by Kevin Trahan (@k_trahan)
Northwestern kicks off spring practice today, so in preparation for the official beginning of the college football season in Evanston, we're putting out a four-part preseason camp primer to get you ready for the biggest storylines this fall. Yesterday we released our five burning questions and five key players, and earlier today we told you which five freshmen have the best chance of seeing the field this year. This piece — five position battles to watch — is our fourth and final installment.
In theory, there are five guys fighting for two spots here. However, one of those guys is Quinn Evans, a fifth-year senior transfer from Stanford, and since Evans didn't transfer somewhere to use his final year of eligibility possibly sitting on the bench, he's likely assured one of the starting cornerback spots. That leaves four players — redshirt freshman Nick VanHoose, sophomore Daniel Jones, sophomore CJ Bryant and senior Demetrius Dugar — to fight for the final spot.
All four of these guys will get playing time this year, but Pat Fitzgerald will likely choose one starter, at least of the first few games, rather than rotating each game. Who lands that spot is still up in the air — we predicted Nick VanHoose earlier this summer, but nothing is certain. There's so much inexperience and a lot of guys with mediocre records on the field, so there is really nothing for the coaches to go off rather than practice and performance in the spring. Each player has his own plusses and minuses.
Nick VanHoose — VanHoose was one of the surprise performers of the spring and got a lock of work in with the first team. He broke out of nowhere after redshirting last season, but Fitzgerald praised his ability to adjust to a steep learning curve, which helped him get time in the spring over some of the older players. While he looked good at times in the spring, he also has no game experience and had a few blunders in the spring game. Nobody is expecting him to be perfect, but it may be a gamble early in the season to throw him out there right away, especially with so much inexperience around him.
Demetrius Dugar — Dugar played in nine games last season, sitting out of three due to injury, and started in games against Penn State and Iowa. The Iowa game was by far the best of his career, as he recorded 6 tackles, an interception and a tackle-for-loss. However, that's not much experience and he hasn't been consistent enough to earn a full-time starting job. He may have an inside track to the starting job this year because nobody else has as much experience, but the coaching staff shied away from starting him before and may opt for a younger player who has shown more in practice.
Daniel Jones — Jones played in all 12 games last year, but his big welcoming came against Michigan State, when he replaced injured senior Jordan Mabin and was picked on for the rest of the game by Spartans quarterback Kirk Cousins. He also had issues tackling on multiple occasions (here and here). Regardless, he got the start in the Meineke Car Care Bowl of Texas and recorded three tackles. However, now that he has competition from VanHoose, his spot as a starter isn't nearly as secure.
CJ Bryant — Bryant is the least likely of the group to win the starting job, but I'll throw him in here because he's likely to see the field one way of the other this season. He played in eight games last season and if he continues to improve this season and takes on a bigger role, he may have a shot to replace Evans in 2013.
We'll stick with our prediction from earlier this summer and project VanHoose to grab the final cornerback spot. All three of the other guys will see a decent amount of playing time, but VanHoose will build on a good spring and get the starting job. Fitzgerald was impressed with what VanHoose showed during the spring and all indications are it's his spot to lose heading into fall camp.
There are about five guys who have a chance to see decent playing time at safety, but only three really have a chance to win the starting sit opposite Ibraheim Campbell. And among those three — senior Jared Carpenter, junior Davion Fleming and sophomore Jimmy Hall — nobody has a clear advantage.
Jared Carpenter — The most obvious choice is Carpenter, who has eight career starts under his belt, but struggled with injuries last year and could never gain much consistent playing time. He started seven games as a sophomore in 2010, playing in 11, and registered 27 tackles and 1.5 tackles-for-loss. Injuries may have caused him to be passed on the depth chart by some younger guys, but Fitzgerald loves to play seniors and may start Carpenter in order to bring some experience to a very young secondary.
Davion Fleming — Fleming has hardly any experience in his two seasons at Northwestern, but he quietly put together a solid spring and played with the first team at times. He's talented and could have a breakout season in forming a strong duo with Campbell. However, his lack of experience could cost him the job, especially early in the season as Fitzgerald tries to get experience on the field.
Jimmy Hall — Like Fleming, Hall saw the majority of his action in 2011 on special teams. However, he played a lot during the spring and look good in that small sample. He has the same concerns as Fleming in lack of experience, but he should see the field more this season, even if not as a starter.
It wouldn't surprise me at all to see Fitzgerald go with Carpenter because NU loves to go with experience when they have it and Carpenter isn't a slouch or anything. However, Fleming got a lot of looks during the spring and performed well when given the chance. Expect him to earn the starting spot if he continues that progression through fall camp.
After a disappointing 2011 season, the Northwestern offensive line will head into 2012 with much lower expectations, as the Wildcats lose two veteran starters — left tackle Al Netter and right guard Ben Burkett. Three starters return, with former right tackle Patrick Ward shifting to the left side, Brian Mulroe coming back at left guard and Brandon Vitabile coming back at center. The left side of the line should be solid and Vitabile is a star in the making at center, but the right side will be very inexperienced, even though it's filled with talented players.
There will be a position battle at right guard in addition to right tackle, as sophomore Jack Konopka, who switched over from super back, will battle senior Neal Deiters for the starting spot. Konopka looks like the early favorite, given his shift to the position and his spring performance. The bigger questions arise at right tackle, as NU will have two talented, but inexperienced players in sophomore Paul Jorgensen and resdshirt freshman Shane Mertz. Senior Chuck Porcelli, who was listed as a left tackle in the spring, is also an option.
Paul Jorgensen — Jorgensen played in 11 games last year as a reserve tackle behind Patrick Ward. He has a fairly big frame at 6-6, 295-pounds and is likely the frontrunner to replace Ward just from an experience standpoint. Even if he doesn't win the starting job, he'll certainly see more time than he did last year.
Shane Mertz — Mertz is big. How big? Fitzgerald called him the S.S. Mertz during spring practice. With such a big frame — 6-8, 295-pounds — he certainly has the potential to win the starting job and he had a good spring that could help him win the job. However, he doesn't have any playing experience, which is something Fitzgerald tends to take into consideration and something that is especially big for offensive linemen in the Big Ten.
Chuck Porcelli — At 6-7, 315-pounds, Porcelli has a big frame and is capable of playing right tackle. However, he has not seen a lot of action in his time at NU, though he played in all 13 games last season. He has experience in years with the team, but is not that much more experienced than Jorgensen on the field. Expect him to stick at left tackle as a backup, though there is a chance he could shift to the right side if he has a great fall camp.
It wouldn't surprise me at all to see Mertz win the starting job based on his size and potential, and both of these guys could start at different points in the season. However, Fitzgerald loves to go with experience, especially on the offensive line. That leaves Porcelli and Jorgensen, but Jorgensen is younger and has more room to grow, so he'll likely get the job if it comes down to those two. The most likely scenario is Jorgensen winning the starting job with Mertz playing a lot behind him and possibly getting the starting job eventually. If that is the case, Porcelli would likely be the second string left tackle behind Ward.
With the graduation of Drake Dunsmore, perhaps no position has a cupboard more bare than superback. Dunsmore was a three-year starter and didn't share many snaps, meaning the competition to replace him is wide open and may even end up going to a freshman. NU had four superbacks listed on its spring prospects — junior Tim Riley, junior Evan Watkins (yes, that Evan Watkins), junior Brian Smith and redshirt freshman Mark Szott. Riley, Watkins and Szott are the most likely returning players to win the job, but incoming freshmen Jack Schwaba and Dan Vitale have a chance, too.
Tim Riley — If you had to pick a starter from the pool of returning players based off of spring practice, it would be Riley. He played in 11 of 13 games last year (there's the experience factor again, whether it's significant experience or not) and switched from linebacker to superback during bowl practices. He was probably the least likely pass catcher to catch a touchdown pass heading into the bowl game, but he had a two-yard touchdown catch in that game, which has defined his career at NU to date.
Evan Watkins — After being the butt of a lot of jokes at quarterback and being used to hold up play signs because he's so tall, Watkins was moved to superback during bowl practices last year. He clearly had no future at quarterback, and while he could received a little more playing time at superback, he likely won't be a starter or a huge contributor this season.
Mark Szott — Most people looking beyond Riley and Watkins are focusing on the incoming freshmen, but don't sleep on Szott. He didn't get any action in 2011, but he was a three-star recruit coming out of high school and he's versatile, combining a big frame — 6-4, 240-pounds — with unique athleticism for someone his size. He may not win the starting job, but he should find a place somewhere on the field at times in 2012.
Jack Schwaba — Schwaba was a three-star recruit coming out of high school and could be a starter within a month of starting practice at NU. At 6-5, 235-pounds he's a big kid, which will help him see the field early, and he also has experience as a pass-catcher. Expect him to be a front-runner to win the job.
Dan Vitale — Vitale is another incoming freshman who also earned a three-star rating. He has experience as a rusher and a passer, which should help him as a superback, but at 6-2, 205-pounds he isn't big enough to start right away in the Big Ten.
Prediction: Riley then Schwaba
Riley will get the job at the start of the season because Fitzgerald will be reluctant to hand the starting job to a true freshman in his first game ever. However, Schwaba will receive playing time early and eventually emerge as the starter. Riley will still play a lot, even if he is not the starter, and Szott and Watkins will also see the field. In all likelihood there will be some sort of committee for NU at superback, but Schwaba will emerge as the most consistent and talented player and earn the starting spot by the end of the year.
Northwestern's linebacker corps is one of its most stable units heading into the 2012 season and it could be the best unit on the defense and one of the best on the entire team. Two starting spots there are already pretty much secured — senior David Nwabuisi and junior Damien Proby. The Wildcats have a third returning starter, sophomore Collin Ellis, but he could receive some pressure from fellow sophomore Chi Chi Ariguzo. Additionally, incoming four-star recruit Ifeadi Odenigbo will challenge for playing time, but given how much experience NU has at linebacker this year, it's unlikely Odenigbo will earn a starting spot.
Collin Ellis — Ellis has an advantage in the fact that he started last year as a redshirt freshman, and regardless of whether he wins the starting spot, he'll get a lot of playing time. While he has experience, he wasn't especially dominant, and if Ariguzo has a good camp he could end up winning the job.
Chi Chi Ariguzo — Ariguzo started one game last year, winning that role against Army as NU went with a 3-4 formation. He had a career high 9 tackles in that game and played in 10 more games — he missed the last two due to injury — recording 32 tackles. Like Ellis, he will play a big role this year regardless of whether he starts, but could earn the starting spot with a strong showing in fall camp.
Prediction: Ellis (and Ariguzo)
Ellis will likely be the starter when NU travels to Syracuse on September 1 because of his experience, but Ariguzo will play a major role and increase his playing time from last year. Ultimately, Ariguzo has a chance to earn the starting spot down the road and both players could wind up splitting playing time equally by the end of the season.