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Time to step up: Northwestern offensive coordinator Mick McCall

The discrete components that mix and mash together to form football teams change each and every season. Players graduate. Offensive and defensive philosophies are tweaked. Injuries throw a monkey wrench into your most foolproof schematic plans. Northwestern keeps intact much of the core that won 10 games last season, but there are new roles and responsibilities – adapted specifically to accentuate players’ biggest strengths – littered about this year’s roster. The revisions and alterations made on last season’s team will foist new challenges on the Wildcats’ 2013 season. 

“Time to Step Up” is our humble attempt to capture those challenges in convenient little breakdowns, none of which must conform to any particular unit of a team’s construction. Players, coaches and vaguely defined team attributes are all fair game here. Oh, and one more thing: just because it’s time for, say, a certain player to “step up” doesn’t mean his performance lagged last season. So before you wail and stomp and clench your firsts, read (or at least skim) the entire post. Lazy title glancing defeats the entire purpose. Don’t be that guy.

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There are better ways to spend one’s summer than nitpicking an offensive coordinator who led his team to 10 wins and the program’s first bowl victory in more than six decades. Unfortunately, in the gulf of college football news emptiness that consumes July, I have no choice but to go back and hyperanalyze every small detail of Northwestern’s 2012 season. Mick McCall did a fine job last year, and has done a fine job since taking over as offensive coordinator in 2008.

The Wildcats have finished in the nation’s top-65 in yards per game every season save 2009, his playbook has bended to fit a stylistically disparate lineage of recent quarterbacks (pocket passers CJ Bachet and Mike Kafka, mobile Dan Persa, a two-quarterback system) and Northwestern has generally fared well on the offensive side of the ball under his watch. There are bigger problems to address in 2013. An unsolved cornerback battle. An inexperienced offensive line. The ever-present pressure of wrapping up one of the greatest recruiting classes in program history.

Racking up enough yards and points and touchdowns is a macro concern for any team. Northwestern isn’t sweating the reliability of its offensive firepower. McCall will scheme the Wildcats to another successful season, the offense will put up respectable numbers and he’ll continue to get almost zero national name recognition along the way (which I still don’t really understand, but, anyway, we move on).

But there is one thing McCall needs to consider in 2013. The basic principles of the offense will remain, and most of the players return; the only difference is this season, the two-quarterback system is a presumed feature of the Wildcats offensive attack. Opposing defenses have 13 games of film from last season to dissect. Coordinators will dream up creative ways to disrupt the shuffling rotation. McCall will need to make adjustments, and he’ll need to be unpredictable with how he deploys his two quarterbacks. This matching of wits – McCall versus opposing defensive coordinators – is the biggest matchup no one is talking about, and the Wildcats can’t afford to lose it.

In its first year of existence, the two-quarterback system progressed nicely over the course of the season. There were some rough patches, there was Penn State, which qualifies as an extremely rough patch, but there were also great stretches where Colter and Siemian rotated seamlessly, keeping defenses off balance, unleashing different formations and sets, moving the chains more often than not. The two quarterback system, for all its first-year hiccups and incessant outside critics, was an efficiently managed use of two of Northwestern’s most talented offensive players.

The secret is out now, and for Northwestern’s system to continue to function as smoothly as it did last season, McCall needs to avoid the crude simplicity of dividing the offense into two rigid play sets run by different quarterbacks. He can’t siphon off the passing half of the playbook whenever Colter enters the game, and the option/run-based half when Siemian does. Mixing it up – allowing Colter, who actually posted a higher completion percentage (68.7 to 60.0; I know, sample size, but still) than Siemian and showcased improved accuracy and arm strength during spring workouts, to work in a few more passing plays, preferably deeper down the field; allowing Siemian, who run-faked the entire Mississippi State defensive front into oblivion on a Gator Bowl Touchdown run, to at least dabble in a few option- plays, if he feels comfortable doing so – is arguably the best way to combat the built-in expectations Big Ten defenses will use to attack Northwestern’s two-qb operation. If they can keep defenses guessing, last season’s film will quickly become an expired study guide to prepare for the Wildcats offense.

Developing a flexible playbook, where Colter and Siemian can both run pass and run plays, will obviously require persistent training camp reps, along with Colter and Siemian establishing a level of comfort with digesting a more expansive list of plays.

Most of all, McCall will need to adjust the playbook, drill Colter and Siemian in whatever new formations and plays he may or may not feed them this offseason and amend specific game strategies accordingly. Five years of consistent offensive production have defined McCall’s tenure, and with a two-quarterback system to revise and tinker with this offseason, sustaining that consistency into his sixth year won’t be any easier than the last five.