causes the most missed tackles of any returner I've ever seen. He is so quick and elusive. There aren't too many players in the country that excel as well as Brian does at the receiver and punt return positions."

    Two other areas that Barnett is comfortable with are long snapper and holder. Hamdorf, who took over holding duties in 1995 when Gowins replaced injured All-American Sam Valenzisi, returns. Sophomores Conrad Emmerich and Preston Letts both have outstanding ability at long snapper and will provide excellent depth to the position that has been held by Paul Janus for the past three seasons. Sophomore Jack Harnedy, who also excels at long snapper, will take over the short snap position this season.

    "This is the first time since I've been here that I can relax about the long snapper position," said Barnett. "Conrad Emmerich and Preston Letts are both outstanding and can run down field and make tackles after punts. Paul Janus will likely be our guy again on long snaps with Jack Harnedy handling the short ones."

    The one area of some concern on special teams is punter. Lost to graduation was All-Big Ten performer Paul Burton. Filling his shoes will be tough, but sophomore Eron Kosmowski has shown a great deal of talent and should be ready by fall. Tim Hughes, Casey Dailey and Brian Gowins all have experience at this position and will serve as backups.

    "Eron has great ability but was too inconsistent during the spring," commented Barnett. "If he isn't ready by camp, we'll probably go with Tim Hughes. If needed, Casey Dailey, who we originally recruited as a punter, could also help out.

    "We had 15 very good days of practice in the spring," continued Barnett. "Offensively, I believe we made tremendous strides in our offensive line and at the quarterback position. Defensively, we didn't get as far along as I had hoped, but we did make good strides. Our defensive end positions were very positive as well as our linebacker spots. The thing that most impressed me during the spring was our work habits and focus we had as a group. I believe the announcment of the Oklahoma game helped us in the area.

    "As we prepare to go after our third straight Big Ten championship, there is nothing that really keeps me awake at night. Even though we have a lot of holes to fill on offense, we'll be very athletic up front. Our wide receivers will allow us to be explosive and I feel good about Adrian returning at tailback. I'm excited about the challenges that lie ahead this season. We should be very fundamentally sound on offense and defense, much like we were in 1995."