With Northwestern trailing Texas A & M, 30-15, and less than six minutes remaining in the Meineke Car Care Bowl, Riley found himself in an unusual position. All season, he had paid his dues in practice, improving his speed, range and tackling, finally solidifying his backup spot behind starting outside (Will) linebacker Bryce McNaul. But on this day, as NU attempted to break their 64-year bowl drought in a valiant, fourth-quarter comeback effort, Riley became an offensive weapon.
The sophomore caught a two-yard touchdown pass, the first of his young career. Though it ultimately failed to springboard the Wildcats past the Aggies, the score reduced the deficit to 8, and it proved that Riley's days as a linebacker were all but over.
He enters 2012 as one of the favorites to takeover NU's unique position, blessed with the size (6-3, 220 lbs), speed and grit to fill the gaping void left by the NFL-bound Drake Dunsmore. Riley has the hybrid, multi-purpose skill set demanded of NU SB's.
Watkins filled in three games for an injured Dan Persa in 2010, and while filling in for the NCAA Division 1 all-time pass percentage leader would be difficult for just about anyone, he proved incapable of handling the position altogether, let alone replacing a legend. The 6-6, 245-lb signal caller completed just 36 of 70 passes, threw five interceptions and fell prey to two consecutive bludgeonings against Illinois (48-27) and Wisconsin (70-23).
He found himself buried on the QB depth chart heading into 2011, at which point he requested a position change. Affectionately known as "WatkinsTall" on Twitter, the sophomore made the switch to superback, impressed coach Fitzgerald with his soft hands and athleticism and threw himself into the mix for playing time in 2012.
At this point, it's tough to say whether Watkins will play a significant role this season at SB, but rest assured, Fitzgerald and his staff will find a way to put his size, agility and high football IQ to good use somewhere.
As a true freshman last season, Szott didn't see any action. He's made huge strides in spring practice and thrust himself into the conversation for playing time this season.
The top superback of NU's 2012 recruiting class, Schwaba can fly up the depth chart with an impressive showing in preseason camp. The 6-5, 235-lb Pittsburgh native, at the least, provides depth at the position.
"It's no secret that there aren't a lot of superbacks," Schwaba told PurpleWildcats.com. "Anything can happen when I get on campus. Coach Fitzgerald told me in the offseason to prepare like I'm going to be the starter."
Another 2012 signee, Vitale enters preseason camp with a chance to impress coaches and earn some playing time. Even if he can't contribute right away, Vitale has high hopes for both himself and his team. "I wanna take the team hopefully to a Big Ten Championship and some bowl games throughout the years," Vitale told PurpleWildcats.com on signing day. "I think I can bring a lot of leadership to the team, which will also help us out."
At 6-7, 285-lbs, Smith is the largest SB on NU's roster. By virtue of size alone, he should be able to have some kind of tangible, meaningful impact on NU's 2012 campaign, right?
Grade: B –
Replacing a consensus First team All-Big Ten selection and one of the most productive pass-catchers in school history was never going to be easy. While it's highly unlikely any of Dunsmore's possible replacements can develeop into reliable, go-to receiving threats this season, the Wildcats boast enough quality depth to ensure the drop off won't approach potentially disastrous levels.