Welcome back to Walk The Talk, the weekly mailbag column where I answer all of your questions regarding Northwest Athletics. Last weekend, Northwest football lined up against another team for the first time since Dec. 7, 2019. There were 490 days in between the Bearcats’ last game of the 2019 season and their joint practice with Sioux Falls April 10 in Bearcat Stadium.
The practice, of course, won’t count toward any record books, or really anything at all. It for sure gave all of us a few takeaways, though.
1. Northwest found an answer at running back
After last season, nobody was exactly sure who was going to line up in the backfield alongside junior quarterback Braden Wright.
Two years ago, the Bearcats addressed the position by adding Josh Caldwell, who transferred from MIAA rival Missouri Western for his final season of collegiate football. Caldwell spent a little bit of time with the Kansas City Chiefs during the preseason after he graduated, too.
Last year, Northwest filled answered any questions about the position by, once again, looking toward the transfer portal. That time, the team brought in Justin Rankin, who previously spent a few years at Kent State.
Isaiah Strayhorn split reps with both Caldwell and Rankin, but he graduated last year, too, which left the program with no option but to go with an underclassman or look to the transfer portal for the third time in as many years.
Northwest football chose to do both. The team recruited a three-star running back, too — Tank Young from St. Thomas Aquinas High School.
In the practice against the Cougars, sophomore Robert Rawie — who was two-time all-state out of Liberty High School and recruited directly to Northwest — split first-team reps with Davonte Green. Green, a junior transfer from College of the Sequoias, played in 21 games during his two seasons in Visalia, California.
During that time, Green tallied 1,665 yards rushing and 12 touchdowns on 312 carries.
“Very excited to be here. Glad to be here,” Green said.
Last season as the fourth option in Northwest’s backfield, Rawie compiled 117 yards rushing and two touchdowns on 14 carries. Both scores came in the Bearcats’ 79-0 blowout of MIAA bottom feeder Northeastern State.
The program also added sophomore Jamar Moya-Trimble, a transfer running back from MidAmerica Nazarene.
“None of those guys have ever played, so it’s just kind of figuring out — really not knowing what you’re going to get today,” Northwest offensive coordinator Todd Sturdy said about the new faces in the backfield after the practice. “I thought they competed really hard. … A lot of nice runs.”
2. Braden Wright is developing
There were a lot of times last year when I would provide live updates on Twitter during games last year and was met with people bashing the then-sophomore quarterback. Sure, there are times when quarterbacks are put at the focal point of issues on offense, but I wouldn’t put all that blame on Wright.
The now-junior was named the MIAA Freshman of the Year in 2018, when he compiled 2,596 yards passing and 24 touchdowns while completing 57% of his passes (211-373). He threw seven interceptions, too, but that’s nowhere near the bottom of the MIAA.
Perhaps the biggest, and only, criticism you could make toward the gunslinger is that there wasn’t an eye-glaring difference between his two years as the starter. However, that doesn’t mean it was anywhere close to bad.
Last season, he tallied 2,466 yards passing and 24 touchdowns while completing 53% of his passes. He also threw seven interceptions last year.
It’s pretty eerie how similar his first two seasons were — which still doesn’t mean they were bad — but Sturdy is expecting Wright to blossom this upcoming fall.
“I’m pleased with our passing game. Braden’s done a really good job,” Sturdy said. “I’m really pleased with his development, as far as his movement, his posture within the pocket, his ability to get through a progression. I mean, he threw a ball today — it might have been third down — he hit the fifth guy on his progression. I don’t know if he’s ever gotten past two before this year.”
3. Both sides of the ball will feature new-look skill positions
Wright has to have some good skills around him, and Northwest will have that this fall, but it’s going to look a lot different than it did the last time the Bearcats played a real football game.
Aside from the backfield, which we already talked about, the other skill positions on offensive are going to look pretty different. The receivers that took first-team reps were seniors Imoni Donadelle, Alec Tatum and Kaden Davis. Moya-Trimble, who we mentioned earlier, took a few reps in the slot as well, so that’ll be something to watch for this fall.
Tight end is going to look a little bit different, too, without four-year starter Marqus Andrews, who graduated last spring.
Donadelle shouldn’t be a surprise to anybody who watched the Bearcats last season. In his first year with the program, after spending two seasons at a community college, he had 718 yards receiving and nine touchdowns on 41 receptions.
Tatum shouldn’t be a surprise, either, as he’s held down the slot position since redshirting his first year in Maryville.
“I’m really pleased with the three seniors,” Sturdy said. “Those kids have done a really good job. They’ve gotten better in all facets.”
The backend of the defense is going to look a lot different, too, and we’ll get to the missing pieces in a minute. Against the Cougars, senior J’Ravien Anderson served as the top corner. Senior Dominique Shelton played the opposite side of Anderson. Junior Keilon Hunter — despite being listed as a cornerback — played safety, and redshirt-freshman Cole Elwood was back there with Hunter.
Ed Brown, who transferred from Eastern Illinois before coming down with a mysterious illness, is likely to return this summer. Blake Bayer, who held down the safety position last year for Northwest, is on the roster but doesn’t have a jersey number assigned to him.
After Bayer was named to the NFF Hampshire Honor Society Wednesday afternoon, which is only given to collegiate football players who are done playing, we know he won't be on the gridiron for the 'Cats this fall.
“We’re missing some key ingredients in the backend right now,” Northwest head coach Rich Wright said. “There are some things there that we’ve gotta get sured up.”
4. There will be missing pieces all over
It felt appropriate to segway from the new looks to the reason there will be new looks anyway.
On the offensive side, former starting wideout LaTroy Harper wasn’t at the practice against the Cougars. It makes sense now, too, as he took to Twitter April 13 to announce he’s entering the transfer portal with aspirations of playing collegiate basketball.
In his two seasons and 25 games played at Northwest, Harper had 679 yards receiving and six touchdowns on 43 receptions. Gus Gomez, a contributing receiver, won’t return to the program either.
Defensively, the biggest missing piece is probably going to be defensive back Trey Washington, who decided to graduate this spring and move on to the next chapter of his life.
Last season, Washington had a team-best six interceptions, which was a total good enough for second in the MIAA. Along with that, he had an MIAA-leading 20 pass deflections.
Of course, Bayer's new and informally announced departure from the program will have a massive impact in the defensive backfield, too.
There will be a new leg of the team as well, as former kicker Parker Sampson announced he was entering the transfer portal in 2020. Sampson’s career consisted of a mark of 30-for-45 on field goals, including a career long of 53 yards. People might forget, but I’m not sure if the Bearcats beat Emporia State last season without Sampson, who scored 12 points in a game that Northwest won by 11.
5. The trenches are going to be just fine
I’m not sure if anybody was really worried, but I’m here to tell you not to anyway. Both offensive and defensive lines are going to be perfectly fine this fall.
On offense, Northwest returns All-American senior left tackle Tanner Owens, sophomore center Mitch Goff and senior left guard Gabe Bautz. For the most part, it’s an experienced group, which is pretty ideal for the guys up front.
Those three, along with a rotation of a few other linemen at right guard and right tackle, beat up on the Cougars’ defense all practice.
On defense, it’ll be a pretty similar look to last season, minus Mike Ehlke and Zach Pierce, who both graduated last spring. Junior Zach Howard and sophomore Elijah Green will hold things down at defensive tackle, and seniors Sam Roberts and Noah Williams will anchor both defensive end positions.
“We didn’t prove to them we could stop a bullrush,” one Sioux Falls player said after individual line drills.
So, there’s that. Also, Rich Wright is expecting Roberts — who has been identified as an NFL prospect — to wreak havoc a few months from now.
“Him healthy is going to be scary for a lot of people in the MIAA,” Rich Wright said. “Between him and Zach (Howard) up front, it’s a pretty good nucleus to start 2021 on a positive note with.”