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Northwestern Kicks Off Spring Practice

by Chris Johnson (@ChrisDJohnsonn

EVANSTON, Ill -- Nearing the end of the first intra-squad scrimmage of Northwestern’s first spring practice of 2013, Venric Mark took a hand off up the middle, knifed through a small hole and sprinted downfield for a long touchdown. His offensive teammates roared, defenders sagged their shoulders in disgust and Mark leisurely jogged his way back to the huddle.

Indeed, Wildcats football is back in session.

“It’s great to be back out playing football,” Northwestern coach Pat Fitzgerald, no less the typically animated sideline motivator early Wednesday morning, said. They call it spring practice, and in a sense that temporal label is true. Many of Northwestern’s practice will take place following the Spring Equinox – Wednesday March 20, 2013, to be exact.

But the Wildcats are getting an early start on offseason workouts. The accelerated calendar is by design: Fitzgerald moved up the spring session to accommodate for player injuries.

Several prominent starters, including cornerback Nick VanHoose, tackle Jack Konopka and linebacker Damien Proby, will not participate in practices for medical reasons. The upshot with starting practices early is that those players, plus the others not mentioned, can get up to speed by the official spring scrimmage (April 13), and clear themselves for what Fitzgerald calls “our next phase, which is preparation for summer workouts.”

So the team that works, conditions and fine-tunes itself both inside the Trienens athletic facility and on the outdoor practice fields is not a complete manifestation of Northwestern’s projected 2013 team. One theme that might stick around a while longer, or until media members stop inquiring about the topic, is the dual-quarterback system the Wildcats used last season. The same questions about “controversy” and “starter” and “who will receive the first snap?” were all there Wednesday. And just like last season, Fitzgerald dismissed any notion of dissension or unhappiness on behalf of either Trevor Siemian or Kain Colter. Still, he needed to hammer home the point.

So, coach, is there a battle at the quarterback position?

“There’s a battle to help us win,” he beamed. “That’s it. I’ll start Kain and Trevor tomorrow, and you guys will write about it and make it too big of a deal.”

If nothing else, the incessant quarterback queries are a more telling indication than any that Northwestern is back in session. After a 10-win season, the Wildcats are just beginning to get their sea legs and start preparation for another strong run in the Big Ten.

This process, which Fitzgerald likens to “putting the puzzle together,” has some missing pieces – not only because of graduated players like guard Brian Mulroe, defensive tackle Brian Arnfelt and linebacker David Nwabuisi, but also because of the players currently sitting out team drills.

“When you start putting the puzzle back together – that’s where we’re at right now,” Fitzgerald said. “That’s spring practice.”

The specifics will be different, without question. While Northwestern brings back depth at virtually every position – even if Tuesday morning’s practice session didn’t indicate as much – there is no doubt the team will undergo changes this offseason. The Wildcats that walked off EverBank Field with a Gator Bowl Trophy in tow have undergone defections, additions and twists, all of which will combine to give the 2013 rendition a new flavor.

Some of those newer faces lined up for first-team repetitions Tuesday. Redshirt freshman running back Stephen Buckley, a speedy high school quarterback from Forney, Texas, shuffled in for Mark at tailback and showed off some nifty tight-space shiftiness. On the other side of the ball, linebacker Joseph Jones made a positive first impression as a rangy cover man. Offensive linemen Ian Park and Eric Olson also lined up with the first unit.

The redshirt freshmen, products of a strong 2012 recruiting class, looked good – perhaps too good for Fitzgerald’s liking. “I hope they fail a lot,” Fitzgerald said of the now-eligible freshmen. “I hope they mess up a ton so we can coach them.”

This early in your season preparations, developmental progress is the most reasonable objective.  There wasn’t much to glean from a bunch of guys running around in shorts on day one, without pads. Specific game-plan material and strategy will be implemented in time, as Northwestern moves closer and closer towards the season opener at California. Right now, the emphasis is on establishing a winning culture – the type of mentality that leads to Fitzgerald’s foremost goal.

“I’m not trying to minimize getting to 10 wins,” he said. “But getting 11 is a lot harder than getting to 10. That’s kind of our focus here.” Seven years ago, when Fitzgerald first took over, that might not have seemed like a realistic goal. Not at a program like Northwestern. These days, the culture is different, and Fitzgerald is confident in delivering his message. “We’re at a completely different point now than we were seven years ago. The next step is to win a championship.”

Grand postseason prizes aren’t won in Spring; or Winter, in Northwestern’s case. The emphasis in these early offseason months is about laying the baseline for another successful campaign. “You’re really in the foundational stages of the team right now.”

One day into spring practice, Pat Fitzgerald is already laying out the same concrete goals he stressed last season.