by Kevin Trahan (@k_trahan)
Football season just ended for Northwestern, but it's never too early to look ahead to next year, particularly in a year when there figures to be a lot of excitement around the program. The Wildcats will lose the winningest senior class in NU history, but they have a strong core of skill players returning and are poised to be ranked in the top 25 come fall.
A lot will change between now and next September, but we can start piecing together a rough idea of the depth chart and give you a sense of what the Wildcats are losing and what they have to replace it with. Here we look at the offense, while Chris Johnson covered the defense this morning.
Returning Starters: C Brandon Vitabile, T Jack Konopka
Starters Lost: T Pat Ward, G Brian Mulroe, G Neal Deiters
Possible Replacements: T Paul Jorgensen, T Shane Mertz, G Geoff Mogus, G Matt Frazier, G Adam DePietro
After a disappointing 2011, Northwestern's offensive line stepped up big time in 2012 and paved holes for Venric Mark and the running game. Pat Ward, in particular, showed great improvement between his junior and senior seasons, while Brian Mulroe was solid as usual. Even Neal Deiters, who settled into a starting role after Pat Fitzgerald did some personnel juggling at right guard, more than held his own. Now, NU faces the challenge of replacing three starters, making for a very young offensive line in 2013.
Expect both tackle spots to have a new look this season, with Konopka shifting from right tackle to left tackle, like Ward did for this season. Konopka is the most experienced tackle on the roster, so naturally, he belongs on the left side. That leaves the right side open and likely leaves to a competition between Paul Jorgensen and Shane Mertz. Mertz — nicknamed the SS Mertz by Fitzgerald — is arguably the better prospect, but Jorgensen has played more of a role this season and looks like the more probable starter at this point. Even if that's the case, Jorgensen could play some guard at times, which he did in camp this year, leaving Mertz at right tackle. Expect this to be one of the bigger position battles in the spring and fall.
With both guards suddenly gone, the door opens for some younger guys to get in the mix. Matt Frazier saw playing time at right guard this year before getting injured, so he should be well in the mix for a starting job next season. Another possible starter at guard is Geoff Mogus, a redshirt freshman who saw time this year. Those two will battle with Adam DePietro, who redshirted this season but was a four-star recruit coming out of high school.
Overall, this is a young group, so there could be some issues at the beginning of the season. Expect the situation to be somewhat fluid at the beginning of the year — much like this year — as Fitzgerald tries to piece things together. We'll learn a lot more in spring practice and fall camp.
Returning Starters: Tony Jones, Rashad Lawrence, Christian Jones, Dan Vitale (SB)
Starters Lost: Demetrius Fields
Possible Replacements: Cameron Dickerson, Kyle Prater
Northwestern's receivers had a disappointing year from a production standpoint after being predicted as one of the best units in the Big Ten in the preseason. However, they emerged as outstanding run-blockers and look poised to become more of a factor in the passing game. NU improved its passing game overall as the season wound down, and some young guys stepped up to give promise to the future.
With the exception of Fields, the core of NU's receiving group — Tony Jones, Christian Jones and Lawrence — will be back next year, along with superback Dan Vitale. Don't expect any of them to fall out of the starting lineup. However, Dickerson, in particular, looks like he will play a much bigger role next year. He has a big frame and has made some impressive catches this year. Fields was the go-to guy on flag routes in the endzone and Dickerson could emerge in that role this year. Prater, meanwhile, improved mightily as a blocker but wasn't as productive a pass-catcher as many had anticipated. He needed time to learn the offense, so his role will likely increase. Don't expect him to surpass either Jones or Lawrence on the depth chart, but depending on his progress in the spring and the fall, that could change.
Overall, the receivers look poised to improve after a slow start to 2012. The run blocking will need to continue to be impressive since the offensive line will have some new, moving parts. However, NU has to be pleased with the depth and talent it has returning at receiver.
Returning Starters: Venric Mark
Starters Lost: None
Possible Replacements: N/A
Raise your hand if you had Venric Mark as a 1,000-yard rusher in 2012 at this time last year. If your hand is up, quit lying. Mark burst onto the scene this year to become NU's first 1,000-yard rusher since Tyrell Sutton and showed tremendous versatility running it up the middle, bouncing outside and returning punts. He and Kain Colter formed one of the most impressive quarterback-running back tandems in the country and executed the zone read and option to perfection. That combination only figures to improve in 2013 as the chemistry improves and the tempo speeds up.
The question is what happens behind Mark. Mike Trumpy became much more involved late in the season, and NU even tried getting him mixed into the option game, with varying levels of success. He's certainly more of a power runner and the Wildcats tend to use him with Trevor Siemian at quarterback, but there is definitely still a place for him in the offense. That could leave sparse playing time for fellow power runner Treyvon Green. What does it mean for highly-touted freshman Malin Jones, who redshirted? That's another question mark, and a lot of it depends on how creative the Wildcats get.
Pat Fitzgerald certainly isn't done tweaking this offense, so there could be some surprises. Could NU mix in some of the triple read option (i.e. what Oregon does)? The Wildcats certainly have the personnel, with Trumpy or Jones as the power runner and Mark as the "option" back. There is no indication that Fitzgerald will run that or any new set — he's not going to take away Mark as a threat up the middle — but it's an option, and NU has plenty of options next year. The question with the running game isn't if it will be effective — it will — but rather, what new wrinkles will we see in the scheme? The only certainty is that Fitzgerald and offensive coordinator Mick McCall will have something new to mix in next year.
Returning Starters: Kain Colter, Trevor Siemian
Starters Lost: None
Possible Replacements: N/A
The Kain Colter-Trevor Siemian "controversy" continues into the offseason, although there's really no controversy at all. Colter looks like the starter, who helps establish the run game. Siemian goes in at random times, but typically during two-minute drills. However, Colter is not just a running quarterback and Siemian is not just a passing quarterback. The divide between both players' roles was too obvious at the beginning of the season, but the coaches have allowed much more overlap between both schemes over the past few games. Colter still gets plenty of throws, while Siemian has improved as a runner, and even pulled on a zone read for a touchdown in the Gator Bowl.
Siemian joked that the scouting report says he's going to always hand it off on the zone read and that he even surprised himself by keeping it. However, NU will need to make sure the scouting report isn't too obvious in one direction next year, just as it needs to make sure Colter is a passing threat. The coaches did a better job using both quarterbacks toward the end of the year. While each quarterback will have a defined role, expect both to become more dual-threat in 2013 and expect to see packages with both — especially Colter — playing other positions.
And since someone is bound to ask, we'll set the record straight: No, Matt Alviti will not see time right away. NU is set at quarterback, so unless the Wildcats are ravaged with injuries, expect the Maine South standout to redshirt, put on weight and learn the system.
There are still some moving pieces on the offensive line and health is never a certainty in college football, but assuming everything goes as expected, this is going to be an impressive offense for Northwestern and possibly the best one of the Fitzgerald era. However, there is still some uncertainty, which makes this unit even more dangerous. NU will be a run-based offense, but there are a lot of potential wrinkles that Fitzgerald can throw in to make the offense even more dynamic. Expect to see lots of zone read and option plays, but there are plenty of weapons in the passing game and the opportunity to get even more creative in the run game. We won't know quite how this unit will shape up until the fall — it will likely change throughout the season, as well — but one thing is for certain: this unit has the opportunity to be special.