Rivals.com College Football Senior Writer
Northwestern was a pleasant surprise during the 2008 season, winning nine games and becoming a factor in the Big Ten race. The defense looks as if it can hold up its end this fall, but the offense has to be rebuilt. That makes spring practice especially important this season, with the Wildcats searching for new starters at quarterback, running back and three wide receiver spots.
Here's a look at Northwestern as it prepares to open spring practice.
Quarterback Mike Kafka can run, but he must prove he is a capable passer.
Coach: Pat Fitzgerald Last season: 9-4, 5-3 Big Ten. Lost to Missouri in the Alamo Bowl.
Spring dates: March 30-April 25
The Wildcats will build around a defense that muted Missouri's high-flying attack in the Alamo Bowl. The focal point of the defense will be a secondary that returns all four starters, including safeties Brad Phillips and Brendan Smith. Four-fifths of the starting offensive line returns.
Help is needed
The coaching staff needs to find some skill-position talent on offense with the likes of quarterback C.J. Bacher, running back Tyrell Sutton and wide receivers Eric Peterman, Ross Lane and Rasheed Ward gone. Two new starters are needed on the defensive line, including a replacement for star tackle John Gill.
Keep an eye on
WR Charles Brown: Brown, a 5-foot-11, 180-pound sophomore, is a potentially explosive target with great upside. Brown had two receptions last season, but coaches think he could be a downfield threat capable of stretching defenses.
DT Niko Mafuli: A sophomore, Mafuli needs to emerge inside now that Gill is gone. At 6-3 and 310, Mafuli has the dimensions needed to be a run-stuffer. Staffers also will look to senior Marshall Thomas and sophomore Jack DiNardo to step up and contribute in the interior.
RB Stephen Simmons: The diminutive Simmons (5-8/185) is a shifty runner with good cutback ability. He displayed some flashes of potential when he started the last three regular-season games in 2008 after Sutton was hurt. It also will be vital for Simmons, a junior, to be a productive receiver.
His time is now
Wide receiver Andrew Brewer is a senior who teems with athletic ability, but his career has been hampered by myriad injuries. If Brewer can keep it together, he could be a special weapon in a Wildcats attack that is desperate for playmakers.
Coach Pat Fitzgerald has this program humming. To keep the ball rolling, he needs to develop the passing game of quarterback Mike Kafka. The coaches know Kafka is a great runner – he ran for 217 yards in a win at Minnesota last season, a Big Ten single-game record for a quarterback – but Kafka needs to show he's a capable thrower to keep defenses honest. The search also is on to find capable targets and a top running back. The defensive line also needs some shoring up if the Wildcats want to repeat their success from last season.