The spring superlatives series, which examines the strongest and weakest position groups for each Big Ten squad in spring ball, continues with Northwestern.
Strongest position: Wide receiver/tight end (superback)
Top returnees: Jeremy Ebert (62 receptions, 952 yards, 8 TDs); Drake Dunsmore (40 receptions, 381 yards, 5 TDs); Demetrius Fields (25 receptions, 291 yards, 2 TDs); Charles Brown (16 receptions, 198 yards); Rashad Lawrence (12 receptions, 178 yards)
Key losses: Sidney Stewart (40 receptions, 454 yards)
The skinny: New receivers coach Dennis Springer inherits the deepest position group on the roster. Ebert, a first-team All-Big Ten selection, headlines the receivers along with Dunsmore, who can be more productive than he was in 2010. Both players will be featured a lot this fall. The big upside with the group comes from three rising sophomores -- Lawrence, Tony Jones and Venric Mark -- all of whom saw the field as true freshmen last fall. All three players possess big-play potential, which Northwestern needs as it struggles to stretch the field at times.
Weakest position: Linebacker
Top returnees: Bryce McNaul (62 tackles, 5 tackles for loss, 1 sack, 1 forced fumble); David Nwabuisi (26 tackles, 2 tackles for loss, 1 interception, 1 forced fumble); Ben Johnson (21 tackles, 1.5 tackles for loss, 1 interception, 1 fumble recovery)
Key losses: Nate Williams (96 tackles, 9.5 tackles for loss, 2 sacks, 3 quarterback hurries, 1 forced fumble; Quentin Davie (71 tackles, 6 tackles for loss, 3 interceptions, 6 quarterback hurries, 1 forced fumble, 1 fumble recovery)
The skinny: A group pegged to be the strength of the defense struggled to meet expectations in 2010. Northwestern got steamrolled in losses to Illinois, Wisconsin and Texas Tech, and in the second halves of defeats against both Penn State and Michigan State. Two productive starters depart and there are questions about who can fill the gaps. McNaul boasts talent and leadership ability but has struggled to stay healthy throughout his career. Northwestern needs more from both Nwabuisi and Johnson and a surprising surge from a guy like Roderick Goodlow this fall. The kicker spot also is a concern after the departure of four-year starter Stefan Demos.