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Competition for Playing Time Far From Over for Northwestern's Offense

by Kevin Trahan (@k_trahan)

The Northwestern offensive depth chart hasn’t undergone any changes since it first came out in the week prior to the season-opener at Syracuse, but it’s nowhere near set in stone.

In fact, only three of the 11 offensive positions have starters secured for the rest of the season.

“The only three guys (who) I think have solidified their positions right now, from the standpoint of playing pretty darn consistent football, outside of the snafu — I think Brandon (Vitabile), (Brian) Mulroe and (Patrick) Ward are three guys playing pretty consistent — and I like what the right side of the offensive line is doing,” coach Pat Fitzgerald said. “I don’t think they’re playing poorly, I just think they have guys breathing down their neck. I know Chuck (Porcelli) wants to play, I know Neal (Deiters) wants to play, I know (Matt Frazier) wants to play and Geoff Mogus wants to play.. Those guys are going to compete their tails off this week.

“Same thing at receiver. Kyle (Prater) is fighting to play, Mike Jensen is fighting to play, Danny Vitale is fighting to play. We’ve got a good situation right now from a competition standpoint and I want to see those guys do that and I want to see them play better.”

Could that even apply to quarterback if Trevor Siemian has a better week of practice than Kain Colter?

“Maybe.”

Competition is the name of the game for the Wildcats right now, and although they are off to a 3-0 start, NU has been too sloppy for Fitzgerald’s liking and he hopes competition can help elevate his team to an elite level.

“We’ve not yet put together a clean game,” Fitzgerald said. “Especially with our performance of our offense last week in the red zone, we’ve got a ton to work on. We’ve got a lot of competition on that side of the ball, too, and that competition is going to lead to see who’s playing as we move forward.

“That’s in all areas right now — I think we’ve got great competition in the backfield, we’ve got great competition at quarterback, we’ve got great competition on the offensive line, and same thing at wide receiver, and then we’ve got a young superback that’s pushing those guys for more playing time, so all these reps that we’re having in practice are going to determine who’s going to start and who’s going to play moving forward.”

NU’s depth is the biggest reason for the competition for playing time. The Wildcats have two quarterbacks who split snaps — Fitzgerald calls them 1.A. and 1.B. — two running backs, a rotation on the offensive line and at least eight capable wide receivers.

Depth is particularly present at wide receiver, where talented junior redshirt freshman Cameron Dickerson and former five-star recruit and USC transfer Kyle Prater haven’t gotten as much playing time as they would have in most other years. But that’s a good problem to have, especially in a conference where so many teams are short on wide receiver talent.

“I think (the depth) helps a lot in terms of everybody staying focused and staying motivated, of course,” senior receiver Demetrius Fields said. “I think that it helps a lot in terms of our offense, for one, in terms of, (Fitzgerald) talked about the depth and how fast we go. We can roll guys through and stay dangerous and a threat to the defense.”

While Fields, the team’s leading receiver, would assumedly be safe with a starting job, nothing is certain with a receiving corps that has been inconsistent, but, as Fitzgerald said, has the potential to be “as good as we’ve ever had here.”

The same goes for even the team’s top performers, such as Colter and Venric Mark, not because they have played badly, but because the players behind them have done so well, both in practice and in games.

So does that mean Siemian and Mike Trumpy will take over soon? Probably not. But NU has enough talent and depth to entertain that possibility. And while the starters are set in stone for this week, the competition is far from over.

More from Fitz's Monday presser

- Fitzgerald expects Venric Mark to practice tomorrow after getting hurt in Saturday's game. Mark is listed as the starter on the two-deep.

- Chuck Porcelli was "dinged up" last week, which is why he didn't start. He was available to play, but Fitzgerald liked how the line was playing and he didn't want to mess with it. Porcelli is listed as the starter at right guard this week.

- Wide receiver Rashad Lawrence had a couple of holds called against him during Saturday's game that Fitzgerald didn't seem to be a fan of: "I thought he should block that way on every play."

- There's this from Demetrius Fields: "I don’t really notice a lot which quarterback is in. Even the first game when they talked about it, I didn’t know that Trevor was in until mid-drive. That might have something to do with me being oblivious, but at the same time, I have full confidence in both quarterbacks."

- Fitzgerald compared the linebackers to "Dug" the dog in the movie "Up." He said they were too quick to leave coverage to run to the quarterback, just as Dug got distracted by squirrels too easily. If you're one of the unfortunate souls who hasn't seen "Up," here's the clip for reference.