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Northwestern Spring Practice Report: 3/5

RS Freshman Stephen Buckley addresses the media.

Coach Pat Fitzgerald addresses the media.

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by Chris Johnson (@ChrisDJohnsonn)

The option offense is old hat for Stephen Buckley. He orchestrated a version of it, termed the “veer offense”, during his four years at North Forney High School in Texas. The schematic permutations are drilled into his football brain.

So when you watch Buckley, a redshirt freshman, step into the Wildcats’ option scheme with such comfort and poise, it’s obvious his high school years have facilitated his integration into Northwestern’s option variant.The only difference now, is that Buckley is catching pitches and running forward, rather than releasing pitches while dropping back and moving laterally.

“I can definitely relate to Kain and what he sees when he’s in the pocket,” Buckley said Tuesday morning after a productive spring workout.

A true dual-threat quarterback at Forney, Buckley knew from early on in his recruiting process that his transition to college football would coincide with a position switch. Other than New Mexico and Air Force, which recruited him at quarterback, coaches were interested in Buckley as a cornerback or safety.

Those plans changed when Buckley developed a strong relationship with Northwestern coaches and players. They wanted him at running back, and Buckley – intrigued by the various roles available to a backfield denizen in an option scheme – jumped at the opportunity.

“They told me I’d be playing running back and laid out the format for me that the running back does in this offense,” he said. “the running back is used in a lot of different spots.”

His deep conceptual knowledge of the offense gives Buckley an inherent advantage, but it doesn’t hurt to have the Big Ten’s leading all-purpose yard getter from 2012 as a mentor. Buckley says senior Venric Mark has guided him along through the offseason and helped him adjust to playing running back, as opposed to quarterback, in the option scheme.

“He does a lot of teaching me the playbook, working extra with me, just teaching me different techniques. Things like that,” he said.

On the practice field Tuesday morning, Buckley lined up behind center, broke out of his two point stance as Colter dropped back under center and curled towards the right sideline. Buckley received Colter’s pitch in stride and busted a big gain down the right sideline. You can expect to see Mark making those kinds of plays this season, as he did so many times last year. But what about the future?

"If I continue to work hard, hopefully I'll obtain that [Venric Mark's] role," he said.

Those are big shoes to fill. For now, Buckley is focusing on adding another dynamic element to an already capable backfield. And so far, he's giving off every indication he can help Mark, Mike Trumpy and whoever else lines up at running back in the option offense become a more potent ground attack.

More Notes

  • -- Both Buckley and redshirt freshman Malin Jones took heavy snaps at running back. That duo, complementing Mike Trumpy and Mark, has the makings of a dynamic and explosive backfield. "They're both talented, I like those guys alot," Fitzgerald said. "I look forward to watching them progress."
  • -- The safeties continue to shine. Ibraheim Campbell and RS freshman Traveon Henry were making plays all over the field. Campbell’s on-field leadership is crucial for players like Henry, as well as cornerbacks Dwight White, C.J. Bryant and Daniel Jones.
  • -- With Damien Proby not participating at linebacker, the linebacker depth chart comes into deep focus. Drew Smith has great sideline-to-sideline burst. Collin Ellis is a powerful, sound, aggressive tackler. Joseph Jones and Eric Wilson looked comfortable in pass coverage. And Jaylen Prater showed some nice signs of early progress. The linebacking corps has developed into one of this team's true strengths -- on either side of the ball.
  • -- Practice began early Tuesday to accommodate Northwestern’s pro day, scheduled for 12:00 pm. Kevin put together a detailed primer on the event which I recommend you check out.
  • -- Coach Fitzgerald was generally pleased with the energy level and tempo of practice. The intensity of the intra-squad scrimmage really began to pick up towards the end of the morning session. The Wildcats split up into what Fitzgerald called "team reps" and seven on seven drills, a change made to help offset depth issues on both lines.
  • -- A couple of other notes: at wide receiver, redshirt freshmen Mike McHugh and Austin Carr (student athlete talent show wunderkind) made the most of their opportunities. McHugh in particular is a natural fit in the slot with excellent hands and great toughness. He may get switched to the outside eventually, but on Tuesday McHugh was working at several different spots.