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Northwestern Scrimmage Notes: Piecing Together Playing Time, Position Battles

by Kevin Trahan (@k_trahan)

Today's Northwestern scrimmage didn't provide much information for the upcoming season. It was mostly a mixture of reserve players, with the occasional possible starter mixed in. We got a brief look at some young guys who would received significant playing time, but mostly it was just a way for coach Pat Fitzgerald to get a look at some of the younger guys he hasn't seen a lot of in the spotlight.

However, Fitzgerald and the players gave some valuable information following practice, and as Camp Kenosha concludes, we have a better idea of which younger guys could see the field and how some of the position battles are shaping up. Nothing is set in stone, but with the season just two weeks away, we can make some more educated assumptions as to who will start and who will receive significant playing time come kick off at Syracuse. Here's what we can piece together at the conclusion of the Wildcats' week in Kenosha.

The "No-Play" List

A lot of Northwestern's first team guys sat out the scrimmage and "no-play" status typically implies that a player has earned a starting role. The most surprising no-plays were cornerback Nick VanHoose, defensive tackle Chance Carter and running back Venric Mark. Here's the full rundown (at least, who I noticed on the sideline). Not many surprises:

Kain Colter, David Nwabuisi, Ibraheim Campbell, Demetrius Fields, Rashad Lawrence, Brian Arnfelt, Tyler Scott, Venric Mark, Chance Carter, Brian Mulroe, Brandon Vitabile, Nick VanHoose

Playing time for the true freshmen

Fitzgerald said this is the time of camp where they try to figure out who can redshirt. He made clear that they won't burn a redshirt just for a guy to play on special teams and they will involve the players in the decision, as well. For him, there are three different levels:

"The guys who are going to redshirt, I've got a pretty good clue on," Fitzgerald said. "There's that group we've got I like to call the Top Gun flight deck kind of guys, like Tom Cruise after we lost Goose, he's sitting there waiting to get shot off into the fight — we've got a big group in there. And then we've got a couple of guys who I think, if we had to make a decision if we were playing this Saturday, would play."

Highly-touted recruit Ifeadi Odenigbo is in the "flight deck" category. Fitzgerald talked about the pros and cons to playing him now and waiting — early playing time for young players can be valuable and it can help the team, but it could be a waste to play him now at defensive end when he weighs around 235 (undersized for a Big Ten defensive end) and not have him as a fifth-year player when he could weigh around 265. That will be an interesting storyline to follow for the remainder of fall camp and it's a "debate" that extends to a number of other freshmen in this highly-touted class that Fitzgerald said has played "as advertised."

The two guys that Fitzgerald placed in the group that would play if there were a game this Saturday were defensive end Dean Lowry and superback Dan Vitale. Lowry has had a good camp and was impressive again Saturday. Vitale is more of a surprise, as many prognosticators thought fellow incoming superback recruit Jack Schwaba would be the prize for that position group in this class. Schwaba could still play — he's more of a traditional tight end, so the play different roles — but the fact that Vitale was mentioned in that top group by Fitzgerald is impressive. He's was praised by fellow superback Tim Riley for how athletic he is and could be a versatile player for NU this fall.

Position battles taking shape

While there is still a lot to be decided and some battles — particularly the secondary and superback — won't be decided until game week and nothing is set in stone, players have begun to emerge in some of the jumbled position battles. For a full look at what the two-deep could look like head to PurpleWildcats.com (subscriber only). However, here's a look at three areas that are looking a lt more clear than they were at the beginning of the week.

Running back

Perhaps nobody has had a bigger rise this camp than Venric Mark at running back, and it's especially impressive given that Mark was a wide receiver looking for a role last fall. He was a "no-play" today and after practice, he said that, while nothing is set in stone, coach Matt MacPherson told the running backs that he would be the starter if the season started today.

That's a big surprise considering what the depth chart was thought to be before camp and there are still a lot of talented players behind Mark that should received significant snaps. Mike Trumpy is back (he had 2 carries for 7 yards today, though it means nothing) and should vie to be a significant part of the offense. Treyvon Green, who had a good spring, was injured during practice last week and didn't practice in Kenosha. However, he should be fine for the season. Then there's talented freshman Malin Jones, who could end up playing, but could also redshirt.

Mark certainly won't have a huge workload, carries-wise, but the fact he's clearly impressed the coaches this fall and will play a large role in the offense during the season.

Offensive Line

There were a couple of no-plays on the offensive line — Brandon Vitabile at center and Brian Mulroe at left guard — but those guys were clear starters anyway, as is Patrick Ward at left tackle. The main position battles were at right tackle and right guard and it appears that today's starters — sophomore Jack Konopka and redshirt freshman Matt Frazier, respectively — will start at those positions. Expect a number of other players to be in the mix for playing time, including senior Chuck Porcelli, sophomore Paul Jorgensen and redshirt freshman Shane Mertz.

Frazier just started to emerge this camp and has received a lot of time with the first team. Konopka was a superback last fall, a guard in the spring and an offensive tackle this fall. Fitzgerald said he has to be ready to play both sides, presumably as a back-up to Ward at left tackle, as well. That means there will be a lot of playing time to go around at right tackle and there likely will be a rotation of sorts at both positions on the right side of the line.

Secondary

One of the no-plays — safety Ibraheim Campbell — was a no-brainer. However, cornerback Nick VanHoose earning that status was a bit more of a surprise. He was considered the likely starter even before fall camp, but it seems that he is now fully locked into that starting spot.

Today, the four "starters" on the field were fighting for two starting spots. The two starting corners in the scrimmage were Daniel Jones and Demetrius Dugar and the safeties were Davion Fleming and Jimmy Hall. Dugar looks pretty good bet to start at corner, with Jones, Quinn Evans and Jarrell Williams backup him and VanHoose up. The battle for the second safety spot is the hardest to predict, but as of now, Fleming may have Hall beat out, with Traveon Henry, Hunter Bates, and Jared Carpenter in the mix for playing time, as well. However, that could absolutely change by game week.

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With practice wrapped up in Kenosha, the Wildcats return to Evanston for practice on Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday and "Meet the Team Night" on Friday. Then there is no practice Saturday and the following week is game week. Make sure to stay with Inside NU for more information on how the roster is shaping up and be sure to subscribe to PurpleWildcats.com for insider information on recruiting and the entire two-deeps.