- Adam Rittenberg, ESPN Staff Writer
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2011 record: 6-7
2011 conference record: 3-5 (fifth, Legends Division)
Returning starters: offense: 5; defense: 6; kicker/punter: 2
2011 statistical leaders (*returners)
Rushing: Kain Colter* (654 yards)
Passing: Dan Persa (2,376 yards)
Receiving: Jeremy Ebert (1,060 yards)
Tackles: Ibraheim Campbell* (100)
Sacks: Vince Browne, Jack DiNardo and Quentin Williams* (3)
Interceptions: Brian Peters (5)
1. Defensive line makes strides: Northwestern's pass rush has been absent for the past two seasons, but things could soon be shifting. The defensive line turned in a strong spring as several unproven players stepped forward, including freshman end Deonte Gibson and sophomore tackle Chance Carter, who had an interception return for a touchdown in the spring game. Tyler Scott could be primed for a breakout season, and the Wildcats should be able to ratchet up their pressure with the front four.
2. On target: They might not be household names, but Northwestern's receivers performed very well this spring and form by far the deepest posttion group on the squad. Demetrius Fields provides a veteran presence, and sophomore Christian Jones brings size to the slot position. Speedster Tony Jones returns from injury, and Cam Dickerson emerged as a reliable option this spring. Even if USC transfer Kyle Prater can't play this season, Northwestern will have plenty of options in the pass game.
3. Nick of time: The struggles in the secondary are well documented, and the Wildcats lose three starters from 2011, including first-team All-Big Ten safety Brian Peters. They'll need several players to grow up quickly and cornerback Nick VanHoose obliged this spring with a strong performance. VanHoose, who redshirted last season, put himself in position to secure a starting job and showcased good speed and ball skills.
1. Colter's arm: Kain Colter is the best athlete Northwestern has had at quarterback since installing the spread offense in 2000, but his passing skills remain under scrutiny. He made velocity a chief priority during the offseason after completing 55 of 82 pass attempts in 2011, and while he showed promise in practices, he looked shaky in the spring game. Northwestern's offense doesn't stretch the field that often, but the Wildcats quarterbacks must make high-percentage throws to the outside and keep the chains moving. Colter's running skills are special, but he must continue to make progress with his throwing arm.
2. Defensive playmakers: The Wildcats are in desperate need of difference-makers on defense after recording just 20 takeaways (T-77th nationally), 17 sacks (T-106th) and 59 tackles for loss (104th) last season. While the defensive line's play this spring is encouraging, Northwestern needs more from all three levels of the defense, particularly a linebacking corps that returns all three starters. Peters' presence in the secondary will be missed, and when fall camp kicks off in August, the coaches will be looking for players who can fly to the ball and change the game.
3. Offensive line/run game: It's essential for the line to build better chemistry during preseason camp after mixed results this spring. Northwestern hasn't produced an elite featured running back since Tyrell Sutton graduated, and the physical run blocking simply hasn't been there on a consistent basis. The line also struggled in the spring game, surrendering six sacks and eight tackles for loss. While Colter's mobility should help out the front five, the group needs to elevate its play for the offense to keep producing at a high rate.