And that's a big deal for Northwestern. The Wildcats' typically heralded offense sputtered in 2006, doomed by coaching mistakes, inconsistency at quarterback and some shoddy line play. Now, despite some questions on defense, nearly all eyes will be on how this unit -- for lack of a less NU-ingrained word -- responds.
Here's a position-by-position breakdown of a unit that finished 92nd nationally last season.
Running back: Two words -- Tyrell Sutton. Instead of asking "Why me?" after a 2006 campaign during which he was grossly underused, the junior now is taking on a stronger, more vocal leadership role, and apparently really impressing coach Pat Fitzgerald in the process. Also, though he had 474 fewer yards in 2006 than in 2005, his yards-per-carry was nearly as strong last year (5.3) as in 2005 (5.9).
Add senior Brandon Roberson (whose injury in 2005 opened the door for Sutton), and NU appears to have as strong a one-two combination as anyone in the Big Ten. The only problem: depth beyond No. 2. Junior Omar Conteh has missed all of spring and only has 12 career carries, senior Nathan Shanks switched to superback and redshirt freshman Stephen Simmons is, like all redshirt freshmen, unproven.
Wide receiver: Where are the stars? Actually, here's a better question: With this unit, who needs 'em? Assuming senior Kim Thompson (broken leg) gets healthy, this unit could go 10 deep with scholarship players. Granted, three of those are redshirt freshmen, but add to those seven diverse, multi-skilled players who all have multiple catches in an NU uniform, and you could have serious matchup problems for an unchanging group of opposing corners.
Junior Ross Lane has emerged as the top player in this group, using his size (6 foot 3) and speed to his advantage. Thompson (6 foot 4) also is tall and fast, while juniors Rasheed Ward and Eric Peterman have shown flashes. Nobody in this group is truly special (yet), but the depth is pretty much unparalleled.
Quarterback: QB? A question? But didn't Bacher clearly show he's ready to take over, navigating NU to two wins in his final three games? Yes. He did. But he also missed the beginning of the season with an injury, and, as mentioned before, missed the beggining of this spring with a different ailment. So durability is a question. As Bacher said himself Tuesday, "You need to learn how to stay healthy."
But that's not all. After the way Fitzgerald and offensive coordinator Garrick McGee handled the quarterback situation last season, this position doesn't look to be 100 percent settled until Bacher takes that first snap against Northeastern ... and takes the first snap against Nevada, too. Sophomore Mike Kafka was the opening-day starter last year, and redshirt freshman Joe Mauro has looked impressive this spring. You never know, but in all likelihood, only injuries will force Bacher out of the lineup -- meaning NU indeed might have its Brett Basanez replacement.
Superback/Tigh end: Hard to call this a weakness when the position traditionally has little impact in NU's spread offense, but if the Cats' bevy of recruits the last two years develops, this actually could turn into a weapon. That includes sophomores Mark Woodsum and Brendan Mitchell (a somewhat-touted recruit in 2006), along with three incoming freshman. Cameron Joplin, who looked like an absolute monster in his highlight tape, could make an immediate impact.
Offensive line: This unit struggled more than any other in 2006. The line lost All-Big Ten right tackle Zach Strief and, more importantly, offensive line coach James Patton (who left for Oklahoma) -- and it showed. The Cats allowed 26 sacks in 2006, compared to 11 the year before. The 2005 Cats rushed for 2,323 yards on a 5.0 average, while the 2006 Cats totaled just 1,705 yards on 4.0 yards per carry. Now, tackle Ryan Keenan and guard Joe Tripodi are gone. Can coach Bret Ingalls and seniors Dylan Thiry and Trevor Rees get this unit to jell? It might be the key to the Cats' success.
... One thing not mentioned above is coaching. After all, NU had most of this talent last season and did very little with it -- instead spending most of the early part of the season with an attack so conservative it would put *insert really conservative Republican here* to shame, and one that seemed to go out of its way to not give Sutton the ball. Will that come back, or will the balanced attack seen late in the season continue into next? It seems that's a question, too, and maybe that's the real key to the Cats' offensive success.