by Kevin Trahan (@k_trahan)
After an eight month break from football — with a slight taste during the sprint — Northwestern's fall camp begins Monday to officially kick off college football in Evanston. There are plenty of questions to be answered and position battles to be decided in the coming month before the season begins in Syracuse less than a month from now. InsideNU will have coverage throughout fall camp, but we start you off with a primer over the next two days, giving you everything you need to know about the Wildcats heading into the season.
This section — five key players — is the second part in a four-part series that will wrap up tomorrow with the top position battles and the five true freshmen who are most likely to see the field. Also check out the first part in the series, five burning questions for the fall. But without further ado, here are the five players that may hold the keys to NU's fortune this season.
Kain Colter, QB
Obviously the quarterback on any team holds the keys to their team's success, especially if that quarterback is young. There's a lot of unknown when you put a young quarterback on the field, but for NU, that unknown is a little less of a burden. Although Colter is technically not a returning starter, he's had plenty of experience starting at QB, and he's played a lot in games he has not started. The question is whether he can transition last year's success into 2012 when he takes on a full-time role.
What we know for sure about Colter is he's the best athlete NU has had at quarterback in a long time, even if not the best pure quarterback. He's deceivingly quick and more elusive than Dan Persa was at quarterback, and his versatility is clear from his numbers last year — 673 passing yards, 654 rushing yards and 466 receiving yards. Colter joked after the Indiana game that he wanted to have a "100-100-100 game" (100 yards in each offensive category). But now that he's a full-time quarterback, his team will need his passing yard total to rise, even if it causes the other totals to fall.
Colter's progression as a passer figures to be the biggest X-factor for NU this year. While he will still be productive on the ground — likely more productive than Persa was — he has to improve in the passing game and make the big throws at the end of games. He improved in that area toward the end of the season — especially against Nebraska — but must be able to do that on a consistent basis. His ability to make those clutch passes will the the key to a couple games this season and could ultimately decided whether this season will be a success or disappointment.
Patrick Ward, OT
Despite having veteran players Al Netter and Ben Burkett in addition Patrick Ward, Brian Mulroe and impressive young center Brandon Vitabile, Northwestern's offensive line was a disappointment in 2011. It wasn't bad, but it was very mediocre, which was a surprise for a unit that was supposed to be one of NU's strengths heading into the season. This year, with the loss of Netter and Burkett, and with Ward shifting to left tackle, the expectations aren't as high. However, that need for a good offensive line is just as great.
There's a theory that left tackle is the second most important position on a football team, and while that is certainly up for debate, especially for teams with dual-threat quarterbacks, it could be applicable to NU's season in 2012. Colter has experience as a primarily running quarterback, but as he develops as a passer, he'll need ample protection from his offensive line, namely left tackle Patrick Ward.
Ward has distinguished himself as a reliable tackle in the past two years, starting at right tackle as a sophomore and junior. Now, as a senior, he'll shift to the left side, where he'll take on more responsibility. The right side of the line will almost certainly go through some growing pains, with young players fighting for playing time. That youth showed in the spring, as the offensive line was completely dominated by the defensive line. Ward will be counted on to hold his own on the left side, and that could hold the key to Colter's development as a passer and NU's offensive consistency, especially in the early going.
Ibraheim Campbell, S
Last year, Ibraheim Campbell was the young guy in the Northwestern secondary as a redshirt freshman playing with three seniors — Brian Peters, Jordan Mabin and Jeravin Matthews. This year, as just a sophomore, he'll be the veteran. It's tough to tell who Campbell will be playing with in the defensive backfield, as the only other sure-fire starter is fifth-year senior Stanford transfer Quinn Evans. But whether the other spots are filled by Nick VanHoose, Davion Fleming, Demetrius Dugar, Daniel Jones or someone else, Campbell will have by far the most experience in an NU uniform.
That's a scary thought for anyone who watched the Wildcats' secondary last year — could they possibly get any worse? Campbell holds the keys to answering that question.
The reviews of Campbell's performance last year were mixed. Though there were times when he blew coverage as all freshmen do, he also registered 100 tackles, 3.5 tackles-for-loss, 2 interceptions and a fumble recovery. Despite the inconsistency, those are impressive stats for a freshman and even earned him a spot on CBS Sports' Preseason All-Big Ten Team.
Accolades aside, Campbell will need to play a much bigger role this season than just putting up numbers. He must improve his consistency to make up for the mistakes that are bound to happen from the young guys and to provide at least one shutdown area of the field for the Cats. As long as the secondary is young, it will struggle at times, but Campbell can help the unit manage and not give up as many big plays as it did in 2011.
Tyler Scott, DE
In talking to Northwestern's defensive linemen this spring, the narrative with each player was the same: "We have to get to the quarterback better than we did last year." NU was tied for 95th nationally in 2011 with just 17 sacks. For reference, star Illinois defensive end Whitney Mercilus has 16 by himself. Clearly that total has to improve for NU to improve defensively, and the responsibility will fall on defensive ends Tyler Scott and Quentin Williams.
Williams started the last eight games of last season and finished with three sacks. He's the veteran of the group and will likely get most of the attention early, but Scott has the potential to be a breakout player. He's strong and quick and was a force on the defensive line as the unit's leader in Williams' absence this spring. If he can provide consistency opposite Williams, NU will almost certainly improve its pass rush.
A good pass rush will be especially important this year with such an inexperienced secondary. If quarterbacks have time to throw they'll be able to pick the NU pass defense apart, but if Scott has a breakout season and improves his sack total, he can help the secondary tremendously.
Treyvon Green, RB
After gaining some hype early in the season in 2011, Treyvon Green ended up sliding back into the shadows on offense. He still saw the field, playing in every game and rushing for 362 yards as a true freshman, but didn't play a major role in the offense, even after the injury to starting running back Mike Trumpy. As has become typical of NU offenses these past few years, the quarterbacks played just as big of a role in the running game as the running backs. In fact, you have to go all the way back to Tyrell Sutton to find an NU running back that was clearly the featured rusher for the Wildcats.
Colter will still play a major role in the running game this year, but NU must also get more production out of its running backs. Green and Mike Trumpy figure to be NU's leaders at running back, and with Trumpy returning from an ACL injury, Green may get the bulk of the carries in the early going.
Green was one of the most improved players in the spring, doing a better job finding holes at the line of scrimmage and running with more confidence than he had as a true freshman. That's a good sign for the fall because he'll now be asked to be a leader on the offense, rather than just a role player. Since he'll be splitting carries with Trumpy and Colter, Green won't be a 1,000-yard rusher. However, by proving himself as a formidable threat he can give NU another option in short-yardage and obvious running situations, and he can give opposing defenses another runner to focus on, which could ultimately make Colter more dangerous and improve offensive production overall.