Since the end of Northwestern's spring practice, we've run through each position unit and listed our projected depth chart, stock reports, position battles and questions heading into the summer. By compiling all those together, we've created the ultimate NU summer guide — it's been in the 60s in Evanston the past few days, it's summer — so you can get all your information in one place. Feel free to read all 8,500 words... or click the links below to jump to the sections you're most interested in.
Returning starters: Kain Colter (Sr), Trevor Siemian (Jr)
Others returning: Zack Oliver (So), P.J. Carollo (So), Christian Salem (RS Fr)
Incoming recruit: Matt Alviti
Depth Chart Projection:
1A. Kain Colter
1B. Trevor Siemian
3. Zack Oliver
4. P.J. Carollo
5. Christian Salem
Redshirt – Matt Alviti
Explaining the Depth Chart:
An explanation is only necessary to those still convinced Northwestern has some sort of “controversy” at its quarterback position. It’s pretty simple stuff – Kain Colter and Trevor Siemian are co-starters that Pat Fitzgerald and his staff feel comfortable rotating throughout the course of a game. There are situations where Colter’s mobility and ability to break big plays can punish opposing defenses by exposing an obvious hole, or where Siemian is called into action to attack a weak cornerback on a deep route over the top. It all comes back to defensive circumstance – the Wildcats adjust to what’s configured in front of them by selecting the quarterback who’s best suited to advance the ball against that specific front. Colter may “start” more games in that he’s more often than not the guy taking Northwestern’s first offensive snap, but the designation is mostly trivial. Both of these guys are going to play.
Precise division of labor and snap allotments are not part of Northwestern’s offensive identity. The quarterbacks are subject to rotation; it’s figuring out when and why those rotations occur that leads to a greater understanding of coordinator Mick McCall’s offense. Backup Zack Oliver took a major developmental step this offseason and entered camp with a firm grasp on the offense, firing passes crisply and more accurately than ever before, and even, at various points, scrambling for nice chunks of yardage. With two first-team quarterback slots available, Oliver could see extensive playing time should Colter or Siemian suffer an injury at any point this season.
Stock Up: Kain Colter
There’s an element of unpredictability to Northwestern’s offense. Having the ability to roll out two different quarterbacks, each introducing a different range of deep and short-look possibilities, can leave even the most seasoned defenses feeling lost, grasping for air, at the mercy of McCall’s play-calling whims. Watching film – lots and lots of film – can help alleviate the problem. Here’s one obvious empirical conclusion: a common theme with the Wildcats’ offense last season was limiting the number of deep throws Colter was asked to make.
Whether because of lingering soreness or sapped throwing velocity from a severe highschool shoulder injury or just plain old inaccurate passing skills, the Wildcats withhold almost all of their threatening deep pass plays from Colter’s repertoire. You can almost see it coming; third and long, enter Siemian, every time. Instilling in Colter the ability to make those same throws would open up a new world of deep pass possibilities for the Wildcats, and defenses – already befudled by Colter’s option playmaking – would be forced to account for a vastly unconquerable range of pass and run options. They would become overstretched. An already potent offense would become more so. Colter and Siemian would benefit.
The scenario I describe probably won’t ever truly take root – it’s idealistic and demanding and there’s just not enough time, period. But Colter has definitely improved his passing, no doubt, and it’s getting close to the point where his once-overwhelmingly-errant proportion of deep throws is settling into something closer to a healthy mean. Even still, Siemian is the more polished passer, and will almost surely remain so leading up to the fall, but Colter’s improved passing is not to be ignored, if only for the range of possibilities it potentially opens up and the new ream of challenges it could create for opposing defenses.
Stock Down: No one
Both starters have made noticeable improvements since bowl season. Colter tightened his passing. Siemian was proactive in using his legs to escape pressure in the pocket, and also added another layer of polish to his refined deep-ball mechanics. Oliver looks like a very capable backup, which isn’t something you could always say about the sophomore from Baton Rouge, La.
There is nothing negative to report here. The only group made worse off by these developments are the 12 defenses scheduled to line up and scheme against the Wildcats QBs this Fall. Whatever Northwestern’s offense was last season, it is now better – with both Colter and Siemian enhancing their skill sets around every margin – this season, and that makes the jobs of opposing defenses exceedingly difficult (on top of what was an already tricky offense to cover last season) every time they line up opposite this QB-rotating attack.
Position Battle To Watch: None
In case there was any remaining confusion about Northwestern’s quarterback situation, allow me to make this very clear: Kain Colter and Trevor Siemian are not competing for a decisive “starter” label. They are listed at 1A and 1B for a reason – either player can start, both will play a large-enough fraction of total snaps to rightly claim starters status and, on a more practical level, why make a distinction at all between two variously contributing first-team quarterbacks?
When you really think about it, quarterback is just another position. If there’s some confusion about the starters tag, why does that confusion demand a clear resolution? Why is that something Fitzgerald needs to clear up each and every week? Colter and Siemian will be under center this fall. Who starts each game is less important than the overall timing and complexity and execution of the offense.
Biggest offseason question: Will Colter Throw The Ball Downfield More Often?
Most of Colter’s passing work last season came on first and second downs. That falls in line with every general characterization of the Wildcats’ offense – Colter completed 67 percent of his passes, but when the Wildcats face third and long situations, or just needed a deep pass play to spark an otherwise stagnant drive, Siemian’s arm talents were better equipped to find tight seams in pass defenses and pinpoint receivers downfield. Siemian was the designated deep-ball thrower; Colter’s passing diet consisted of short-to-intermediate throws, most of them simple and easy to manage.
This dynamic may or may not change this season, but if coaches do elect to give Colter a more daring assortment of passing plays this season, it won’t be difficult to understand why. Colter’s passes grew tighter and more accurate as spring workouts wore on, and the same drastic overthrows you saw last spring were noticeably absent from 7-on-7 drills and other passing exercises. The true test is real competition, not non-pressure practice environments. Colter’s passing has improved, but the only way to measure the depth of those improvements is by allowing Colter to push his limits this Fall, even if it’s against the relatively weaker second half of Northwestern’s nonconference schedule (Western Michigan – Sept. 14, Maine – Sept. 21).
That will allow Colter to take his offseason work and see whether it endures the gauntlet of intense game situations, and whether his improvements are something coaches can rationally consider when drawing up gameplans and quarterback splits and throw-run options.
Returning Starter: Venric Mark (Sr)
Others Returning: Mike Trumpy (Sr), Malin Jones (RS Fr), Stephen Buckley (RS Fr), Treyvon Green (Jr), Mike Panico (RS Fr)
(*It is not clear whether Igwebuike will play running back or safety)
Depth Chart Projection:
1. Venric Mark
2. Mike Trumpy
3A. Malin Jones
3B. Stephen Buckley
4. Treyvon Green
Explaining The Depth Chart:
The first spot on this list needs no explanation. Venric Mark was one of the top rushers in the Big Ten statistically, and easily its most thrilling empirically, and but for an NCAA loophole allowing Otto Graham to earn another year of eligibility, Mark will start and own the bulk of carries this season. Right behind him is Mike Trumpy, a senior who represents the hammer to Mark’s decorative carving tool, the rock to Mark’s paper, the SUV to Mark’s flashy sports car. You get the idea. Trumpy was a key asset in third-down situations, and he has done nothing to relinquish that responsibility this offseason.
Two redshirt freshmen enter the mix this season, and both offer completely different skill sets. Jones is a conventional between-the-tackles runner, and quite possibly the Wildcats next “feature” back once Mark graduates. Buckley is a former quarterback with speed to burn, jukes to dazzle and a preternatural understanding of the option read that dates back to his days running the veer offense as a high school quarterback (It’s worth noting: Buckley may also line up at slot receiver). Green had a disappointing season last year after showing promise in 2011, but he looked better and better over the course of spring workouts and could ascend the depth chart come preseason camp.
Stock Up: Malin Jones
This distinction could fall to any of the four names you see above, really, but Saturday’s final practice left a strong impression, and that impression was Jones running and cutting and breaking tackles and making the most of his sizable workload. With offers from Notre Dame, Illinois and Boston College, Jones was one of the most prized recruits of Northwestern’s 2012 class, and he began to show exactly why, and electrifyingly so, this spring.
I don’t foresee Jones surpassing Mark on the depth chart, and short-yardage situations are Trumpy’s forte, but I wouldn’t be surprised to see him take on more and more carries as the season rolls along. His talents are simply too diverse and sophisticated not to use as a complement to Mark’s unique running style. Besides, with Mark fully expected to resume punt and kick returning duties, it can’t hurt to have a capable back like Jones as an injury-minimizing secondary option.
Stock Down: Treyvon Green
How does a player improve his performance over the course of spring workouts yet find himself in a worse place, depth-chart wise, than the end of last season? I’m glad you asked. Buckley and Jones bring more to the table – as a pair, and individually – than Green, so even as he worked hard to regain the quickness and power he had in 2011, the competition around him eclipsed his efforts rather seamlessly.
It almost feels as if Green let a golden opportunity slip away last season, to no complete fault of his own. A traumatic training camp injury set him back, and when Mark stepped up, and the option hummed, all the standard off-tackle sets that were once Green’s primary field of operation were either a) casualties to the growing reliance on the option or b) handed to Trumpy. Green can regain some of those carries this season, but he has a steep mountain to climb – Jones and Buckley are making it awfully difficult to think anyone can wrest away their reserve contributions.
Position Battle to Watch: Malin Jones vs. Treyvon Green
Not to suggest this pairing fits the definition of “position battle,” or to posit that Green and Jones are fighting for any sort of descriptive designation – I’m simply highlighting two players competing for a scarcity of carries. Jones shined in spring workouts, and Green didn’t do anything to hurt his stock individually (as addressed above), but both players remain a notch (or three) below one of the fastest and most electrifying players in the country: Venric Mark.
No player better understands the option than Mark, and no player has the benefit of a year’s experience running the Wildcats’ offensive staple, so the specific divisions of leftover carries could come down to who can more quickly master the nuances of to-pit-or-not-to-pitch decision-making, and all its granular details. Jones is the better back, period, but Green has more experience, which tends to count double in Pat Fitzgerald’s evaluation of players competing at a single position. In the end, I expect Jones to earn more carries over the course of the season.
Biggest Offseason Question: Will This Year Be More like 2011 or 2012?
A largely pass-oriented recent existence was eschewed in favor of a more balanced approach last season. The Wildcats broadened their horizons, dropped their traditional emphasis on the pass and rolled out an option flavor – mixed in with timely bursts of Trevor Siemian’s passing – to form a potent and unpredictable offensive attack. I could give you a bunch of statistics to help you understand last season’s offensive pivot. Here’s the most telling one: after averaging 3.75 yards per carry and finishing last in the Big Ten in rushing in 2011, the Wildcats posted a 4.93 average last season, good for fourth among league opponents.
With that statistical quantum leap in mind, it begs the question: where will Northwestern’s running game finish this season? Defensive coordinators will wise up and scheme against the Colter-Mark option, and opposing defenders will make sure not to underestimate just how much a diminutive scatback can accomplish between the tackles. Coordinator Mick McCall will need to make adjustments to counter those adjustments, and with Jones and Buckley at his disposal, Northwestern will have a wealth of new wrinkles to throw at the rest of the Big Ten. How those countervailing forces clash, and how much the rest of the league decides to utilize their respective running attacks will determine the relative standing of the Wildcats’ running attack.
Starters returning: Rashad Lawrence (Sr), Christian Jones (Jr), Tony Jones (Jr)
Others returning: Cameron Dickerson (So), Kyle Prater (Jr), Pierre Youngblood-Ary (So), Mike Jensen (Sr), Mike McHugh (RS Fr), Cermak Bland (So), Austin Carr (RS Fr), Andrew Scanlan (RS Fr)
Depth Chart Projection:
Y – Cameron Dickerson, Pierre Youngblood-Ary
H – Christian Jones, Mike Jensen
Z – Rashad Lawrence, Kyle Prater
X – Tony Jones, Mike McHugh
Explaining the Depth Chart:
Lettered descriptions are a handy way to delegate receiver responsibilities, and if you’re interested in what each letter means specifically, I suggest you confer with this vast reservoir of free information we like to call the internet for an assortment of different answers. I’ll focus on the players, thank you very much, Northwestern’s players, actually.
The only big change you’ll notice right off the bat is Demetrius Fields, or his absence therein. Maybe the most surprising part about this depth chart is Kyle Prater’s backup status. Last year was about getting his feet wet and weaning off the training wheels, but you sort of expected Prater to assert himself this season. He hasn’t had a real opportunity to do that so far – Prater was held out of spring workouts with an undisclosed injury – and his absence has allowed other players, such as X receiver Mike McHugh, to prove their value to this offense.
Another item of note: coach Pat Fitzgerald has offered nothing but effusive praise for H receiver Mike Jensen. His quickness and good hands make a terrific asset over the middle and in short crossing routes. Oh, and Cameron Dickerson is a 6’3’’, 200-pound sophomore with more sheer athletic talent than anyone on this list. He would be someone you’d want to keep an eye on this fall.
Stock Up: Mike Jensen
With just four catches to his name, it might surprise you to learn Jensen was one of the most consistently productive receivers throughout spring practice. I wrote it above, but it bears repeating: Fitzgerald loves Jensen’s work ethic and toughness, and his performance has met every degree of that praise.
If the Wildcats look to incorporate more short passes and across-the-middle stuff, simple plays to ease Colter into a comfortable passing rhythm, Jensen is a reliable option who made major progress in spring workouts. I expect his progression to continue into the summer, and even if he’s not stealing targets away from Christian Jones – Fitzgerald has offered similar glowing praise for Jones, and rightly so – Jensen should become a functional component in a deep receiving corps. At the very least we can say this (with a strong level of certainty): Jensen’s final year on campus will be his most productive.
Stock Down: Kyle Prater
This would have been an easier determination to make were Prater available for spring workouts. As it is, he wasn’t, and so we’re stuck making assumptions based on perception and the performance of the players around him. On those measures, Prater is falling, and unless he proves otherwise in preseason workouts, expect another low-productivity year from the former five-star recruit.
The initial excitement over Prater’s transfer to Northwestern spiked late last summer when it was learned that Prater would be able to bypass the customary one-year transfer waiting period. His first season didn’t amount to anything near what his immense talent or reputation suggested, but because Northwestern had one of its most successful seasons in school history, and because the Wildcats leaned on the run more than the pass, Prater’s poor form was a minor sidebar, something to be brushed off. Even if the Wildcats turn in another excellent season, Prater is expected to perform to something resembling his boundless capabilities, and to date he hasn’t come close. Spring workouts, Prater’s absence aside, did not shake that perception.
Position Battle to Watch: None
Continuity is a favorable quality for an upward-trending football program to have, and when it presents situations like the one you see above, coaches can pick up right where they left off. That’s pretty much where we find ourselves with Northwestern’s receiving corps. The second-string listings will be tweaked over the course of the season as coaches react to upticks and downturns in performance, and you may see players shuffled around the four letter listings, but what you see on that depth chart is essentially what you’re going to get this fall.
The only major difference from last season is Fields’ absence, and Lawrence has wholeheartedly accepted his leadership responsibilities. This is a sturdy and battle-tested group, all of them well-versed in the Wildcats’ spread attack and all its wacky, quarterback-shuffling, option-inclined variations.
Biggest Offseason Question: Will we see a more productive passing game than last season?
Offenses evolve over time. They adjust to personnel and schematic preferences. It’s a process that typically takes years – and sometimes a coaching change – to fully implement. Northwestern crunched their offensive shift (if you can even call it that) into one offseason – from 2011 to 2012, the number of passes completed dropped from 289 to 231. That lines up with the evidence on the field – Northwestern finished fourth in the Big Ten in rushing last season at 4.93 yards per play, and was frequently and heedlessly identified with Venric Mark’s big play abilities and Kain Colter’s mobility. Some went as far as to call the Wildcats an “option offense.”
The change was not as drastic as one might presume and, as was veritably obvious to anyone who watched more than Sportscenter highlights of Northwestern’s games last season, the Wildcats were far more sophisticated than a simple bootleg option one-trick pony. Northwestern attempted only 18 more run plays last season than in 2011. They were simply better, and more unpredictable, with how they ran the ball. One point that can’t be argued is Northwestern’s decline in passing production. After registering 8.1 yards per attempt in 2011, Northwestern’s average dropped to just 6.0 yards last season.
If that can be remedied, and the running game retains last season’s torrid pace, this offense can blossom into one of the Big Ten’s best. With this group of receivers, and two quarterbacks who no doubt better understand their rotations and situational strengths, there’s no reason to think the passing game can’t return to 2011-level output.
Returning starter: Dan Vitale (So)
Others returning: Mark Szott (So), Jack Schwaba (RS Fr), Doug Diedrick (So)
Incoming recruits: Jayme Taylor
Depth Chart Projection
1. Dan Vitale
2. Mark Szott or Jack Schwaba
3. Doug Diedrick
Explaining the Depth Chart:
This depth chart doesn’t need a thorough explanation. Dan Vitale won the starting superback job out of preseason camp last season, and his development since has been remarkable to behold. From his early-weeks feel-out period, when Vitale was used almost exclusively as a blocker, to a nine-catch, 110-yard performance at Michigan State, Vitale evolved into one of Northwestern’s most reliable offensive weapons. The best part? He was just a true freshman.
Behind Vitale are two bigger yet less polished alternatives. Schwaba redshirted last season after a productive high school career at Upper St. Clair (Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania) while Szott saw some action on special teams and offense, almost all of it in nondescript reserve work. These two battled during spring practice, and when camp closed out for good last Saturday, I left feeling wholly convinced the Wildcats had a dead-even tie for the backup superback spot, which explains the arrangement you see above. Diedrick had some bright spots during spring camp, but unless things change between now and the end of summer workouts, it looks like he’ll enter the season as a lower-depth chart last resort.
Stock up: Dan Vitale
It’s not like Vitale entered camp needing to secure his position or anything like that. His 16 catches and 192 yards over the final three games were confirmation enough of Vitale’s impressive development. Spring practice was a continuation of last season’s positive trajectory – Vitale looks quicker, stronger and overall more comfortable with the unique demands of Northwestern’s unique position. It’s safe to say the Wildcats have a potential star at a position not entirely conducive to producing them. After a year gaining his footing and learning the ins and outs of one of the most physical conferences in the country, Vitale is ready for more in 2013.
Stock down: No one
There are four superbacks, and none of them noticeably regressed during spring workouts. If there’s one minor point of concern, it’s Szott, who entered the spring as the most obvious choice for the No. 2 spot on the depth chart. Szott didn’t necessarily relinquish that status this spring. It just felt, from my detached sideline perspective, that Schwaba was the more active and more dynamic on-field presence, and that he handled the various responsibilities of the position – blocking, catching, and so on – with fluidity and precision.
Szott was likewise impressive; it’s just that Schwaba is just now settling in with the first team after sitting out all of last season, and he already seems to be picking up the offense at a quicker rate than Szott ever did. The bottom line is neither player’s “stock” is pointing downward. Depth chart considerations will be fleshed out during summer workouts. Consider the above paragraph trifling banter intended to fill an otherwise irrelevant space.
Position battle: Dan Vitale vs. Himself?
After a thrilling win in East Lansing last season, when Vitale erupted for nine catches and 110 yards, the idea crept into my head: is it just me, or does Vitale have everything Drake Dunsmore did – speed, size, great hands, intuitive football smarts – only at an earlier stage of his development? At first it seemed like an ambitious notion to consider, because Vitale is just a true freshman, and true freshmen aren’t supposed to be this good this early.
But then Fitzgerald basically echoed my sentiments, and not just once, by relaying, in various forms, what the evidence on the field was consistently showcasing: a first-year player well ahead of where Dunsmore was during his first season. Vitale was just getting his feet wet last season, and now the only thing holding him back from becoming an even more effective offensive threat is his own set of personal limitations. Everything is pointing up for Northwestern’s sophomore superback.
Biggest offseason question: What Is Dan Vitale’s Ceiling In year two?
The most recent games leave the strongest impressions, and if you were to look at the final portion of Vitale’s season (excluding the Illinois game, and the undoubtedly skewed statistical reflections captured within), you would expect him to morph into an All-Big Ten-type in his second season. His responsibilities grew more complex as he assumed a more prominent place in the offense during those final three games, and Vitale responded exactly the way most true freshmen would not – by hurdling every challenge thrown his way.
Superback is a difficult position to learn in four seasons, much less master in one. Vitale can learn and grow as a pass-catcher and blocker, and as he improves physically and mentally over the next three seasons, it will be fascinating to watch him realize the outer limits of his vast potential. We should see the next step of his evolution next season, and based off what Vitale showed near the tail end of last year, along with the minimal observations drawn from spring practice, there is every reason to believe Vitale will be better and more productive than he was in 2012.
Catches and yards and touchdowns are the most convenient grading sticks, but I encourage you to carefully observe what Vitale does when he doesn’t have the ball. That part of the game – the blocking and backfield awareness – is just as important, if not as statistically glamorous, as anything else a superback is tasked with. Vitale’s offensive numbers spiked in December, and the other aspects of the superback position came easier to him as he garnered more repetitions and added differing blitz packages and defensive sets to his mental protection hard drive.
This season I want to see where both components – the numerically appeasing fantasy football stuff and the backfield dirty work – take Vitale. I want to see him own the position and all its disparate responsibilities. I want to see Vitale take the superback position to a place no Northwestern player (not even Dunsmore) has ever before.
Returning Starters: C Brandon Vitabile (Jr), T Jack Konopka (Jr)
Others Returning: G Geoff Mogus (So), G Matt Frazier (So), C Ian Park (RS Fr), T Alex Pietrzak (So), T Kenton Playko (RS Fr), T Eric Olson (RS Fr), T Shane Mertz (So), T Paul Jorgensen (Jr), G Hayden Baker (Jr)
Depth Chart Projection:
LT – Jack Konopka, Shane Mertz or Paul Jorgensen
LG – Geoff Mogus or Matt Frazier, Hayden Baker
C – Brandon Vitabile, Ian Park
RG – Adam DePietro or Matt Frazier, Hayden Baker
RT – Shane Mertz or Paul Jorgensen, Eric Olson
Explaining the Depth Chart:
Two spots on the offensive line are fairly straightforward. Jack Konopka started at right tackle last season and, with Patrick Ward graduating this offseason, will presumably move over to the left side. At center, Brandon Vitabile has been a rock of consistency for two consecutive seasons; All-Big Ten honors is very much on the table for Vitabile as he continues to show unflappable poise and consistency manning the center of the line.
There are three holes to fill (right tackle, left guard and right guard), and plenty of options to fill them. Having several key guys (including Konopka, tackle Paul Jorgensen and guard Matt Frazier) miss spring workouts complicates matters, because without exploring every possibility through practice competition, we just don’t know how they measure up against one another. Based off what we’ve seen in spring practice, combined with measured expectations for injured players’ performances upon returning this fall, it looks like redshirt freshman Adam DePietro and sophomore Geoff Mogus have seized temporary control of the guard spots, while sophomore Shane Mertz and junior Paul Jorgensen will remain deadlocked at right tackle until further notice.
Stock Up: Shane Mertz
For the offense itself, not having tackles Jorgensen and Konopka this spring didn’t allow for a complete assessment of depth chart specifics and current starters/reserves spots. It did give other players, players like Mertz, an opportunity to earn important reps with first teamers, and Mertz made the most of his opportunity.
If you watched Northwestern’s televised final spring practice, Mertz was impossible to miss. He was that hulking 6’8’’, 313-pound goliath holding down one of the tackle spots. Mertz’s size is definitely his greatest asset, but his quick feet and ability to counter a variety of pass-rushing moves are just as valuable at this level of competition. I watched Mertz get beat on quick speed bursts more than a few times this spring, but his quickness and technique steadily progressed over these past six weeks and he should enter camp with a strong claim to challenge Jorgensen for a starting spot at (right) tackle.
Stock Down: Matt Frazier
No one that participated in spring workouts did anything to noticeably “hurt” his stock, so I went with one of Northwestern’s lengthy list of spring injury report subjects. It’s impossible to hurt your chances without actually competing in drills, which is what makes this selection so tricky in the first place, but it’s what Frazier couldn’t do that might have pushed him back in the race for a starting guard spot this Fall.
In Frazier’s absence, redshirt freshman Adam DePietro – arguably the most highly-sought after offensive line recruit in Northwestern history, who held offers from Michigan State, Vanderbilt, Rutgers, among others – stepped up and showed why he deserves every opportunity to not only challenge Frazier, but potentially steal his spot (not that Frazier was ever guaranteed a starting spot) before the season-opener. Again, this selection speaks more to DePietro’s apparent rise than anything Frazier did in particular. The pecking order at both guard spots will become clearer in Fall workouts, when DePietro and Frazier and Geoff Mogus and Hayden Baker can challenge one another in a competitive setting.
Position Battle To Watch: Right Tackle – Shane Mertz vs. Paul Jorgensen
His absence this spring doesn’t change the presumed inheritor of left tackle duties; that starting spot is Jack Konopka’s to lose. The other tackle spot is more interesting, and spring practice did nothing to resolve any of the mystery about one of Northwestern’s most important position battles. The Wildcats’ option attack requires tackles that can not only stand up pass-rushers and create a wall of protection, but also move into the second level and open up running lanes by barreling over oncoming defenders.
That is what coaches will be looking for when they ultimately decide on whether to start Mertz or Jorgensen at right tackle. Jorgensen was unavailable this spring, so it’s tough to get a true sense of where he stands vis-à-vis Mertz at this point in time. I will say this: Mertz looked strong, quick and, most of all, huge in workouts all spring long, and his steady performance did not hurt his chances. It will be interesting to see if Jorgensen can hold off the rising Mertz, or if the redshirt sophomore and winner of Saturday’s bat-spinning-hot-dog-eating contest prevails.
Biggest Offseason Question: Is Experience A Problem?
When a unit loses three starters (all seniors) and enters spring camp with unresolved starting spots, typically there is some cause for pause – how will the new bodies step in? Will continuity be disrupted? That kind of stuff. You can ask those questions about this offensive line, but in actuality, the better question goes a little something like this: can this offensive line be better than last year?
I should have answered the bolded question by now, but in case you needed any clarification, I am none too worried about experience holding this group back. In fact, the young talent and depth blossoming this spring and entering camp this fall gives the Wildcats more O-line flexibility and depth than I can remember. Coach Pat Fitzgerald reiterated this theme time and again during spring workouts, and the real product looks even more impressive. Three starters are gone, and that’s usually not the most ideal personnel development, but the replacements look ready to compete and thrive right away, if not improve and round into form over the course of the season. The future at offensive line is bright and we should see the tip of the iceberg in 2013.
Returning starters: DE Tyler Scott (Sr), DT Sean McEvilly (Jr)
Others returning: DE Dean Lowry (So), DT Chance Carter (Jr), DT Will Hampton (Sr), DE Deonte Gibson (So), DT C.J. Robbins (So), DE Ifeadi Odenigbo (RS Fr), DT Greg Kuhar (RS Fr), DE Max Chapman (So), DT Connor Mahoney (RS Fr)
Depth Chart Projection:
DE: Tyler Scott, Ifeadi Odenigbo
DT: Sean McEvilly, Greg Kuhar OR C.J. Robbins
DT: Chance Carter OR Will Hampton
DE: Dean Lowry OR Deonte Gibson
Explaining the Depth Chart
Spring practice is more about development than it is position battles, so expect most NU position battles to continue well into the fall. That’s especially true on the defensive line, because even though there will be plenty of fighting for playing time in the fall, there wasn’t much in the spring due to injuries. Deonte Gibson was hurt this spring, but he’ll be in contention for a spot at defensive end, but Will Hampton will be in contention for a spot at defensive tackle, despite missing the spring due to injury.
As far as the depth chart goes, Tyler Scott has firmly earned a spot at defensive end and will challenge for Big Ten — and possibly national — awards. However, NU really has three starting-caliber defensive ends in Scott, Dean Lowry and Deonte Gibson. Only two can play at a time, but expect to see a lot of all three of them. Ifeadi Odenigbo will also see time, particularly on third downs. At defensive tackle, Sean McEvilly — last year’s starter — likely has a spot nailed down. Chance Carter and Will Hampton will battle for the spot opposite him. Carter came on last spring, but couldn’t nail down a starting spot. He’ll have a chance this year against the senior Hampton. Meanwhile, Greg Kuhar and C.J. Robbins have both been mentioned by their teammates as players to watch, and Robbins could also see some time at defensive end.
Stock Up: C.J. Robbins
It’s kind of amazing how much we’ve heard Robbins’ name from his teammates as a potential “step up” guy this season, especially considering he’s yet to see a college field. It’s unlikely that he’ll start, since he has three experienced players ahead of him, and coach Pat Fitzgerald tends to reward experience, at least early in the season. However, Robbins will certainly see the field, maybe even at both defensive tackle and defensive end.
Robbins was slated to play in a backup role last year, before having to miss the season due to injuries. Considering how much respect he’s garnered among his teammates, he as the potential to have a breakout year in 2013. His versatility to play either defensive tackle or defensive end gives him an added edge in earning playing time, as Fitzgerald can plug him in different positions in specific situations.
Stock Down: Will Hampton
This isn’t really fair to Hampton, since he hasn’t had a chance to compete for the starting spot at defensive tackle. However, that’s exactly the point: Hampton wasn’t able to play, while his main competition — Chance Carter — got in reps. Carter is a talented player who looks poised to break through on the depth chart eventually, but Hampton will certainly get a fair shot. He started at DT last season, earning the spot in fall camp, but was eventually passed up by McEvilly. He’ll need another strong fall camp to win the starting spot for the opener once again.
I’m supposed to pick a position battle to watch here, but I’m equally intrigued by both of them, so I’ll just comment on each one.
I mentioned earlier that NU essentially has three starters at defensive end in Scott, Lowry and Gibson. The problem is, only two of them can start. Regardless of who starts, all three of them will play, and defensive end figures to be one of the Wildcats’ strengths on defense this year, along with the safeties and the linebacker unit as a whole. Lowry really came on as a productive player last year, and he’s on course for a breakout year in 2013. Gibson was a consistently solid player who could also take the next step. It will be an interesting position battle to watch, especially since both players are so good.
Carter and Hampton both bring something different to the table, and both are capable starters. Hampton was the opening day starter last year, and he’s a senior, which will work in his favor. He also showed the ability to win a job in the fall last year. However, he lost his starting job last year, and the younger Carter could be poised to take the next step as a productive starter on the defensive line. Will Fitzgerald go with experience o the young challenger? History would suggest the former, but every situation is different, and from what we saw of Carter this spring, he’s certainly capable of winning the job.
Biggest Offseason Question: Can this group be as good as last year’s?
Last year’s defensive line was much better than expected, and that was due in part to its seniors: DT Brian Arnfelt and DE Quentin Williams. NU will undoubtedly miss both of them — particularly Arnfelt because of the depth at tackle — but can this year’s group be as good as last year’s? It’s tough to tell right now, because the talent and potential are there, but the lack of experience might hold the unit back.
Despite the loss of Williams at defensive end, NU could be even better there. Scott’s progression will start to level off eventually, but he’ll be one of the top defensive ends in the Big Ten in 2013 and could be mentioned for national awards. Opposite Scott, both Deonte Gibson and Dean Lowry have the talent to be solid Big Ten players, and if they have breakout years, they could be mentioned for All-Big Ten lists down the road. And don’t forget about Ifeadi Odenigbo, who at the time, was the top-ranked recruit NU had ever gotten. He’ll have to keep putting on weight, but he could make some noise on third downs this year.
At defensive tackle, things get a little bit more murky. Arnfelt was clearly the leader of the interior defensive line, and his presence will be missed, but McEvilly, Carter and Hampton are all capable players. Will the lack of experience hurt? Probably at the beginning, and the run defense could struggle early on, but if things start to piece together, the defensive line could be just as good as last year’s unit, or maybe even better. The potential is there, but the line has a long ways to go to reach that potential.
Returning starters: Damien Proby (Sr), Chi Chi Ariguzo (Jr)
Others returning: Drew Smith (So), Collin Ellis (Jr), Joseph Jones (RS Fr), Timmy Vernon (Sr), Eric Wilson (RS Fr), Jaylen Prater (RS Fr), Michael Odom (RS Fr)
Depth Chart Projection
SAM (strongside) — Drew Smith OR Collin Ellis, Joseph Jones
MIKE (inside) — Damien Proby, Timmy Vernon
WILL (weakside) — Chi Chi Ariguzo, Collin Ellis
Explaining the Depth Chart:
There are two returning starters, but only one player is returning to the same position as last year. Damien Proby will be NU’s starting middle linebacker for the third straight year, while last year’s SAM linebacker, Chi Chi Ariguzo, will switch to WILL to replace David Nwabuisi. The biggest battle will be at SAM, where Drew Smith will take on Collin Ellis. Smith started at SAM in the spring, while Ellis filled in for the injured Proby at MIKE, but there will be a competition at SAM this fall.
NU’s experienced linebackers are all versatile, so Ellis, in particular, could still see a lot time at all three positions even if he doesn’t start. For this reason, playing time is still a fluid situation among NU’s top four linebackers. In addition to Vernon and Jones, expect Eric Wilson and Jaylen Prater to both see some time as backups, as well.
Stock Up: Drew Smith
After showcasing his hard-hitting abilities on special teams and on defense last year, Smith looks ready to have a breakout season for NU at SAM linebacker. He’s a big player, but he also has an incredible amount of athleticism, and that has led to some highlight reel plays. Here’s what Pat Fitzgerald had to say about him:
“He thoroughly enjoys contact. I like guys that like contact at the linebacker level. He goes to bed dreaming about knocking somebody’s lips off, and he goes around doing that.”
Smith elaborated: “That’s always been a part of my personality. Everybody knows that’s what I do. I like to hit people.”
Smith has real breakout potential this year, but he has to win his position battle first. But regardless of what happens in his competition with Ellis, he showcased his potential this spring and will be a major player in the defense for the next three years.
Stock Down: Nobody
You could say that by Smith’s stock rising, Ellis’ stock naturally must go down. But while Smith certainly is proving himself to be a worthy contender for the spot at SAM linebacker next year, it’s hard to judge that battle yet. Ellis had to fill in for Proby at MIKE this spring, so he hasn’t gotten a chance to compete for a starting spot. He’ll get that chance in the fall.
Overall, everyone who we know is good still is good, and all of the young guys seem to be getting in quality reps. It’s tough to really call out anyone after this spring.
Position Battle: SAM — Drew Smith vs. Collin Ellis
We’re mentioned this a number of times, but it’s the only real position battle among the linebackers. Really, both of these guys are starting caliber, and both will see significant playing time — Ellis will see time at different linebacker positions, too — but only one can start. Both bring something different to the table. Ellis was a starter, but injuries slowed him down. He lost his starting spot to Chi Chi Ariguzo last year and played in only 10 games because of injuries. Now that Ellis is injury-free, linebacker coach Randy Bates said Ellis is ready to take on the role he had as a sophomore.
However, Ellis has stiff competition from Smith, who has the talent to be a three-year starter, and fits the SAM profile well due to his combination of size and athleticism. Expect this battle to progress well into fall camp, especially since Ellis and Smith rarely competed head-to-head in the spring
Biggest Offseason Question: Can the unit be better than last year?
Last year, the linebacker corps was the best unit on NU’s defense. Proby continued his consistent climb to stardom, Nwabuisi stepped up as a senior and Ariguzo emerged as a surprisingly productive player. Nwabuisi is gone, but Proby and Ariguzo return, and the combination of Ellis and Smith gives the Wildcats a very formidable group of linebackers once again. In fact, this unit has the potential to be even better than last year’s. That’s good, because NU might need it.
While the linebackers were the backbone of last year’s defense, the defensive line — particularly defensive tackle — was impressive. NU’s run defense went from 10th in the Big Ten in 2011 to third in the conference in 2012. That was due, in large part, to the defensive tackles, and particularly senior Brian Arnfelt. Arnfelt graduated after last year, leaving a void at defensive tackle. Sean McEvilly, Chance Carter and Will Hampton have all shown promise there, but they don’t have enough experience to expect the interior defensive line to be just as good as it was last year, at least not right away. That means more responsibility falls on the linebackers to help stop the run. It will be a tough task, but this group has the talent to be even better than last year’s unit. Now it’s time to see if they live up to the billing.
Returning starters: CB Nick VanHoose (So), S Ibraheim Campbell (Jr)
Others returning: CB C.J. Bryant (Jr), CB Daniel Jones* (Jr), CB Dwight White (RS Fr), CB Jarrell Williams (So), S Traveon Henry (So), S Jimmy Hall (Jr), S Davion Fleming* (Sr), S Terrance Brown (RS Fr), DB Joe Cannon (Jr), DB Mike Eshun (Jr), DB Sean Oliver (RS Fr), DB Jordan Perkins (So), DB Troy Sheppard (RS Fr)
* indicates some starting experience
* Igwebuike could also play running back
Depth Chart Projection
CB — C.J. Bryant OR Daniel Jones OR Dwight White
S — Ibraheim Campbell, Davion Fleming
S — Traveon Henry, Jimmy Hall
CB — Nick VanHoose, Bryant OR Jones OR White
Explaining the Depth Chart
Ibraheim Campbell and Nick VanHoose are set. Traveon Henry will likely start, though Jimmy Hall will push him and will get significant playing time — some at safety, some at nickelback and maybe even a little bit at outside linebacker. However, there is a pretty intense competition for the cornerback spot opposite VanHoose.
C.J. Bryant, Daniel Jones and Dwight White will all compete for the spot, and each of them brings pros and cons to the table. Jones is the only one with starting experience, but he struggled at times last year. Bryant is unproven, but viewed as a potential up-and-comer this year. Then there’s White, who redshirted last year, but has impressed the coaches in the offseason and could make a run for the starting job following his redshirt year, like VanHoose did. Regardless of who wins the job, expect all three to play quite a bit, and don’t expect the battle to be decided very early in fall camp.
Stock Up: Traveon Henry
After getting his feet wet freshman year, Henry looks ready to break out as a sophomore. He starred on special teams, and actually saw a decent amount of time as a backup safety late in the year. Now, he’s ready to take the next step, and he’s shown that this spring, taking all the snaps with the No. 1 defense. Henry is known as a big hitter, which he showcased on special teams, but now that he knows the defense better, he’s able to react quicker and make better plays on the ball. Considering his talent, he has the potential to be a star down the road.
Stock Down: Davion Fleming and Daniel Jones
Fleming started NU’s opener at Syracuse last year, but he eventually was replaced by senior Jared Carpenter, who was named MVP of the Gator Bowl. This year, he’s been passed on the depth chart by Henry and Hall, the latter of whom he beat out for the starting job at Syracuse last year. He hasn’t appeared to make up much ground in the spring. Jones has a chance to start if he can beat out Bryant and White, but he was never able to make the most of his opportunities last year, and suddenly could see a drop in playing time from his sophomore year.
Position Battle to Watch: C.J. Bryant vs. Daniel Jones vs. Dwight White
The corner spot opposite VanHoose is still very much up for grabs, and it will be throughout fall camp. The good news for NU is that the Wildcats have options here, unlike last year. Jones and Bryant are both a year older, while White looks ready to enter the fold. It’s tough to judge who’s ahead, because spring is more for development than deciding position battles. Bryant and Jones took first-team snaps while VanHoose was hurt, so they may be a bit ahead of White at the moment, but that’s likely just due to the experience factor. White will certainly have a chance to earn the spot in the fall.
All three players have upside — Jones has the most experience, Bryant has some experience and didn’t play badly when he saw the field, and White has a lot of talent and potential. However, all three have downsides, too — Jones struggled a lot, Bryant hasn’t proven much and White is completely unproven. It will be interesting to see how much the experience factor plays into the equation, since Fitzgerald tends to favor experience, but also played a lot of young guys last year. Regardless of who wins the starting spot, all three will see significant playing time.
Biggest Offseason Question: Can the cornerback(s) opposite VanHoose step up?
After sitting at the bottom of the league in pass defense the last two years, is this the year the secondary finally improves? Campbell noted this spring that he thinks the unit has improved every year he’s been playing, and that’s true to an extent, but this might be the year the numbers finally back that up. A lot of the pieces are finally in place for the Wildcats to have a solid secondary, or at least one that isn’t a liability.
If Henry lives up to the hype, the safeties have the potential to be one of the better safety duos in the Big Ten by the end of the year. Combine Henry and Campbell with Hall, and that’s an impressive safety trio that nearly any Big Ten team would envy. VanHoose has his spot secured, and he could garner some All-Big Ten attention by the end of the season. For those reasons alone, NU should have a better secondary than last year, but if it wants to be good — not just “not that bad” — the corners opposite VanHoose need to step up. If doesn’t matter if it’s one player, or it it’s a committee, but there needs to be progress there, or else it leaves a huge liability on one side of the field. Last year, miscues in the secondary cost the Wildcats some games. This year, the development of that cornerback spot could make the difference for a unit trying to step out of the Big Ten’s cellar, and it could make the difference in the chase for a Legends Division Championship.