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Thursday, August 7, 2008
Three questions for Northwestern

By ESPN.com staff
ESPN.com

Posted by ESPN.com's Adam Rittenberg

 
 Scott Boehm/Getty Images
 C.J. Bacher will have new faces protecting him in 2008.

EVANSTON, Ill. -- Northwestern is finishing up its morning practice and holds media day in a few hours. Head coach Pat Fitzgerald will address reporters around 12:30 p.m. CT.

Here's a look at three questions facing the Wildcats this fall:

1. How will a new-look offensive line fare in protecting quarterback C.J. Bacher?

Northwestern hasn't been this deep at its offensive skill positions in some time, but the line is a major concern after the loss of three starters. Redshirt freshman left tackle Al Netter has the pressure-packed assignment of protecting Bacher's blind side, while classmate Ben Burkett get the first shot at center, a position of stability in recent seasons. Both guard spots are open, though returning starter Joel Belding should keep one of them. Bacher has looked a bit shaky under pressure, so firming up the line will be the team's top priority in training camp.

2. Will veteran coordinator Mike Hankwitz be the savior for Northwestern's defense?

The shotgun spread offense has been Northwestern's hallmark since 2000, but at what cost? The defense has suffered significantly since the spread arrived, finishing no higher than 68th nationally in yards allowed. Hankwitz, a defensive coordinator for six teams before coming to Northwestern, is seen as the coach who can reverse the trend. The zone-blitz specialist must extract more from a defensive line that has tons of experience but little to show for it. The secondary also has depth and experience but needs to overcome big-play breakdowns.

3. Can the no-huddle help the Wildcats return to their rushing roots?

This spring, new offensive coordinator Mick McCall implemented the no-huddle, which Northwestern used in 2000, when it won a share of the Big Ten title and finished third nationally in total offense (475.6 ypg). The Wildcats produced a 1,900-yard rusher (Damien Anderson) that year, and they hope for similar results from senior running back Tyrell Sutton. Despite putting up big yards last season, Northwestern got away from the run game, partly because of Sutton's ankle injury and partly because of offensive coordinator Garrick McGee. McCall likely will lean on both Sutton and backup Omar Conteh more this fall, and a fast tempo should help.