by Chris Johnson (@chrisdjohnsonn)
The annual one-week preseason trip to Kenosha has officially come to a close. Northwestern capped its training sojourn on Saturday with an intra-squad scrimmage featuring mostly reserve and backup players, with starters resting under Fitzgerald’s designated “no-play” status tag. The week provided some new interesting storylines, while altering the course of other ongoing developments. Competition raged as several personnel quandaries took center stage, but few definitive resolutions were reached. While some players stepped up during the week and made a strong claim for starting spots, others regressed in their efforts to remain atop the depth chart. There were other notable storylines, too—developments that will influence the Wildcats’ team dynamic, both mental and physical, as they prepare for their season-opener at Syracuse on Sept. 1.
InsideNU was on hand for most of the action, and after culling our collective knowledge, observations and notes, we came to a consensus on five significant talking points from NU’s week away. In no particular order, below you will find the results of our deliberations.
Venric Marc’s emergence at running back
With a proven track record of success as an electrifying return man, Venric Mark appears primed to bring the speed, agility and explosiveness he regularly demonstrates on run-backs to the offensive side of the ball. The running back position was a huge question mark entering preseason camp, but Marc’s rather unexpected ascension has added some clarity to an increasingly muddled tailback pecking order. Treyvon Green seemed the most logical candidate to seize the top spot, but a frightening injury—Green is expected to make a full recovery in time for week 1—sustained during last Friday’s practice has stalled his preseason preparation. Mike Trumpy has finally shaken off lingering a lingering knee injury, though it’s fair to wonder, as is so often the case with severe ligament tears, whether he can sustain his burst, lateral quickness over the course of a 12-game season.
The significance of those questions has been tempered somewhat by Mark’s ascension. Green, Trumpy and true freshman Malin Jones (depending on whether or not he redshirts) will serve as fantastic complements to Mark’s quickness and agility in tight spaces. He lacks prototypical size (5-8, 175 pounds), but Mark is a powerful runner whose low center of gravity makes him a tough matchup, especially as he winds through and around larger but slower defensive linemen. After lining up as a slot receiver early in the season, Mark became a more prominent piece on offense after switching to tailback. He recorded 104 yards at an impressive 6.9 yards per carry clip, including a dazzling 21-scamper at Indiana. Mark’s carry workload should increase this season—he finished with just 13 carries in 2011—but it’s unlikely he’ll develop into a true bellcow back. It seems logical Mark will see the bulk of his carries on tosses, stretches and zone-read plunges, while Trumpy and Green will serve as more conventional, between-the-tackles runners.
The one major concern with Mark’s increased offensive role is that the wear-and-tear could detract from his efforts on special teams. When the Wildcats struggle to move the ball offensively, Mark’s returns often provide favorable field position, not to mention a reinvigorating spark capable of prompting more energetic and proactive execution on offense. If his work at running back somehow saps his productivity as a return man, coach Fitzgerald and his staff may need to find ways to split his carries and save his energy for special teams work. In any case, Mark appears to have found a new home on offense. And given the way he’s produced as a return man, getting Mark the ball more often in important situations as an undeniably positive development for the Wildcats—even if there’s some regression in his return game.
New faces along the offensive line
Revamping the offensive line after losing four-year starters Al Netter and Ben Burkett to graduation loomed large in the Wildcats’ preseason preparation efforts, and Kenosha may have resolved much of the uncertainty over who will fill the two-deep depth spots at each position. Left tackle Patrick Ward, left guard Brian Mulroe and center Brandon Vitabile were near-locks at their respective positions before training camp, but the right side of the line was far less settled. The competition was fierce, and multiple players took snaps with the first team, but two players have distinguished themselves as likely starters come week 1.
Converted superback Jack Konopka impressed at right tackle after lining up at guard during spring practice. He lacks experience at the position, but Konopka’s athleticism and quick hands are well-suited for the demands of the position. An active blocking force, Konopka slides to thwart speedy edge rushers but also boasts the strength to engage stronger defenders. Redshirt freshman Shane Mertz is an intriguing reserve option, with excellent footwork and technique to go along with an enormous 6-8, 285-pound frame (In spring practice, Fitzgerald came up with an appropriate nickname for the gargantuan tackle: “S.S. Mertz”). Mertz may also spend some time at guard. Another player likely to provide depth at either tackle spot is sophomore Paul Jorgensen. He played in 11 games last season and has made significant strides throughout spring practice and in the weight room. True freshman Eric Olson is another player to keep an eye on, having impressed at tackle throughout preseason workouts.
The current leader at right guard is arguably the most surprising personnel shakeup of the preseason. Though he developed a reputation as a strong and physical lineman in scout team workouts last season, it was nonetheless surprising to observe Matt Frazier seize prime positioning at right guard. He arrived at preseason camp in great shape and—after redshirting in 2011—with a year of personal development, mental and physical, under his belt. Before his meteoric rise atop the depth chart, the general expectation was that Frazier would play behind Vitabile at center. His impressive performance has likely earned him a starting spot alongside the man he was supposed to be backing-up. Seniors Chuck Porcelli and Neil Deiters will challenge Frazier for playing time, but the redshirt freshman looks stronger, quicker and altogether better-equipped to handle the position. Porcelli can double at tackle as well.
The quasi-rebuilt offensive line has exceeded expectations in camp, and it’s certainly flashed the potential to surpass last year’s spotty production. Ward, Mulroe and Vitabile have proven reliable against Big Ten competition. The two newcomers—Frazier and Konopka—have yet to play their new positions outside of practice environments. Which counts as a legitimate concern, even if Frazier and Konopka can channel their practice performance on gameday. Still, if either player struggles, the Wildcats have a batch of talented reserves. The line will have a decidedly different look than last year’s group, but the new blood should handle the challenges ahead with poise and congeal with their more established left-side brethren to form a sturdy wall of protection around quarterback Kain Colter.
Ongoing competition in the secondary
With just one starter returning from last season, the secondary has received an offseason makeover. Unlike most every other position battle, the three open spots in the secondary remain huge question marks. Ibraheim Campbell will start at safety; this, we know. Three players—sophomore Jimmy Hall, junior Davion Fleming and true freshman Traveon Henry—are the frontrunners for the other safety job, though veterans Hunter Bates and Jared Carpenter will compete as well. Hall and Fleming played during Saturday’s scrimmage, and neither player was particularly impressive. Hall, a converted wide receiver, plays with great speed and power, a randy, dynamic athlete who covers lots of space in the defensive backfield. Fleming has more experience, plus a better overall understanding of defensive schemes and principles. While he lacks Hall’s athleticism, Fleming’s instinctual play and high football IQ are high priorities for coordinator Mike Hankwitz. The wildcard here is Henry, a highly-touted recruit out of Pine Crest (FL) high school. He flashed great speed and tackling ability during camp and he could beat out his older competitors and join Campbell in a youthful but highly talented safety tandem. Fleming is the leader in the clubhouse, but the situation remains fluid, and either Hall or Henry could surpass him on the depth chart by week 1.
Given the way NU struggled to contain opposing wide receivers last year, cornerback play could make or break its pass defensive efforts this season. After starring throughout spring practice, redshirt freshman Nick VanHoose validated that performance in preseason camp. Barring injury or other unforeseen circumstances, he should be the starter this season. The other corner spot remains a bit of a mystery. Stanford transfer Quinn Evans, who struggled with injury during his four years with the Cardinal, chose to play out his final year of eligibility at NU, presumably expecting to start right away. It now appears as if Evans may begin the reason as a back-up. Senior Demetrius Dugar, following a strong and productive offseason, has surged ahead of Evans. The fifth-year senior made the most of his opportunity last season in two starts against Iowa and Penn State. He recorded six tackles and an interception against the Hawkeyes and three tackles against Penn State. Dugar missed three of the final five games of the season with an injury, but worked hard this offseason and now looks poised for a strong farewell year. Evans and redshirt freshman Jarrell Williams provide depth at both corner spots and it’s likely that one, if not both, will start at least one game this season.
Despite all the new faces (and a hugely worrisome lack of experience), the secondary has the chance to remake its image after allowing a league worst 230.4 pass yards per game average last season. The losses of Brian Peters and Jordan Mabin are major concerns: not just for competitive reasons, but for leadership, energy and collective toughness. This year’s group, on the whole, may be more talented than last year, which—even with just one returning starter—means it could trump the woeful pass defense efforts of 2011.
True freshmen rise to the occasion
When Fitzgerald signed his 2012 class in February, the general consensus was that the group of 21 was the best in NU’s history. So far, the true freshmen have lived up to that billing. It was hardly a surprise that Ifeadi Odenigbo—a four-star defensive end from Centerville (OH) and arguably the most decorated pledge in the Wildcats relatively ho-hum recruiting history—came as advertised, with superb first-step explosiveness and underrated power. As he noted on his Twitter account over the weekend, Odenigbo has added weight since arriving on campus, meaning the one factor preventing a true freshman season—lack of size—is no longer a huge concern. But Fitzgerald hasn’t made a decision on Odenigbo’s status this season. While he certainly could provide help as a speedy edge rusher, the more sensible approach may involve a redshirt year, where Odenigbo could learn the playbook, add even more weight and return next season as a likely starter with four years of peak-physical condition to wreak havoc on opposing quarterbacks. His situation will be fascinating to observe as we approach the start of the upcoming season.
The balancing act that is redshirting and immediate true freshman deployment is a complex endeavor, no matter how talented or skilled the player in question. Yet two players appear locked in to forego their redshirt seasons: defensive end Dean Lowry and superback Dan Vitale. At 6-6, 230 pounds, Lowry is an imposing physical presence, armed with the speed and strength to beat opposing tackles and attack the quarterback. Throughout the week he impressed coaches with his athleticism, drive and relentless motor. Lowry won’t start this season, but he should see plenty of meaningful snaps as a pass-specific edge rusher, functioning much in the same way as redshirt freshman end Deonte Gibson. Vitale, who played defensive end in high school, has wowed coaches with great athleticism and instinctual play. His seamless transition to superback has been remarkable, especially when you consider the complexities of the position. The superback position this season will likely feature a mix of two or three players, and Vitale should remain a constant in that shuffling rotation. Fellow freshman Jack Schwaba, a higher-ranked recruit, has been thoroughly outplayed by Vitale. Another player to watch is Henry, who could be a key depth guy at safety.
On paper, the 2012 class had the makings of a program-changing group, a limitless amount of talent inhabiting its ranks. The hype was well deserved, or at least it looks that way based on our miniscule training camp sample size. Even the players who don’t play in 2012 have made strong impressions with their hard work and positive attitudes. If these players continue down their current developmental trajectories, NU could reap the rewards of its recruiting success as early as next season, when the majority of the class will return from its redshirt year. That maturation and personal growth will stick with this young group as they immerse themselves within the program and prepare for a successful four-year on-field stint.
Ibraheim Campbell and David Nwabuisi take on leadership roles
One of the primary points of emphasis on defense this preseason after a year with countless communication breakdowns was, well, talking—more often, louder and with greater purpose and specificity. It’s a collective effort that requires everybody buying in, but a strong vocal leader can initiate the chatter by setting an example for teammates. Campbell and Nwabuisi are talking it up in practice and team workouts, and the defense has taken notice. In a post-Saturday scrimmage interview with PurpleWildcats.Com’s Chris Emma, sophomore linebacker Colin Ellis talked about leadership on his side of the ball. “David Nwabuisi is very vocal on defense,” Ellis said. “Ibraheim Campbell has also stepped into the role of being a leader on defense.
That Nwabuisi has elevated his leadership responsibilities is no huge surprise. After winning a starting spot at outside linebacker last season, his vocal command grew with his on-field production. In spring practice, Nwabuisi’s progression, both on and off the field, continued, and with it his leadership presence. As the Wildcats prepare for the upcoming season, the senior outside linebacker is stressing increased communication within the defense. While he only has one year of starting experience, Nwabuisi commands respect from his teammates and provides a veteran air of maturity to guide the younger players through a long and grueling season. His importance to this year’s defense can’t be understated; Nwabuisi is vital to this team as a leader just as much as he is a dynamic and versatile outside linebacker.
For Campbell, ordering teammates and calling out assignments represent new challenges. It was just last year that Campbell, who won a starting safety spot alongside Peters out of preseason camp, was the secondary’s youngest regular. He earned respect over the course of last season and ended up as the team’s leading tackler. But after losing Peters, someone needed to seize leadership responsibilities in a secondary that lacked cohesion and unity last season. Campbell has shouldered that burden, and as the only returning starter, he needs to operate with the same vocal and energetic charisma as his graduated former teammate. He has met the challenge head on, pushing his teammates in team workouts and inspiring greater levels of performance. The difficult part is sustaining that proactive role in game situations, where Campbell will need to direct traffic and relay coverages to the other DBs. If Campbell can foster the same competitive and upbeat environment seen in spring practice and preseason camp during games, the secondary can work to remedy last year’s flaws with a greater communicative understanding and an unquestioned leader rallying the troops in critical game situations.
The defense received the lions share of the criticism for last year’s struggles in conference play, and for good reason: the Wildcats ranked 10th in scoring defense (27.7 ppg allowed) and 11th in total defense (407.7 ypg allowed). A comprehensive assessment of whether this year’s group marks an on-field improvement must be delayed until the end of league play. The numbers may improve, remain constant or decline; at this early stage, predicting anything beyond “better” or “worse”—in the most general sense—is impractical. What’s encouraging is the leadership structure within the defense, the way Campbell and Nwabuisi have cemented their positions as effective figures of authority. It’s too early to guess how the unit will perform against opposing teams, but the defense seems to have the intangible makeup of a successful group.