On Monday, for the first time in more than six months, we can stop looking ahead to fall camp and instead discuss Northwestern’s preseason preparation as a present state of being. That’s when the Wildcats will convene in Evanston for official preseason practices, after which – you guessed it – the college football season will begin in earnest with NU’s road game at Cal on August 31. The next four weeks will fly by much faster than the eight droning post-Gator Bowl months that got us here, with plenty of storylines and position battles and roster developments to document before the Wildcats take the field in an official competitive setting.
We’ll have two detailed preview pieces for Monday’s official training camp opening. But in case you can’t wait that long, we decided to give you a taste of what we’ll be focusing on over the next four weeks – or, to spin it another way, what we’re most “excited to learn” in preseason camp.
The cornerback battle
There are no questions about one of Northwestern’s cornerback spots. Nick VanHoose is all but guaranteed to start on one side of the field, provided he stays healthy and doesn’t suddenly lose the excellent coverage skills he flashed in 10 games last season. It’s the other corner spot I’m interested in observing. Unlike VanHoose’s relative stranglehold, there is no surefire No. 1 shooed-in to take the bulk of first-team snaps at the other CB spot; there are a number of options competing for that right, and the situation remains unresolved as is, and could remain that way all the way up until the week before opening kick.
Depth chart designations are fluid situations, as the saying goes, and Northwestern’s cornerback battle is likely to remain undecided deep into preseason camp. Just think about how many candidates there are for the starting job: Daniel Jones, Jarrell Williams, C.J. Bryant, Dwight White, Jordan Perkins, Marcus McShepard, Kyle Queiro, Keith Watkins, Matt Harris. I think that’s all of them, but even if I’m missing someone, that’s a lot of competition. And truly, given the uncertainty at the position last season, and the presumed leader’s (Daniel Jones) inconsistency in key spots, I feel like any of these guys has a fair shot at stepping up and claiming the starting job.
I suppose the freshmen have a steeper hill to climb, but the overall talent throughout the group – from McShepard to Watkins to Queiro to Harris – makes me think one of the four can at the very least secure a backup role, if not challenge for No. 1 depth chart status outright. Coach Pat Fitzgerald’s proclivity for redshirting obscures that possibility, but until one of the more experienced guys steps up, I won’t rule out one of NU’s 2013 imports competing, and potentially winning, the enigma that is NU’s second cornerback spot.
Why is this so important? Because Northwestern’s defense, while vastly improved in the aggregate, still struggled to stop the pass last season. In fact, opponents knew they could throw the ball in key situations (including demoralizing third-and-long conversions) against the Wildcats. Eliminating that weakness is arguably the biggest obstacle the Wildcats need to leap to position themselves for a run at a Big Ten championship. The rest of the defense has few glaring flaws: defensive tackle depth is lacking, but with three proven contributors (Chance Carter, Sean McEvily and Will Hampton) returning, filling the reserve ranks is not nearly as pressing as the position battle in question.
Cornerback is easily the biggest remaining personnel issue the Wildcats need to untangle before trekking out to the West Coast to serve as guinea pigs for whatever crazy deep passing attack Sonny Dykes plans to unfurl on opposing defenses this season. Which is another reason why figuring out this cornerback thing as quickly and as possible is so important: whoever does win the job, particularly if it’s a freshman (which, again, is unlikely), will have no early grace period, no time to “settle in”, no time to casually indoctrinate himself to his new starting position against FCS receivers. Cal, despite last season’s 3-9 record, is going to be a major challenge for Northwestern’s pass defense.
The second cornerback spot needs to be solidified before the Wildcats meet that challenge.
- Chris Johnson
Northwestern's two-quarterback system was both praised and criticized last year, but by the end of the season, most people could agree that it worked out well for the Wildcats. Those who still critique it? Well, Kain Colter has some words for them:
“It’s stupid,” Colter said of the critiques aimed at Northwestern’s two-quarterback system. “He [Siemian] has a unique skill set that he’s a little better at; I have a unique skill set that I’m a little better at. You just have to embrace that.”
The two-quarterback system is here to stay for another year, and in reality, it proved to work well having different quarterbacks in different situations. Trevor Siemian was much more effective in obvious passing situations, while Colter was much more effective in the run game, especially in the use of the zone read and the option with running back Venric Mark. NU's use of both of its quarterbacks will be relatively similar to last year, but now that Colter, Siemian and Mark are more settled in, there's the opportunity for the Wildcats to be more inventive.
To be clear, this is all speculative. NU very well could stick to running the same playbook it did last year, without a whole lot more inventiveness. Besides, the offense was one of the most dynamic in the Big Ten last year and was still plenty productive. However, if they want to, the Wildcats have the ability to be more inventive with their play-calling — simply put, they have the personnel to do more than just the zone read and the option.
Is NU going to become Oregon? No. But it's intriguing to think what the Wildcats could do with the triple read option if one of the younger running backs — Malin Jones or Stephen Buckley — develops early in the season. Adding Buckley, in particular, into the mix opens up a lot of interesting possibilities. He can play slot receiver or running back and could be a change of pace taking handoffs on sweeps. Add in a "read" element to that and NU can do even more.
Who knows what NU will do this year on offense. All we can say for sure is that two quarterbacks will be used again and it will be primarily a run-first team. However, there is the opportunity for the Wildcats to be even more creative than they were last year, and tha may be too good of an opportunity for Pat Fitzgerald to pass up, especially in what figures to be NU's "showcase" year. The world was introduced to Venric Mark in Kenosha last year, so if the Wildcats start tinkering with their playbook and personnel, Camp Kenosha is when we will notice it. It's intriguing to think what might be next in the fold.
- Kevin Trahan