With only three practices left, Northwestern's spring football season is nearing its end. A number of players were injured this spring, which has given young players and reserves a chance to prove themselves. However, it also means there are a number of position battles that still need to be worked out. In today's "take two," Chris Johnson and Kevin Trahan take a look at which players need to step up the most at the end of spring ball and through the summer and fall. Also, be sure to check out our projected spring depth chart, which we'll update again at the end of spring practice.
Kevin's Take: OLB Collin Ellis
Northwestern has plenty of high-profile position battles — cornerback, offensive line, defensive tackle, etc. — but you'd be hard-pressed to find one as confusing as the linebacker battle. Here's how it basically breaks down: Damien Proby is a lock to start in the middle and Chi Chi Ariguzo is a lock to start on the outside, but the second outside spot is up for grabs between Drew Smith and Collin Ellis, while Joseph Jones (OLB) and Tim Vernon (MLB) will see substantial time as backups. That, in itself, isn't that confusing, but considering all of the different combinations NU can use, it's hard to predict who will play where and with whom.
Proby and Vernon will stay in the middle, but the other four have the ability to alternate between WILL and SAM — weakside and strongside linebacker — while some also have the ability to shift inside. Ariguzo is technically a WILL linebacker, while Ellis and Smith will fight for the spot at SAM. All three positions are very different from each other, but NU teaches its linebackers to be comfortable in as many of the three as possible. So regardless of who starts, that flexibility means all six will see substantial playing time. However, the pressure is on Ellis and Smith, who are fighting for the third starting spot.
Smith is an up-and-comer who is known for his big play tendencies. He played a limited role last year — mostly on special teams — but he'll have more of a chance to contribute this year. Then there's Ellis. He started for 10 games as a redshirt freshman, though he dealt with injuries. He also dealt with injuries as a sophomore and lost his starting spot to Ariguzo, though he still saw significant playing time. Now, he has a chance to reclaim his starting spot from his redshirt freshman year, and even if he doesn't, NU will need him to improve after a relatively disappointing 2012 season.
Smith is very talented and should be a good one in the future, as will Jones, but the Wildcats also need an experienced player to lean on, and if Ellis shows the promise that he did as a redshirt freshman, the unit will be even better than it was in 2012. Last year, when Ariguzo and Ellis were battling for the third starting spot, Pat Fitzgerald mentioned that he basically had four starters — Ariguzo, Ellis, Proby and David Nwabuisi. With Nwabuisi now graduated, Smith can jump into that group, and NU could essentially have four "starters" once again.
Regardless of who starts, NU will be fine at linebacker, but it's important for Ellis to step up and have his best season yet. The Wildcats could certainly use consistency from a veteran like Ellis, who knows that defense well. Ellis may not win the starting job, but even if he doesn't, a good spring will push he and Smith to get even better.
Chris' Take: CB Daniel Jones
Looking back on Northwestern’s 10-win season, there isn’t a whole lot to complain about. Jeff Budzien missed a field goal (his only missed field goal of the season) against Nebraska that effectively crushed the Wildcats’ chances of winning the Legends division. The secondary broke down late in Happy Valley as Penn State stormed back from a second-half deficit. Ryan Nassib carved up the defense for just under 500 yards passing and 41 points.
There were some bad moments, to be sure, but when you compare 2012 to most recent Northwestern seasons the mistakes were reduced to a palatable minimum. With so few major gaffes to choose from, what was the most harrowing moment of Northwestern’s 2012 season? Easy: Roy Roundtree’s stumbling circus catch late in the fourth quarter to put Michigan in field goal range and win the game in over time. You don’t need me to recall the player responsible for that mistake. It was Daniel Jones.
That one game-costing play unfairly looms over an otherwise mediocre if improved 2012 season for the junior cornerback. He did play well enough, so it seems, to earn the temporary starting job at cornerback in spring practice. But if Jones wants to keep that job into next season, he needs to prove he’s the best possible option at his position.
I’ll get off the Roundtree debacle for the time being, mostly because that play wasn’t entirely the fault of Jones himself. Last season gave us more sustained evidence that Jones may not be the best option at cornerback. He shows decent athleticism and coverage skills, but when it comes to run support or basic open-field tackling, Jones hasn’t been up to bat.
As injuries at cornerback piled up last season, and different players were shuffled in to fill the void, Jones was thrust into the spotlight. The improvements from his first season – where Jones gave us this *spirited* tackling effort on Michigan State’s Le’Veon Bell – to the next were undeniable, but this isn’t about tracking Jones’ progression specifically. It’s about identifying the most qualified player for the cornerback position opposite Nick VanHoose, and unless Jones steps up and shows unrivaled command of the skills and athletic traits required to master his craft, his starting spot could be in jeopardy.
The list of replacements won’t sound like much now, but if candidates can at the very least push Jones to elevate his game, doesn’t that sound like the sort of positive competitive environment worth fostering at every position? Redshirt freshman Dwight White, sophomore C.J. Bryant and, my personal wildcard, true freshman Keith Watkins can all give Jones a run for the No. 1 spot on the depth chart. White is a tremendous athlete who shined in scout team last season. Bryant saw increased playing time last season, recorded four tackles against Nebraska and more than confirmed his right to compete for more PT in 2013. And Watkins is a versatile two-way athlete joining the Wildcats this summer with an outsider’s bid at wresting the starting spot.
None of these players can definitively win first team rights this spring. Coaches have an entire summer and preseason workouts to make a final determination. Until then, the cornerbacks have a chance to move forward in the competition, prime coaches to revisit depth chart considerations before summer workouts and most of all prove to coaches they belong on top. Jones holds No. 1 status for now; to keep it, he’ll need to outplay the competition around him.