- Associated Press - Thursday, August 10, 2017

EVANSTON, Ill. (AP) - Northwestern boasts one of the Big Ten’s best running backs and a quarterback with an eye on the NFL. So why was coach Pat Fitzgerald a little edgy this preseason?

Well, he remembers a slow start last season.

“We needed to get our edge back together, and the guys realized that,” Fitzgerald said.

Coming off a 10-win season in 2015, Northwestern dropped three of its first four games on the way to a 7-6 record. The Wildcats beat Pittsburgh in the Pinstripe Bowl for just the program’s third bowl victory - and second since Fitzgerald took over in 2006.

The strong finish couldn’t wipe out the sour start, and that’s something they hope to avoid this time.

With running back Justin Jackson closing in on the school’s all-time rushing record and quarterback Clayton Thorson an NFL prospect, the Wildcats could challenge for the Big Ten West title.

That would be another big accomplishment under Fitzgerald, who was rewarded in April with a new contract that runs through the 2026 season. He comes into his 12th season with a 77-62 record and seven bowl appearances.

Here are some things to look for, starting with the opener against Nevada on Sept. 2:


With more combined carries and catches than any other player in a Power Five conference over the last three seasons, Jackson sure has been a workhorse for Northwestern. He is about to become the Wildcats’ all-time leading rusher. Second with 4,129 yards, he enters his senior season needing 357 to break Damien Anderson’s school record. He also has a chance to join Wisconsin great Ron Dayne as the only Big Ten players to run for 1,000 or more all four years.


Thorson got to pick the brains of some quarterbacks who know a thing or two about the NFL. Thorson served as a counselor at the Manning Passing Academy in Thibodaux, Louisiana, in June and picked up a few tips from Peyton and Eli. A strong junior year and he just might be ready to turn pro. But there are more immediate concerns for him.

“I’m so focused on our team and winning,” he said. “Whether it’s this year, next year, the Lord has a good plan in store. Right now I’m here, and it’s the only thing I’m thinking about.”

No Wildcats quarterback has been drafted in the first round since Hall of Famer Otto Graham went to Detroit with the No. 4 overall pick in 1944. Since then, none has gone higher than the fourth round. Thorson made a big leap as a sophomore, passing for 3,182 yards and a school-record 22 touchdowns. As a freshman, he had 1,522 yards and seven TDs.


Northwestern has a big hole to fill at receiver now that Austin Carr is in the NFL. He led the Big Ten last season in yards receiving (1,247), receptions (90) and touchdowns (12).

“No one player is going to replace Austin,” Fitzgerald said. “He’s too good of an athlete. But we can be successful with a group of receivers who are dependable if not dominant.”

That group is led by Flynn Nagel (40 catches, 447 yards and two touchdowns last season) and superback Garrett Dickerson - second on the team with five TD catches in 2016. Oregon transfer Jalen Brown is also in the mix.


The Wildcats have another big void at linebacker after Anthony Walker Jr. decided to turn pro following his junior year. All he did last season was finish second on the team with 105 tackles and lead Northwestern with four forced fumbles, giving him eight in his career. With Walker gone, sophomore Nathan Fox and promising freshman Paddy Fisher will try to fill the void. Northwestern is also missing a key piece on the defensive line, with Ifeadi Odenigbo gone. He led the team with 10 sacks last season to finish his career second in program history with 23 1/2.


Northwestern will need to be ready, particularly for conference play. The Wildcats’ first two Big Ten games are possibly their toughest on the schedule - at Wisconsin on Sept. 30 and home against Penn State on Oct. 7.


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