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Northwestern Spring Football Wrap

by Chris Johnson (@chrisdjohnsonn) and Kevin Trahan (@k_trahan)

Were it not for the athletic department’s always resourceful communications staff, it might not have struck you that Northwestern’s 2013 spring football season has officially come to a close. There was no traditional spring scrimmage this season, per coach Pat Fitzgerald’s wishes, which leaves a feeling of incompleteness about the conclusion of this year’s workouts. But the Wildcats have indeed packed up and moved into pre-preseason hibernation, so you won’t be hearing all that much over the next few months.

If you can endure the respite, Northwestern will hit the practice fields later this summer for preseason workouts, the final prelude to an outwardly optimistic 2013 season. We’re sending you off into the (temporary) football abyss with some superlatives and key points to ponder as you begin your preseason mental preparation – fans need training, too! – and to sum up everything that’s happened over the past six weeks. Enjoy your football vacation, because before you know it, the Wildcats will be flying out to Berkeley, CA, for their season August 31 opener at Cal.

Biggest Riser

Chris: Stephen Buckley

When running the ball was already your biggest offensive weapon, and already your offensive MVP’s prime field of operation, for another player to make a definitive impression in that realm to the point of making more progress than any other teammate over six weeks of spring workouts is remarkable. To my eyes, Buckley ascended higher than any Wildcat this spring, and he did it without earning a starting spot, which makes his rise that much more incredible.

The top of the running back depth chart was one of the surest things about Northwestern’s roster, and that still holds true after spring practice, but Buckley showed himself to be a valuable backfield piece to supplement Venric Mark’s potent option work. Mike Trumpy will get his share of carries, and Malin Jones adds promising depth, and based on the dazzling explosiveness and big-play ability Buckley exhibited in spring practice, his talents will provide a major boost for a well-stocked running back corps. Buckley can also contribute as a slot receiver to round himself into a true multi-purpose threat.

Kevin: Mike Jensen and Christian Jones

I'm going to choose a different spring MVP than Pat Fitzgerald did, but since Fitzgerald informally gave that honor to Mike Jensen last weekend, I figured I would include him in this section. Jensen is the kind of player Fitzgerald loves — a walk-on receiver who has worked hard in the weight room and in practice, and is finally able to earn significant playing time as a senior. It's the Jacob Schmidt story, but Jensen has even more of a chance to be a contributor. He had just two receptions each of the past two seasons, but now, even though he likely won't start, he'll be firmly in the receiver rotation, and if spring practice is any indication, he should see a lot more targets this year.

Like Jensen, Christian Jones has earned high praise from Fitzgerald this spring, and this could be the year that he makes the jump to being an elite receiver. Jones has always had the talent and the physical tools to be successful in college — he was a four-star recruit in high school. However, it took him some time to get his feet wet, finishing with 12 receptions his freshman year and 36 as a junior. Now, he has a real chance to jump into the No. 2 role behind Rashad Lawrence and get on everybody's radar by the end of the Big Ten season.

Biggest Faller

Chris: Kyle Prater

This selection may be a bit unfair, because Prater sat out spring workouts with an undisclosed injury. His decline is related not to what Prater did or didn’t do – unless Fitzgerald took offense with Prater’s sideline demeanor, I’m not sure there are many ways he could have damaged his fortunes this spring – but with what other players did do.

Other receivers stepped up, starting with Mike Jensen, who Fitzgerald last week said was Northwestern’s spring offensive MVP, and including Cameron Dickerson, an uber-athletic deep threat who continues to flash immense potential, and Mike McHugh and Tony Jones and on down the line. There are so many alternative options at this point that Prater’s evident size and athleticism feels less important than ever to Northwestern’s passing attack. Prater struggled to assimilate last season, and his inability to remedy his substandard performance, coupled with the improvements from the competition around him, conspired to further lower his stock.

Kevin: Davion Fleming

Like Chris' selection of Kyle Prater, this isn't so much a knock on Fleming as it is a testament to just how good Northwestern's safeties are this year. Ibraheim Campbell and Traveon Henry could form one of the best safety duos in the Big Ten, and I maintain that Jimmy Hall is essentially a third starter — he should see a lot of time off the bench, and he'll be used as an outside linebacker and a nickelback in certain packages. That leaves Fleming as the fourth safety.

It's pretty remarkable how much more depth NU has at safety than it did a year ago. Last year, Fleming started the opener at Syracuse. He was eventually passed up by Jared Carpenter, but still saw significant playing time. He'll likely see his time decrease this year, and again, that's not necessarily a knock on him; rather, it's just a testament to how much young talent NU has at safety.

Unit That Shined: Our answers.

Unit That Underwhelmed

Chris: Secondary

If we’re being completely honest, I wasn’t exactly underwhelmed by the secondary. In fact, I was pleasantly surprised with pretty much every position group, and Fitzgerald relayed that message after most every workout. But since we like labeling things and making descriptive judgments (guilty as charged), here: the secondary could have been better, I guess. Let’s leave the safeties out of this, because Ibraheim Campbell and Traveon Henry are in prime form, and their impressive performance – collective and indivually – shone through in spring workouts.

It’s the uncertainty at cornerback that has me feeling somewhat concerned. Nick VanHoose has one cornerback spot sealed up, and we entered the spring hoping for some more clarity on the other side, but it appears as if we’ll head into preseason workouts feeling as unsure as ever about the position. If the season started today, Daniel Jones would be the first man up – he didn’t really do anything significant enough to hurt (or help) his position in spring workouts, and because logical competitors C.J. Bryant and Dwight White likewise hovered in neutral, the battle was tabled with no obvious solution in sight.

Kevin: Quarterbacks

The most thing I've learned from covering spring ball is not to draw too many conclusions from spring ball. Battles are won and lost in fall camp, not the spring. It's essentially a learning experience and a chance to get young players some more time. An example: Last spring, Kain Colter and Trevor Siemian were No. 1 and No. 2, not 1.A. and 1.B. Treyvon Green poised to challenge for the No. 1 running back spot and Venric Mark was still a wide receiver. However, as I said, spring is about development, and I wasn't that impressed with the development I saw from the quarterbacks.

To be clear, I think both quarterbacks are going to have great years, and I think the NU offense will be among the best in the Big Ten. However, neither quarterback looked that much better than last year. Colter can throw — the popular narrative that he can't needs to stop — but he does need to improve that aspect of his game, and he was still somewhat inconsistent in the spring. Siemian showed he can still make deep passes, but he wasn't as polished as he was last year, which is understandable to an extent, because he isn't in midseason form. However, for NU to be a true contender in the Big Ten, both quarterbacks need to polish their games this fall and make the NU offense even more potent.

Spring MVP

Chris: Traveon Henry

Call it a position battle, if that’s your thing. I’ll call it like I see it: the second safety spot (the non-Campbell safety spot) is Traveon Henry’s to lose. No player was more active or more aesthetically eye-popping than Henry. Whereas last season you saw sporadic flashes and big hits and occasional smart football plays, this spring Henry evolved into something wholesome and complete.

All the first-year jitters and rawness has been pared down and repurposed into excellent field awareness and spatial recognition. His athletic talents were never up for debate – Henry is really fast, and really strong, but that’s not news to anyone who watched him play last season. It was the mental component of his game that held Henry back last season, and now he seems to have figured out that part of it, too. Paired alongside Campbell, and with competitive incentive to keep getting better as Jimmy Hall lurks in the “battle” for the starters label, Henry can morph Northwestern’s safety combo from a one-man show to a prodigious tag-team. I’d put Northwestern’s safety tandem right up with the Big Ten’s best.

Kevin: Drew Smith

I wrestled with putting Mike Jensen here, because Fitzgerald is right that he seems poised to take a step up. I also considered Rashad Lawrence, who is NU's clear No. 1 receiver and has done a good job taking on Demetrius Fields' role as the leader of the receiving corps. However, I settled on Smith. He's still in a position battle with Collin Ellis, and he's still learning the ins and outs of being a key contributor on the defense, but he's well on his way to doing that. He's not so much spring MVP because of how well he's played this spring. Rather, chose him for this section because he's shown the tools necessary to have a breakout year.

Smith is a tremendous athlete and a big hitter, as he showcased a number of times last year as a redshirt freshman. Many of those hits came on special teams, because there was no hesitation. Now that he knows the defense better, he's much less hesitant, and can read opposing offenses more effectively. He's incredibly athletic and has a big frame, so while he's at SAM linebacker right now, he has the potential to make the move to WILL linebacker down the line like Chi Chi Ariguzo did this year. Smith has star potential, and while we've seen glimpses of that potential so far, I wouldn't bet against him breaking out this year.

Biggest Offseason Question 

Chris: Should we be talking more about injuries?

A lot of this stuff is just precautionary, and Fitzgerald allowed that his spring practice schedule, and the lack of traditional scrimmage within, was designed to minimize injury risk and maximize potential recovery time. But the host of players sitting out this spring – from Prater to tackle Jack Konopka to linebacker Damien Proby to defensive end Deonte Gibson, and on down the line – is something to think about over the next few months.

What it one or two of these players isn’t ready for the start of the season? And if not that, what if they aren’t able to retain their full complement of skills after going through surgeries and/or rehabilitation processes? I haven’t heard anything about one of the missing players needing anything more than the next few months to get back into football shape, and if that’s the case, then none of this is anything serious to worry about, players will enter preseason workouts feeling refreshed and energized for another strong season and the only tangible memory of an injury-riddled spring session will be the absence of a spring game. If it’s the opposite, if some of these players are not ready by the start of preseason workouts, that’s not nothing.

Kevin: What in the world is going to happen in the trenches?

In most position battles, you get a sense of how things are going to play out. However, it's impossible to tell who will win battles on both NU's offensive and defensive lines. The offensive line has been hit particularly bad with the injury bug, as Jack Konopka, Paul Jorgensen and Matt Frazier have had to miss time. Konopka will start — likely at left tackle at the beginning, but could switch back to left — but Jorgensen and Frazier will both be battling for starting spots. Jorgensen will work into the mix with Shane Mertz, who has been playing left tackle this spring, while Frazier will fight for one of the two guard spots with Geoff Mogus and Adam DePietro, who have both been starting at guard in practice.

On the defensive side, there is still some uncertainty at both tackle and end. Chance Carter and Will Hampton will battle for a starting spot at defensive tackle this fall, but Hampton was injured this spring, so no headway was really made in that battle. At end, Dean Lowry and Deonte Gibson will battle for a stating spot, but couldn't in the spring because Gibson was hurt (though I expect both to play a lot, as NU has three starting-caliber ends in Lowry, Gibson and Tyler Scott). It's not that there isn't talent on the defensive or offensive lines, it's just hard to get a feel for how things will piece together once the season starts. We'll know a lot more a few weeks into fall camp than we do now.

Final Thoughts

Chris: There was something palpably positive about the way Northwestern conducted its workouts this spring. Energy levels were almost always surging, Fitzgerald kept his hollering and groaning to a palatable minimum and the team executed its drills and scrimmages purposefully and diligently. There was no messing around, like ever, and the players maintained their sense of focus through an off week where any measure of diversionary pleasures or off-field concerns could have crept in and shattered an otherwise determined collective mindset.

With every early-risk and small sample size caveat happily accepted, I don’t think it’s unreasonable to say this Northwestern team is far ahead of where last year’s group was. You can see it in the field, hear it in the post-game get-together and read between the lines in every one of Fitzgerald and his players’ comments. The Wildcats are flying high after a very successful season, and they are taking all the necessary steps to make 2013 an even more successful one.

Kevin: This might be the best Northwestern team since 1995, and it's pretty clear Fitzgerald knows that. He says his team doesn't care about preseason rankings and hype, but he does care about what the hype represents — the fact that this team has the potential to be really, really good. From the chemistry to the talent level, Fitzgerald couldn't contain his excitement when discussing what this year might hold.

There's a lot of excitement surrounding NU's football program right now. The offense is clicking, the defense is coming around, the talent level is much higher than just a few years ago, the program has momentum from a bowl win and the Wildcats are having more success than ever in recruiting. However, momentum can stop quickly with a disappointing year. Fitzgerald can't let his team buy into the hype too much, but the aura of a confident swagger surrounding this team is a good one. The bottom line is nobody knows how this team will fare in the fall, but this much is clear: the 2013 Wildcats have a chance to be one of the best in NU history. Fitzgerald knows it, and he can't wait to kick things off.