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B1G shoes to fill: Northwestern Wildcats

Northwestern needs tight end Garrett Dickerson to help fill part of the void left by departed superback Dan Vitale. AP Photo/Matt Marton

Spring is a time for renewal. In football programs around the Big Ten, new faces must emerge to fill the roles vacated by departed contributors. In rebounding from two straight five-win seasons to equal a school record with 10 victories last season, Northwestern leaned on several high-impact seniors in 2015. Here’s a look at a few important positions for the Wildcats that will feature new starters next season.

B1G SHOES TO FILL: Dan Vitale, SB

Why: Every defense has a plan to defend the running back, tight ends and receivers. But how do you handle a superback? Don’t ask Northwestern foes from the past four years. Vitale came to define the hybrid position over his four seasons in the Wildcats’ lineup. He earned second-team All-Big Ten honors (as a tight end), leading Northwestern in receptions (33) and receiving yards (355) as a senior. Vitale also excelled as a blocker.

Replacement candidates: Garrett Dickerson (6-foot-3, 245 pounds, junior), Jayme Taylor (6-4, 230, sophomore), Tommy Vitale (6-3, 220, sophomore)

The skinny: Dickerson caught 12 balls for 124 yards last season and brings as a physical presence to the offense, though he plays the role of a more traditional tight end than Vitale. The difficulty in replacing Vitale involves his versatility and durability, so the job will likely belong to a group of players. Taylor missed last season with an injury. Converted defensive end James Prather is an option, and Vitale’s brother Tommy, a linebacker and superback, missed the second half of last season because of injury.

B1G SHOES TO FILL: Dean Lowry, DE

Why: The anchor of the Wildcats’ stout defensive line, Lowry was also a second-team All-Big Ten pick last season after earning honorable-mention recognition in 2014. He started for the majority of three seasons and led Northwestern with 13.5 tackles for loss as a senior among his 52 stops. His ability to impact a game was on display in the Wildcats’ win at Nebraska in October as Lowry registered six tackles behind the line of scrimmage, setting a school record.

Replacement candidates: Ifeadi Odenigbo (6-3, 250, sophomore), Xavier Washington (6-1, 235, junior), Heath Reineke (6-3, 245, sophomore), Joe Gaziano (6-4, 255, freshman), Trent Goens (6-3, 250, freshman)

The skinny: The Wildcats also lose Deonte Gibson opposite Lowry, so we’re grouping together the replacement candidates at both spots. Odenigbo is a former prep All-American and proven asset, evidenced by his five sacks last season, and Washington had 3.5 tackles for loss in a role behind Lowry on the left side of the line. Reineke saw limited time as a reserve in 2015, and the two freshmen redshirted last season after coming to Evanston with solid credentials.

B1G SHOES TO FILL: Nick VanHoose, CB

Why: Another mainstay in the defensive lineup, VanHoose started 10 games as a redshirt freshman in 2012 and never looked back. He was a two-time second-team all-conference pick and earned his reputation as a lockdown cover corner. Last season, VanHoose recorded three interceptions and 12 breakups, both second on the team, to go with his 41 tackles and played a starring role in the Wildcats’ pass defense, which allowed just five touchdown passes -- the lowest figure nationally -- in 13 games.

Replacement candidates: Keith Watkins II (5-11, 180, junior), Montre Hartage (6-0, 180, sophomore)

The skinny: Watkins played considerably in 2015, starting two games and equaling VanHoose with 41 tackles. Watkins figured to earn his stiffest competition to replace VanHoose from Marcus McShepard, but McShepard has moved to receiver. Additionally, former top recruit Parrker Westphal shifted to safety to help replace Traveon Henry. So it’s likely up to Watkins and Hartage, who played a minor role last season, to man the spot opposite returning starter Matthew Harris. Incoming freshman Roderick Campbell Jr. may also push for time in the fall.