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Tuesday, June 9, 2009
Hope and concern: Northwestern Wildcats

By ESPN.com staff
ESPN.com

Posted by ESPN.com's Adam Rittenberg

Biggest reason for hope -- Depth in the secondary

Not long ago, Northwestern's secondary was one of the weakest units in the Big Ten. Heading into 2009, it appears to be one of the league's strongest groups. All four starters return, led by safeties Brad Phillips and Brendan Smith, who combined for 191 tackles and five interceptions last season, including Smith's game-winning return against Minnesota. The Wildcats go two and three deep at every position and boast two aggressive corners in Sherrick McManis and Jordan Mabin. The defense as a whole should be Northwestern's strength this fall, and the secondary headlines the unit.

Biggest reason for concern -- Losses at the offensive skill positions

To truly elevate its profile in the Big Ten, Northwestern must show it can survive losses of multiyear starters at key offensive positions. This season provides a major test as the Wildcats lose a three-year starter at quarterback (C.J. Bacher), a four-year starter at running back (Tyrell Sutton) and three multiyear starters at wide receiver (Eric Peterman, Ross Lane and Rasheed Ward). In the past, these losses have signaled a drop-off for a program that has reached consecutive bowl games just once before (1995-96). Northwestern needs quarterback Mike Kafka and others to step up and continue the momentum it generated last season.