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Northwestern Spring Football Primer: Five Players To Watch

by Chris Johnson (@ChrisDJohnsonn

The final verdict on various depth chart placement decisions and positional arrangements is a long ways away. Spring practice can influence those decisions, no doubt – players make lasting impressions on coaches in conditioning workouts and seven-on-seven drills, underclassmen unexpectedly rise up to challenge juniors and seniors and watching that process play out over a limited set of spring practices can reveal a lot about a team’s offseason focus – but to think a certain player’s highlight-reel sideline grab or crunching open field tackle carries equal (or more) weight than what happens in preseason camp is just plain wrong.

Having said that, there are certain players whose spring performance could mean more than others, guys who either a) didn’t show well towards the end of last season or b) need to substantiate the glimpses of stardom revealed in limited spots. Needless to say, the list is not comprehensive. Five felt like a good number to settle on, because, well, why not?

Deonte Gibson (sophomore, defensive end) 

There were a few standouts at last season’s spring practice sessions. Ibraheim Campbell exhibited the leadership and poise that catapulted his rise to one of the better DBs in the Big Ten. Chance Carter bossed the line of scrimmage with dominating interior play. Nick VanHoose shone among an inexperienced secondary. None was more impressive than Gibson, who, after sitting out 2011 with a knee injury, arrived with much of the same explosiveness and agility that made him such an intriguing prospect coming out of St. Edward High (Ohio).

Those tantalizing physical tools carried over into the season, when Gibson unleashed his athletic prowess and devastating edge-rushing arsenal on third downs and obvious passing situations. He finished with just two sacks in total, but that doesn’t even begin to describe the change-of-pace effects of having Gibson rotate with starter Quentin Williams to provide a destructive matchup predicament for opposing lines. The most memorable Gibson play from last season came during the Michigan game (Sorry to bring it up). After a long dropback and scramble, Wolverines quarterback Devin Gardner sprinted toward the sideline, reading coverages and waiting for a receiver to open up downfield. Gibson came screaming off the edge, charging across the field, running past fatigued linemen at full speed before finally sacking Gardner before he could release his pass.

All of Gibson’s speed, desire and relentlessness was packaged into that play, and my best guess is that he’s more than ready to provide more of that this season. Now deeper into his post-knee surgery recovery, and with another season of weight training to add mass to a previously-slight frame, Gibson should be trending closer toward his full athletic capabilities. Gibson is poised for another spotlight spring session. 

Jack Konopka (junior, tackle) 

One of the luxuries of having a young roster core, as Northwestern did in 2012, is continuity. The Wildcats enter 2013 with most of last season’s team intact, and without having to think about how to replace a bunch of major personnel holes. The one big exception is the offensive line. Three starters (left tackle Patrick Ward and guards Brian Mulroe and Neil Deiters) moved on this offseason, which means many of last season’s key reserves – Geoff Mogus, Matt Frazier, Konopka – will take on larger workloads in the Fall. Arguably the most important, when you consider Ward’s stellar pass and run-blocking and the way he adjusted to a fickle quarterback system, is Konopka.

His transition from right to left tackle could be the most worrisome variable of change in an otherwise potent offense. Don’t get me wrong: Konopka was more than serviceable on the right side. He steadily improved as the season went on, and learned how to deal with a variety of different pass-rushing threats. The left side is a whole new level of responsibility. Konopka will face the Big Ten’s very best quarterback-hungry ends, and it will be incumbent upon him to not only give Kain Colter and Trevor Siemian enough time to work from the pocket, but also to blow his man off the line of scrimmage, set the edge and wall off oncoming defenders to spring Venric Mark for long rushes.

I have little doubt Konopka can make the switch, and I’ll have even less doubt if he arrives at spring practice with a firm grasp on the nuances of his new position. This is a big challenge for a player who, lest we forget, only began playing offensive line at the college level last season. Spring workouts provide a convenient mid-off season barometer to gauge his progress.

Jimmy Hall (junior, defensive back) 

It is not a direct slight on Hall to call his Northwestern football career thus far a disappointment. Last spring, after playing almost exclusively on special teams in 2011, Hall found himself in the mix for the starting safety spot alongside Campbell. The athleticism and natural football instincts were visible, but his understanding of the defensive system, as compared to that of competitors Davion Fleming and Jared Carpenter, was such that he fell out of the running for the starting job. By the time preseason camp got underway, the safety opening had just about closed up, and Hall was yet again left to ply his trade on special teams.

Coordinator Mike Hankwitz tried Hall at nickelback during the season, and the results were veritably positive. But for a player who once showed so much promise and potential, a specialty role appeared to be limiting his entire range of abilities. He apparently made enough of an impression on coaches during bowl practices to warrant a jump in playing time; Hall had a key pass breakup in the endzone in Northwestern’s Gator Bowl victory. The rest of his performance reflected a more schematically grounded, disciplined, self-aware defensive presence – he looked like he belonged. Hall is bound to get more playing time next season. The question is where, and how much.

In many ways, Hall enters this spring with the same basic objective as he did in 2012: prove coaches he’s ready to start at safety. Only this season, his options have opened up. Hall’s physical skills could be put to good use in a number of positions: safety, nickelback, outside linebacker. Spring practice should give us a better sense of where he stands – both position-wise as well as on various depth chart pecking orders – heading into the summer.

Cameron Dickerson (sophomore, wide receiver)

The glut of receivers, combined with a somewhat unexpected shift to an option-based offense, conspired to limit Dickerson’s ability to make an impact in the passing game. Those same two fundamental blocking points didn’t disappear: Northwestern is still full of talent at receiver and still, unless coordinator Mick McCall decides otherwise, an offense that very much relies on option-read sets.

Those constraints could keep Dickerson from becoming anything more than an occasional deep threat. Or maybe a firm reminder of his remarkable physical gifts (remember last season’s spring game? I do) and instinctual jump ball skills will make coaches realize that Dickerson merits a more prominent stake in the offense. Until I see more from Kyle Prater, I’m willing to call Dickerson exactly what he is: the most talented receiver on Northwestern’s roster. Rashad Lawrence is more experienced, Tony Jones is faster, Prater is taller; Dickerson blends every trait you could ever want your No. 1 receiver to have (speed, height, good hands) more effectively than any of those three.

Call it an ambitious claim – I’ll accept that critique (No pressure, Cameron!). But if you just watch receivers work out this spring, try and tell me Dickerson isn’t the most complete and well-refined pass-catching specimen on the field. And if he’s not the “best”, Dickerson is a close number two. Last year’s spring practice produced the famous 40-yd touchdown marvel, whereupon he miraculously outleaped, outmuscled and outreached Nick VanHoose for a spectacular  grab. This year his contributions may not be quite as awe-inducing. That’s because you already know how good Dickerson can be.

Ifeadi Odenigbo (redshirt freshman, defensive end)

The mystery behind arguably the most sought-after recruit in Northwestern history was unwrapped (at least in part) during summer workouts, and the results were generally encouraging. Odenigbo displayed uncanny leverage and power, along with the type of fast-twitch explosion you rarely see from players at his position. After tinkering with the idea of burning Odenigbo’s redshirt, coaches decided to shut him down after suffering a shoulder injury. At the time, it was hard not to feel a bit disappointed – Odenigbo’s pass-rushing potential was tantalizing.

After watching the defensive line morph into one of the Big Ten’s better units last season, I’m convinced redshirting was the best thing that could have ever happened to Odenigbo. The reasons for this are simple. For one, the aforementioned pass-rushing skills, when absent a college-ready physique, wouldn’t have held up over the course of a season. Odenigbo’s size would have constrained his edge-rushing options; mammoth tackles would have stopped him cold at the line of scrimmage. Another obvious impediment was the depth and talent at his position. Had Odenigbo suited up last season, capable alternatives – from Tyler Scott to Quentin Williams to Dean Lowry to Gibson – would have marginalized his playing time. Starting up his eligibility clock this season allowed Odenigbo to add weight, rehabilitate his shoulder and get a better grasp on defensive principles. He will enter this season a more physically stout and mentally attuned edge-rusher.

The products of his redshirt year will be on full display during spring workouts. Odenigbo can send coaches into the summer with a good indication of whether he can legitimately challenge for a starting spot, or if he’s only ready for a third down-only role. At best, Odenigbo outshines Gibson and Lowry and enters summer workouts as a leading candidate to land the starting end spot opposite Scott. At worst, he’s an incredible athlete with plenty of room to grow.

And since we’re on the topic of “what to watch”, let’s just be honest: there’s no one who isn’t genuinely excited to watch one of the nation’s prize recruits of 2012 take the field and earn his stripes on defense. Odenigbo is a prime attraction; his reputation is such that his performance will be graded on an unfairly harsh four-star curve. It’s just spring ball, but for Odenigbo, it feels something like a potential coming out party.

*Note: Following the publication of this article, the athletic department announced Deonte Gibson and Jack Konopka will miss spring workouts. With that information make what you will with two of my five selections.,