NORTHWESTERN WILDCATS Head coach: Pat Fitzgerald Last season: 6-6 overall, 3-5 in the Big Ten. Spring practice: April 1-April 26
Only a loss to 1-11 Duke prevented Northwestern from reaching a bowl game, which shows just how close ? or how far ? the Wildcats were a year ago. That surely won't be forgotten when they open up spring drills this week. The Wildcats can be encouraged for 2008 with returning starters at quarterback, running back and receiver. But they need to fill holes on the offensive line and improve a defense that gave up an average of 31 points per game in 2007.
Sixteen starters return for Northwestern coach Pat Fitzgerald.
In his second season as a full-time starter at quarterback, Bacher completed more than 61 percent of his passing attempts for 3,656 yards and 19 touchdowns. He does need to reduce his interception total. Though injuries forced Sutton into a subpar season in 2007, he has two 1,000-yard seasons to his credit. When healthy, he's among the best tailbacks in the Big Ten.
HELP IS NEEDED
The offensive line loses three starters from 2007, including reliable center Trevor Rees and tackle Dylan Thiry. There will be two new starters at cornerback and at linebacker.
KEEP AN EYE ON
DE Vincent Browne: He impressed in winter conditioning by setting a team weightlifting record. If he has an impressive spring, the redshirt freshman figures to move up the depth chart at a position that's wide open.
LB Quentin Davie: After getting significant action as a freshman backup and starting twice because of injury, the sophomore has a chance to nail down a starting job this spring.
CB Jordan Mabin: This redshirt freshman will be a contender to get into the starting lineup and could return punts, too.
HIS TIME IS NOW
When Wootton arrived three years ago out of powerhouse Don Bosco Prep in Ramsey, N.J., he was viewed as a tremendous prospect with NFL potential. He's had a respectable career, but last year his tackle totals dropped and he managed just one sack. Wootton needs to turn his potential into production.
The Wildcats are as talented as ever at the skill positions with Bacher, Sutton, Peterman and Lane, but they need to bolster the offensive line. If some young guys emerge as bona-fide Big Ten-caliber starters, Northwestern can go into the summer feeling confident about its prospects on offense.
Olin Buchanan is a senior football writer for Rivals.com. He can be reached at email@example.com.