by Chris Johnson (@chrisdjohnsonn)
Preseason practice marks the unofficial entry to another long and eventful college football season. For the first time after a long and—in Northwestern’s case, sour—offseason, Players and coaches convene, pads, helmets and all, to work out the kinks from last season’s failures and prepare for the challenges lying ahead. By this time, last year’s seniors are officially old news, and a new batch of incoming freshmen must be worked into the team dynamic. Spring practice provides a brief preview of what’s to expect in the fall, but preseason camp is when game preparation—implementing schemes, position battles, getting into tip-top shape—begins in earnest.
For NU, preseason camp presents several key questions as the 2012 season looms on the horizon. Despite playing in a school record fourth consecutive bowl game, there were glaring weaknesses on last season’s 6-7 squad, some of them more concerning than others as the Wildcats turn the page to a new season. To give you a preview for this year’s training camp, we’ve come up with five crucial storylines/questions to keep an eye on as we approach September.
Less than four weeks remain before the Wildcats opener: Sat, Sept. 1—Syracuse. What happens over the next four weeks is instrumental to how the Wildcats perform in that all-important season-opener. Stay posted for more preseason coverage as we move closer to game day.
How will Kain Colter fare in his first season as the starting quarterback?
As NU-football related questions go, this one carries huge implications, ones that will be reflected in the Wildcats’ win-loss total. After all, the offense that’s kept NU competitive in the Big Ten in recent seasons demands a multitalented quarterback capable of flinging passes around with sterling accuracy. It also calls for an inventive improviser, someone who can make plays when, say, protection breaks down or receivers jumble routes. We’ve seen Colter do these things in a limited sample size. Last season, against Boston College, his first career start, he completed 17 of 24 passes for 197 yards. Colter led a dazzling second-half comeback at Nebraska with three-touchdowns and 172 all-purpose yards. It remains to be seen how he will perform over the course of an entire season, with opposing defenses concocting game plans specifically to limit his abilities. He’s but one of the many dual-threat quarterbacks in the Big Ten this season, so it’s fair to presume defensive coordinators will be prepared for the challenges he presents.
While Colter flashed great potential—not just as a quarterback, but as an offensive weapon—last season, he was rightly scrutinized for underwhelming arm strength and a share of missed throws. These maladies date back to Colter’s high school days, when a shoulder injury sapped some of his throwing velocity. Colter has since regained much of his arm strength, and he was crisply zipping passes during spring practice, which suggests he may have overcome the injury. He must exhibit that newfound arm strength on a weekly basis in the fall in order to facilitate Mick McCall’s high-octane spread attack. With a cadre of explosive receivers by his side, Colter is positioned favorably for a breakout campaign. If he can convince Fitzgerald and McCall in preseason camp that he’s accurate enough to warrant a high number of pass attempts, then the offense may resemble the Persa-led outfit of yesteryear. A poor throwing display will force a run-heavy offense detrimental to the Wildcats’ batch of big-play receivers. Colter’s athleticism and running ability are not in question. It’s his arm that will dictate the complexion and success rate of NU’s offense this season.
Who will step up on the defensive line?
The loss of Vince Browne and Jack DiNardo to graduation this spring brings massive turnover to this year’s line as the Wildcats search for new blood to fill their shoes. Sophomore Chance Carter has made major strides this offseason and capped an impressive spring practice slate with a game-winning, “17-point”—according to coach Fitzgerald’s rule modifications—pick six in the spring game. Carter promises to be a disruptive force in the trenches and a stout counter against any run game. As it stands today, Carter seems to have a slight edge over junior Will Hampton, the more experienced but less-talented player. Redshirt freshman Deonte Gibson will make a strong push for a starting spot at end, though the more likely scenario is a pass-rushing specialty role where he’ll be used mostly on third downs. Senior tackle Brian Arnfelt and ends Tyler Scott and Quentin Williams offer a collective air of veteran maturity that will help guide the younger players down a path of success.
With DiNardo and Arnfelt manning the starting tackle spots last season, the Wildcats were ill-prepared for power run games. One player can’t fix that deficiency by himself, though a powerful and active presence like Carter will infuse a jolt of energy into a lackluster line. If he can use his performance in spring practice as a template for preseason camp—where the stakes are unquestionably higher—he should get the starting nod over Hampton. Gibson, meanwhile, explodes off the edge and attacks blockers with a dazzling array of twists, spins and bullrushes. Applying pressure on quarterbacks will be instrumental for the Wildcats’ defense as they try and compensate for an inexperienced secondary. Gibson can be deployed on obvious passing downs as a change-of-pace speed rusher. Another player to keep an eye on during preseason camp is Anthony Battle. The junior end has only played in three games over the past two seasons, but he could be a key reserve behind Williams and Browne. It’ll be interesting to see who emerges victorious in the d-line training camp position battles. Whichever four-man ensemble takes the field week 1, this year’s d-line rotation will remain in flux, with up-and-coming players battling their veteran brethren for meaningful snaps throughout the season.
Will the secondary improve from last season?
Simple statistics normally don’t tell the whole story, yet this simple metric does a pretty good job summing up the secondary’s performance last season. 230. 4—That’s the average number of yards yielded through the air per game by the Wildcats last season, the most of any Big Ten team. Fielding a weak secondary is, by all accounts, a bad thing, yet it can be overcome if mistakes are avoided in crucial late-game situations. Last year’s group was malfunctional, disjointed and altogether weak. Yet it was even worse when it mattered most. The Wildcats got burned through the air in many a fourth quarter, crippling stretches of performances that opened the door for second half comebacks and heart-wrenching defeats. Easily the most painful memory from last season brings NU fans back to Champaign, on October 1, when the Fighting Illini erased an 11-point fourth quarter lead en route to a 85-35 victory thanks in large part to Nathan Scheelhaase’s 391 yards and three touchdown passes. The scary part is that last year’s secondary included Brian Peters and Jordan Mabin, two All-conference type players with great instincts and athletic ability. More importantly, their leadership qualities were invaluable, the way they commanded respect in the huddle and delegated assignments all over the field.
Without Peters and Mabin directing traffic, this year’s group could take a huge step back. That’s a dreadful forecast to stomach, given the wretched state of affairs in the defensive backfield last season. Yet it’s a distinct possibility nonetheless. Consider this: Ibraheim Campbell is the most experienced of the group, having logged one season as a starting safety. Campbell led the team with 100 tackles last season, but often struggled in coverage. He will be charged with filling the massive leadership void left by Mabin and Peters. Campbell is a strong player with a bright future, and he provided a glimpse of his newfound leadership traits during spring practice, but its unclear whether he can command respect from his fellow defensive backs—most of them juniors and seniors—on game day. Junior Davion Fleming and senior Jared Carpenter are the frontrunners for the other starting safety spot, with Carpenter holding a slight edge based on experience and schematic knowledge. The starting cornerback spots likely will feature two players with not a single snap of Big Ten football experience between them. Redshirt freshman Nick VanHoose recovered well from a hamstring injury last season and has the inside track at starting duties, while Stanford transfer Quinn Evans should secure the other during preseason camp. Senior Demetrius Dugar should challenge VanHoose in his farewell season as a Wildcat. All in all, the secondary is younger and less talented than last year’s group. The upshot is that progress is almost inevitable. Remember, NU trotted out the worst secondary in the Big Ten last season. Minor improvement—posting a sub-215 yards per game allowed average?—is a reasonably fair expectation.
What’s the best-case scenario for Kyle Prater?
The Wildcats got some good news last week when the NCAA announced that Prater, who had been waiting for a ruling on his hardship transfer waiver, will be eligible to play this season after transferring from USC. A former five-star prospect coming out of Proviso West (IL) high school, Prater chose the Trojans over a handful of enticing offers, but toiled in the depth-chart cellar as Robert Woods and Marqise Lee, arguably the nation’s best wide receiver duo, easily outclassed the injury-riddled Prater. He filed the hardship waiver claiming family reasons prompted the move to NU, though it’s fair to ask whether his unfavorable position in the Trojans’ receiver pecking order played into his decision. That’s all for naught now, as Prater looks to embark on the second chapter of his college football career, one he hopes will end much differently than the last. We got our first glimpse of Prater’s unique talents during spring practice. Based on what I saw in highly-regulated seven-on-seven drills, Prater is every bit the five-star studded freak of nature we expected. At 6-5, he wins jump ball battles with pretty much any defender daring to match him one-on-one. And while he’s not the quickest, shiftiest athlete, Prater beats defenders with great straight-line speed, strength and body control.
This offseason, Prater developed a strong rapport with Colter, his roommate. Prater offers a long, wide target for the oft-erratic Colter, not to mention a great end-zone threat. While he may not lead the Wildcats in receiving yards or touchdowns this season, Prater will have a huge impact. When you’re a 6-5, 215-pound wideout with limitless talent and upside, defensive backs simply can’t afford to leave you unguarded. Prater more often than not should draw double coverage, which opens up space for Colter to hit open receivers. So even if he’s not getting the ball, the threat Prater poses will facilitate a more explosive passing attack. Prater has but one six-yard reception on his cumulative college football resumé. Enhancing that meager track record is the long-term goal, but there will be growing pains early on as he strives to comprehend a new offensive system and works to establish a balanced existence with his fellow wideouts. The Prater effect may not take full force until next season, but his addition promises another talented playmaker for an already loaded receiving corps. Colter will come to appreciate a player with this talent, size and overall ability, particularly near the goal line. Prater’s ceiling is incalculably high, but he won’t quite reach his potential in year one.
Can the offensive line protect Colter?
Replacing Benn Burkett and Al Netter, two four-year starters, may prove difficult for a youthful offensive line with several major question marks heading into preseason camp. While Patrick Ward will replace Netter at left tackle, it remains to be seen who will emerge on the right side. Redshirt freshman Shane Mertz and sophomore Paul Jorgensen are versatile and athletic blockers with immense upside, but the starting job could go to senior Chuck Porcelli, a 6-7, 315 pound behemoth who provides experience and stability. Senior Neal Dieters and converted superback Jack Konopka are the early frontrunners at right guard, with Konopka, who brings energy and athleticism, holding a slight edge. Senior Brian Mulroe, a gritty mauler along the interior, is locked in at left guard. After earning honorable mention All-Big Ten honors last season, Mulroe is ready to elevate his game while shouldering the considerable leadership duties left behind by Netter and Burkett. Yet the most daunting challenge of any offensive lineman belongs to center Brandon Vitabile, a precocious talent who must improve his leadership and communication skills this season. Vitabile was named to the Rimington Award watch list earlier this summer for his unexpected rise to prominence last season. With a year of experience in McCall’s spread under his belt, Vitabile commands greater responsibility at the line of scrimmage. Reading blitz packages and tweaking blocking schemes is the easy part; Vitabile is the anchor on this year’s revamped line. Any appreciable regression could spell doom for the Wildcats offense.
The line appeared slow and fragmented during the spring game as the defense found gaps in their ineffective blocking schemes. Even with a hyper-mobile quarterback like Colter, substandard protection will severely hamper NU’s offense. Colter, an inexperienced quarterback, needs adequate protection in order to survey the field and pinpoint receivers. Mulroe and Vitabile need to establish a strong base from which the line can progress and develop as the season rolls along. For years the offense counted as a baseline expectation consistent production from Burkett and Netter. That continuity, leadership, cohesion—it no longer exists. But it can be rehashed in different ways and among different players this season all in the course of forming a strong pass protecting unit.