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Northwestern Spring Football Primer: Five Storylines To Watch

By Chris Johnson (@ChrisDJohnsonn)

Having spent almost two months reflecting on the first bowl victory in program history, the product of an excellent 10-win season, Northwestern will commence official preparations for next season Wednesday with its first spring practice of 2013. Spring workouts segment the long college football offseason. They are a stopping point on a seven months-long rest period, a chance for teams to show off their early enrollees and players to brandish their newly chiseled frames and improved fitness levels.

That is, for coaches and fans, the biggest hope – that players arrive showing the same intensity and physical toughness that made the Wildcats one of the Big Ten’s best teams in 2012. Beyond a cosmetic check-up, and a glorified scrimmage to sum everything up, spring practice is, when you really think about it, an overhyped media construct. It is important in so far as players are actually running and catching and blocking and, most importantly, staying healthy. As far as strategy, or conclusive position battles – most (if not all) of that gets decided in preseason workouts.

Anyway, this is not the place to comment on the optics of spring practice developments. These workouts are fun, they’re exciting and they at least partially sate the relentless thirst for football news. So let’s get on to some of the key storylines you should be watching as the Wildcats take the field this spring.

Another two-quarterback system?

Early last season, fans and media types alike wrestled with the idea of Northwestern simultaneously using two quarterbacks. It all started week one, when Trevor Siemian lead a game-winning drive at Syracuse while Kain Colter stood on the sidelines with an apparent injury. Most expected Siemian would play last season, only no one was completely sure how exactly he would fit into the offense, or the number of snaps he would take, or how situation or specific offensive aims dictated playing time divisions between the two quarterbacks.

There were times when the rotating QBs seemed to disrupt continuity and momentum, particularly when coordinator Mick McCall would elect to swap QBs mid-series. Other times – like when Siemian entered to run the two-minute drill right before halftime at Penn State, a drive that ended in a perfectly lofted 11-yard touchdown pass to Tony Jones – the fluctuation worked to the Wildcats’ advantage, with defenders unable to adjust to the style contrast and unpredictability.

A comfortable balance was struck towards the end of the season. Colter was the primary signal-caller, employing a lethal mix of option reads and short passes, and Siemian provided the big-play potential to force defenses to stretch coverages downfield. How that balance plays out this season, and whether McCall decides to tweak Colter and Siemian’s snap splits or rotational frequency, will be one of the more interesting developments to follow this spring. As is the case with all spring headlines, anything we see in spring workouts must be taken with the caveat that things can and will change between now and September. Watching the first-team offense work should provide some insight as to how the quarterbacks will conduct business in the fall.

An Improving Secondary

Basic counting statistics imply Northwestern, for the second straight season, fielded the worst pass defense in the Big Ten. I suppose that’s nominally true. The Wildcats did allow the most average yards through the air per game (250.5), but if you actually watched this team play, and took into consideration the inexperience and relative lack of depth at both safety and cornerback – not to mention the loss of two experienced seniors in Jordan Mabin and Brian Peters – it is not hard to figure out why this group enters 2013 with a chance to take a major leap forward.

With the exception of Gator Bowl MVP Jared Carpenter and cornerbacks Quinn Evans and Demetrius Dugar, most of the major contributors return. All Big Ten honoree Ibraheim Campbell is back with another year’s experience, Nick VanHoose has gotten over the injuries that plagued him throughout 2012 and a set of intriguing young players are ready to play their part. There’s junior safety/nickelback Jimmy Hall, who played sparingly last season but is without question one of the best all-around athletes on Northwestern’s roster. True freshman Traveon Henry earned his stripes on special teams and at safety, and is primed to challenge for a starting spot alongside Campbell. And a couple of recruits – Ohio products Keith Watkins and (depending on whether he opts to play defensive back or running back) Godwin Igwebuike – could step in upon arrival.

The pass defense has a solid foundation, a wealth of talent and, provided all or even half of that talent meets expectations, a bright future to look forward to. The development and maturation of that unit, guided by Campbell, began last offseason, and it will only be made stronger and more competitive with fresh new faces and more experienced returning ones.

Offensive Line Turnover

Three starters from last season (left tackle Patrick Ward and guards Neil Deiters and Brian Mulroe) are gone. Any time you have to replace more than half of an offensive line, the adjustment process can be awkward and disjointed. That process begins in earnest this spring, when a handful of eager young up-and-comers will battle to make impressions for a starting spot.

There is no shortage of viable candidates. At guard, Geoff Mogus, Matt Frazier and redshirt freshman Anthony Depietro – one of the gems of Northwestern’s 2012 class – all hold legitimate claims at topping the depth chart. Depietro in particular is an interesting case. He was one of the most highly-touted players at his position coming out of Lancaster Catholic high school. I don’t know about you, but I’m always intent on observing how heavily-recruited players match up with their lesser sought-after counterparts once they reach campus. This is DePietro’s opportunity to seize the spotlight, to confirm what those star rankings and gaudy scouting reports highlighted throughout his recruitment.

Pinpointing the tackle situation is more predictable. Jack Konopka will probably wind up sliding over to take over Ward’s departed left side, while touchdown hero Jorgensen (he caught a 24-yard touchdown pass against Illinois) is the frontrunner to seize the right side. Don’t sleep on sophomore Shane Mertz, who has been hurt by injuries early in his career but owns all the physical tools to be a dominant tackle in the Big Ten. The position battles will be fierce, perceptions will change, and we could conclude spring practice with an entirely different view on the offensive line position picture.

Redshirt Breakouts

All but three of Northwestern’s 2012 recruits opted to redshirt last season. Those players were safety Traveon Henry, superback Dan Vitale and defensive end Dean Lowry. The 2012 signees will enter the fold en masse this season, and every one of them will be hoping to make their first full seasons as influential as the aforementioned threes’. The question is, who can jump into the mix and make a huge impact as a redshirt freshman?

The obvious answer is Ifeadi Odenigbo, the four-star pass-rusher from Centerville, Ohio, who sat out last season after injuring his shoulder. One of the biggest questions surrounding Odenigbo last season was whether he was physically ready to withstand the trench brutality of Big Ten offensive lines. At just 6-3, 220, there were questions about his body holding up for a full season. His listed size is a definite concern….if Odenigbo does indeed play defensive end. There is always the possibility that he winds up at outside linebacker, though with the way he explodes off the snap and glides, spins and dodges pass blockers to harass opposing QBs, using Idenigbo’s talents anywhere other than defensive end would feel like an inefficient allocation of his preternatural abilities– to me, at least.

I’ve already mentioned DePietro, and his potential to step in on the offensive line. Another player worth watching: defensive tackle Greg Kuhar. With Northwestern graduating stalwart defensive tackle Brian Arnfelt, there is a major void to fill in the middle of the defensive line. Kuhar won’t start, but his presence could buttress the efforts of Chance Carter, Will Hampton, Sean McEvily and whoever else fills in at the tackle spot.

Whose Graduation Will Have the Biggest Impact on Northwestern’s Season?

Gauging the biggest loss before Northwestern plays any real games is merely a predictive measure, because the only way to truly and holistically assess how this team fares without last year’s seniors is to see it take the field on gameday. Before singling out one specific player, I will say this: watching this team grow last season really hammered home the importance of chemistry and leadership. The seniors – particularly Brian Mulroe, Brian Arnfelt, Jared Carpenter and David Nwabuisi – brought this team together, exerted a calming influence in games and practices and provided the intangible X factor the Wildcats needed to pull out tough games.

The collective impact will be massive. Individually, after weighing each candidate’s strenths and weaknesses, and factoring in what they’re leaving behind at their respective positions, I settled on Arnfelt. Why? For one, he played his best football in his final season with the Wildcats. Alongside McEvily, Hampton and Carter, Arnfelt gave Northwestern’s defensive front a toughness and aggressiveness it hadn’t shown in years. And the stats plainly back it up: the Wildcats ranked fourth in the Big Ten in rush defense (3.77 yards per rush) after finishing 10th in 2011 (4.49 yards per rush). Arnfelt led that resurgence, his individual excellence inspiring those around him to help form one of the stingiest fronts in the Big Ten.

More important to me, and the major reason why Arnfelt’s loss is so critical, is the current state of affairs at defensive tackle. McEvily showed improvements, and Carter has the chance to become a dominant interior run stuffer, and Kuhar has made waves with his performance on scout-team. But unless one of those guys assumes Arnfelt’s leadership responsibilities, and replicates his timelessly brilliant interior push, the line could trend back towards something like its 2011 mean. And for a defense whose improvement last season had its roots in an improved pass rush and tackle tandem, reprising the force and sheer effort Arnfelt provided at the point of attack last season is critical. Without him, that effort will not be easy. The Wildcats will need to find a way to conjure up all of Arnfelt’s obvious contributions – the tackles for loss (eight in 2012), sacks (3), the pocket-collapsing pressure – and the less obvious ones (leadership, intangibles) through another player or players’ actions.