An earlier start this spring than most programs around the country, inspired by coach Pat Fitzgerald’s desire to accelerate injury recoveries in advance of preseason workouts, puts Northwestern on schedule to finish up practice in about two weeks. On April 13, the Wildcats will play their spring game, team workouts will come to a close and we can all start looking ahead to the summer, when preseason practices lead into the start of the regular season.
There is still work to be done before the Wildcats pack it up for the next few months, and many players still have ample opportunity to make a positive impression before the spring session runs out. Before the Wildcats hit the closing stretch, we’ve decided to compile a brief stock report on every spring development of note – from position battles to rising youngsters and depth chart intrigue. I've identified a few key categories in the hopes of clarifying anything you may or may not have missed over the past month.
Keep in mind: none of these developments are guaranteed to hold over the summer. Things change. Players improve. Others get injured. A college football roster is a fluid function of practice performance, injury developments and scheme specifics. We’re simply bringing you the personnel picture as we currently see it, and throwing in some of the most significant changes observed thus far this spring.
Biggest Riser: Joseph Jones, SAM (OLB)
Linebackers befitting Pat Fitzgerald’s scheme-molded requirements are cut from a specific physical cloth: they are quick, agile, speedy playmakers. They run down ball carriers from sideline to sideline, drop into coverage, hound crossing routes and even pressure the quarterback every now and then. Jones does all of those things, and does them well.
His spring practice performance to date has helped him earn first and second-team reps; as it stands, Jones could be in the mix to back up Chi Chi Ariguzo at the SAM outside linebacker position. Jones has made several nifty plays in team scrimmages, and coach Fitzgerald and his staff speak highly of his potential at the position. (on a side note: Fitzgerald has also mentioned senior Timmy Vernon and redshirt freshmen Jaylen Prater and Eric Wilson as players he's been impressed with in the linebacking corps).
After playing safety in high school, Jones has transitioned to the middle tier of the defense without missing a beat. His speed, quickness and lateral agility make him an excellent cover man and open-field stopper. This group of linebackers will build off last year’s excellent performance, and Jones – based off his consistent work in spring workouts – should be an integral part of the unit.
Biggest Faller: Davion Fleming, Safety
At the end of last season, as roster detractions were accounted for and this year’s personnel groupings began to take shape, one of the most interesting position battles worth looking at was safety. Ibraheim Campbell had one spot locked up. The other was a toss up between sophomore Traveon Henry, senior Davion Fleming and junior Jimmy Hall.
That was a reasonable conjecture to make at the time, were we not aware that Henry had put so much distance between him and the rest of the pack. Henry lined up alongside Campbell at the first spring workout and he hasn’t relinquished his spot since.
Meanwhile, Fleming appears to have fallen behind Henry and even Hall, who may not play safety full time this season (he’s likely to get time at nickleback and outside linebacker). In his final season, Fleming had a strong shot to win this job; instead, Henry’s athleticism and natural playmaking ability have left Fleming with little to hope for anything beyond a prominent backup spot. Provided things hold between now and the end of spring ball, Henry will own the starters tag (alongside Campbell) heading into the preseason.
Breakout Player: Stephen Buckley, running back
The backfield shouldn’t change much from the unit that finished fourth in the Big Ten with 4.93 yards per rush last season. Venric Mark will take on the lions share of carries, Mike Trumpy will add his routinely punishing complementary work and quarterback Kain Colter will take off from the pocket when necessary. Another appealing backfield weapon has emerged this spring, and he could add even more dynamism, speed and agility to the Wildcats rushing attack.
Buckley played quarterback in high school, and his experience piloting that running based attack gives him a better understanding of the various challenges and considerations Colter weighs every time he decides whether to keep the ball and run or pitch to an adjacent running back.
An inherent mental advantage is only part of what makes Buckley a natural fit in the Wildcats’ option sets (along with their more conventional hand off and pitch plays). He is an explosive runner, a perceptive ball carrier with fantastic peripheral vision and, like Mark, a home run threat each time he touches the ball. His talents have shone through in spring scrimmages, and as he gains experience in the offense with more and more repetitions, Buckley’s talents will become too obviously beneficial to ignore. And who knows, if Fitzgerald needs to shake up the game plan, he can use Buckley’s dual-threat arsenal to expand his assortment of half back throws and other trick plays.
Most intriguing position battle: Right Tackle – Paul Jorgensen vs. Shane Mertz vs. Eric Olson
Trying to gauge the relative depth chart standing of tackles Jorgensen, Mertz and Olson is like trying to summarize the Lord of the Rings trilogy without watching “The Fellowship of the Ring” (if you have not seen any part of the trilogy, then I apologize in advance for confusing you with a peculiar sci-fi film analogy). Jorgensen is one of several players sitting out spring practice, so it is difficult to evaluate how Mertz and Olson stack up against him in the battle for the starting right tackle spot.
The presumed starter at left tackle, Jack Konopka, has also been held out of spring workouts due to injury, but his place in the lineup is practically academic. The player selected to flank Konopka is more difficult to pinpoint. Even without Jorgensen participating in workouts, Mertz and Olson have performed well in practice situations. Both are big, agile and generally well-grounded in the fundamentals of the position.
We’ll have to wait until summer workouts to gain a more informed viewpoint of the situation, but for now, Mertz and Olson are at least giving the appearance of a highly competitive and unsettled right tackle situation. Jorgensen will not simply walk into starting duties when he returns from his injury; he needs to earn it by fending off Mertz and Olson.
I’m Looking Forward to… studying the progression of the option.
There is a general misconception about Northwestern’s offense. Contrary to popular belief, the Wildcats are not an “option offense.” They are a spread team that majors in the option. The option is one dimension of their attack – and a hugely important one, to be sure – but there are other sets and plays and motions coordinator Mick McCall employs to keep defenses off balance and keep the Wildcats from becoming too obviously predictable. Inserting Trevor Siemian for third-and-longs and two-minute drills are standard points of confirmation.
And with that disclosure out of the way, I can’t wait to watch this option attack take flight in its second season. Mark and Colter ran their pitch-and-catch sequence to near perfection last year, and with an offseason to refine their timing and physical coordination, executions should be cleaner, defenses should be even more perplexed and the option should be more dangerous than it was last season.
Which is to say: Colter and Mark can take their admirable work from 2012 and take it to a whole new level. Mark is back and ready to break more school records, Buckley will enter the fold and Colter has a year of game film to parse and use as guidelines for improvement. All of that will go into making the option – a staple, not definition, of Northwestern’s offense – a devastating offensive tool.