Only a select group of any freshman class suits up in its first season. The sheer numerical improbability of first-years contributing right away has a lot to do with why play-right-away freshmen are specifically designated as such. They are true freshman – as in, redshirt season sold separately. Trying to figure out who will or won’t take the field as a true freshman requires deep depth chart analysis and almost blind competitive guesswork. It demands one to evaluate how a certain incoming player will stack up against an incumbent at his position, without ever actually having seen that prospect suit up on a college gridiron.
Recruiting scouting reports and tape are the best resources we have, and if that’s your best way to make fuzzy depth chart claims that are already clouded by standard first-year jitters to begin with, it’s pretty easy to see why this whole exercise, particularly in April, well before Fall workouts, is a wholly imperfect science.
Having laid out the ground rules, consider what follows our humblest attempt to fashion an early guess, based on spring workouts and recruiting film and depth chart impressions, which freshman has the best chance of burning his redshirt and suiting up immediately in 2013-14. To reiterate: we’re probably just as clueless as you are at this point – this is just a bit of fun predictive guesswork. Nothing more, nothing less. As we move closer to the season and observe the 2013 class perform in Fall workouts, empirically sound answers will emerge and we’ll be able to look back on how dumb (or, fingers crossed, ingenious) our late-April predictions really were. For now, long-shot conjectures will do just fine.
Chris: DT Eric Joraskie
When freshmen talent is variable and inconsistent and subject to wild deviation in performance, the best route in trying to pinpoint a roster opening is to locate the areas with the most urgent personnel depth issues. I identified what I believe amounts to the Wildcats’ greatest roster weaknesses (and there aren’t many, the way I see it) and every deviant path kept taking me back to one place: defensive tackle.
This is sort of a huge problem. One of the biggest reasons behind the Wildcats’ 10-win success was the vast improvement they made up front, and their improved run-stuffing numbers – Northwestern allowed an average of 4.49 yards per rush in 2011, ranking 10th among Big Ten teams, but improved to 3.77 in 2012, good for fourth in conference – support that basic idea. The problem is, Northwestern lost its best defensive tackle, Brian Arnfelt, to graduation, and the after effects could just as easily undo the progress made in plugging holes and sealing off running lanes last season.
Last year’s other key contributors are back, and Chance Carter – the star of last year’s spring session – somehow managed to have a more consistently productive spring practice, with almost none of the typical hype attached. Sophomore C.J. Robbins (who could also see time at defensive end) also drew sparkling reviews from teammates and coaches after spending the past two seasons dealing with various ailments. Greg Kuhar was close behind him. Point is, there are reasons to think this group can do enough patchwork to mitigate Arnfelt’s loss without ever needing an infusion of tough interior grit from a talented freshman like Joraskie, but suffice it to say the D-Line would be better off with him, than without him.
He turned down offers from Rutgers, Vanderbilt, Purdue, Syracuse and others before sealing his future with the Wildcats, and if Joraskie gets on the field in year one, every bit of scoutspeak and game video says his game will translate immediately -- however dubious that whole premise may seem with such an inchoate data set to work with. That was almost guaranteed to be the case with whatever choice we wound up making; I can’t make any real judgments on Joraskie’s relative talents because at this stage, for the purposes of this dubious endeavor, Joraskie is nothing more than a few impressive highlight tapes and a nice offer list.
You probably can’t take log of any of the above analysis to your preseason memory bank. In fact, I earnestly recommend you wait until the Fall. There is one thing to extract from this, and that’s the serious depth issues at defensive tackle (consider this: after Will Hampton, Sean McEvilly and Carter, Northwestern has exactly zero game experience at DT). Joraskie looks fully capable of playing right away to help alleviate that underlying problem, even if his first season consists more of reserve work in select down-and-distance situations than extensive first-team repetitions.
The Wildcats elected to throw sophomore DE Dean Lowry into the true freshman gauntlet straight out of Fall camp last season, and the positional needs would appear to recommend Joraskie’s candidacy on the D-line even more strongly this season.
Kevin: CB Keith Watkins
Predicting where freshmen will play in the spring is difficult, because we have yet to see any of them play in a college environment. The majority of NU's freshmen in any given year will redshirt, and regardless of the number of stars that a players has coming in, it's always beneficial for them to sit out a year to get bigger, faster, stronger, and learn the playbook. However, Fitzgerald isn't against playing true freshmen if they're needed, particularly if they don't need to put on that much more weight to be college-ready.
When discussing where freshmen have the best chance to play, you have to look where the team needs the most help, and in the Wildcats' case, that's at defensive tackle and cornerback. Chris already discussed the lack of depth at defensive tackle above, but cornerback has similar issues. Nick VanHoose has one cornerback slot locked down, but the other spot is very much open, and nobody did much to claim it. Right now, the choices look to be junior Daniel Jones, junior C.J. Bryant and redshirt freshman Dwight White. Jones struggled at times last year, but has more experience than the other two. Bryant saw some time, but never was a major contributor. White has yet to see a college field, but has the potential to become a "VanHoose story" and grab a starting spot out of his redshirt freshman year.
Regardless of how the two-deep looks in August — it will almost certainly have those four players on it, but the order has yet to be determined — there will be room for another cornerback to come in and contribute, mainly on special teams, but also at times at cornerback. The candidates from this year's class are Keith Watkins, Matt Harris and Marcus McShepard. Given the usual pattern, I'd expect one to play and two to redshirt, barring injuries.
Of all three players, Watkins had the most hype coming in and certainly has the athleticism to be a productive Big Ten player. He was a high three-star recruit who has NFL ambitions, and he certainly has the talent to make an impact right away, particularly on special teams.
Watkins was a running back in high school, so he'll have to do some adjusting. Typically, when players switch positions, it helps to have them redshirt a year. However, Watkins will have the whole summer to learn the defense, and he'll get experience throughout fall camp. He won't be a candidate to start this year, but he could definitely get some time on the defense. More importantly, he has a skill set fit for special teams, which could help him see the field. He's fast, tough and athletic — the running back mold — and that's the type of skill set that got other players like safety Traveon Henry on the field early.
Again, it's tough to judge who could see the field immediately, since it's still spring. However, one cornerback looks like a prime candidate to receive some early playing time. Of course, Harris or McShepard could jump ahead of their peers, too — don't count them out, because after all, none of the three have been on a field together — but heading into the summer, Watkins looks like he might fit the description the best, especially given his potential on special teams.