It goes without saying that thinking is a pretty smart way to go about making decisions on a football field. Some positions require more thinking than others, and no position requires more of it than quarterback. But the condition generally holds across the board: good football plays require smart and reasoned thinking behind them. That’s like, kindergarden stuff.
It’s also an approach Chance Carter wants nothing to do with. Carter needs to try the exact opposite. He needs to relax his mind and allow his massive frame and quick-twitch explosiveness do all the talking.
“We stopped thinking,” Carter said after Northwestern's penultimate spring workout Tuesday of the position-wide improvement at defensive tackle last season. “We just went out and played.”
Simplicity has been a big theme for Carter this spring. Exactly one year ago, Carter shined in team workouts. He battled (and appeared to have overtaken) senior Will Hampton for the starting tackle spot alongside Brian Arnfelt heading into summer workouts.
Better yet, Carter made the play of Northwestern’s spring season, an interception return for a touchdown in the spring game that counted for 17 points under coach Pat Fitzgerald’s revised rules.
Everything pointed to Carter locking up depth chart superiority during preseason workouts. Had he carried the unrelenting motor and forceful agility he flashed during spring workouts into the summer, Carter would've had nothing to worry about. The DT tackle spot, or his presumed rise into it, was Carter’s for the taking. Preseason workouts would be more a formal acceptance than a real contest.
The next part really bugs Carter. His spring performance didn’t earn him the starting spot he sorely longed for. Instead, junior Sean McEvily rose from relative obscurity to unseat him. It was a disappointing twist for the player whose spring workouts and athletic capabilities and positive work ethic promised so much more 2012.
“It was disappointing,” Carter recalled. “Sean took it and I was happy for him.”
Losing the starting job didn’t prevent Carter from having his best season as a Wildcat to date. In 13 games, he registered 15 tackles and one tackle for loss, both career highs. He continued to fight and battle in practice, but with McEvily and Arnfelt already well-entrenched at the center of the D-line, there was no avenue through which Carter could regain his spring stardom.
That opportunity will come this season, and Carter maintains he’s well-positioned to take one of the open starting tackle spots – so much so, in fact, that he enters the final spring workout Saturday believing the spring workout session, as a whole, topped last year’s eye-popping performance.
His progression goes beyond experience and gradual maturation. It strikes at the core of basic football knowledge – the very logic Carter openly eschews as part of his gameday strategy. Last season, Carter, who moved over from defensive end heading into his redshirt freshman season, was still figuring out the basic responsibilities of the defensive tackle position.
One year’s film study and field work, plus the motivation he gained from a sobering fall of reserve-status existence, pushed Carter to new heights. Not only does he feel more comfortable at his position this season, he’s open to admitting it.
“I was just getting to learn defensive tackle last year,” he said. “I switched positions going into my redshirt freshman year so I was kind of learning on the fly. I feel like I’ve gotten a lot better in a year.”
The loss of Arnfelt creates an interesting situation at the tackle spot this season. Three players – Carter, McEvily and Hampton – will be competing for two spots. With Hampton held out of spring workouts due to injury, McEvily and Hampton have commanded first-team reps. There will be no traditional spring scrimmage this year – Fitzgerald called it off to compensate for thinning depth concerns – so Carter won’t be running back any interceptions for touchdowns. His consistent trenchwork doesn’t regularly come up in conversation, but Carter’s assertion that his general understanding of the position, and his role within it, has improved is incredibly hard to impeach.
His improvements are evident – it’s just not as easy to recognize this season. Carter's talents aren't anywhere near as surprising with a year's distance from his spring breakout. The question becomes whether those improvements will be enough to leapfrog McEvily and/or Hampton on the depth chart. Those decisions are a long way off, and Carter readily allows that his place won’t be determined until summer workouts. But he says he feels more confident about his chances, and why not?
“I definitely feel better than last year,” he said. “But It’s going to come down to the first week and a half of camp.”
Whoever wins out will join a thinly populated but youthful defensive tackle group. Redshirt freshman Greg Kuhar impressed on scout team last year and has elevated his game this spring. Sophomore C.J. Robbins has finally left his injury troubles behind him, at least for the moment, and Carter believes his hard work will pay off with a key backup spot this season.
The competition at the front will obscure the relative depth-chart shuffling on the margins, where Robbins and Kuhar and redshirt freshman Conor Mahoney, reside. This is not a deep group; the youth and size on the offensive line puts the D-Tackles to shame. Northwestern has addressed the position through recruiting in subsequent classes, but no immediate help is likely to make its mark this season.
It’s Carter and McEvily and Hampton. As for the rest of the rotation? Crickets. A bunch of unproven parts fills out the second and third team, none of whom have the benefit of any sort of extended playing time. For a Wildcats’ run defense that went from 4.49 yards per play (10th in the Big Ten) in 2011 to 3.77 (4th) last season, the relative dearth of proven options feels like something of a concern. Carter knows the solution.
“We just need to go,” he said.
Between now and the Wildcats’ season-opener August 31 at Cal, Carter will have learned whether his gradual progression will allow him to win the starting spot he let slip through the cracks next year. “I still need to work on some things, but I definitely feel better about it now,” he said. Another strong spring and another positive attitude – sounds a lot like last season. This time, Carter wants the final verdict to be different.