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Northwestern preseason practice notes: Wednesday, August 21

EVANSTON, Ill. -- Following an intense two-hour workout Tuesday, Northwestern began the process of, as Fitzgerald put it yesterday, “getting the guys off their legs a little bit.” The goal is to have the Wildcats reach their physical apex next Saturday. They have endured rigorous training all summer – now Northwestern is putting the finishing touches on its preseason preparation.

Here are some notes from Wednesday’s practice:

-- The offense wasn’t executing as well Wednesday as it did yesterday. There were dropped passes, miscommunications and an overall sluggishness that led to several hiccups during scout-team, 1’s vs. 2’s-type workouts. Some notable exceptions. True freshmen receivers Tom Fuessel and Macan Wilson made some nice plays, sophomore Pierre Youngblood-Ary continued his impressive recent run and redshirt freshmen running backs Stephen Buckley and Malin Jones continued to evince the type of versatility – both players lined up in the slot and looked comfortable catching passes – that should make Northwestern’s rushing attack more dynamic than it was last season. True freshman Xavier Menifield won’t play this season, but his quickness and elusiveness will be major assets down the road.

-- I spoke to a couple of NFL scouts attending Wednesday’s practice to watch a select group of NU seniors. They spoke highly of quarterback Kain Colter, receiver Rashad Lawrence, middle linebacker Damien Proby and defensive end Tyler Scott. One NFC North talent evaluator, who envisions Colter being used in the Denard Robinson-esque “offensive weapon” mold, said this of Colter: “That dude is electric!” He also praised Scott’s motor and inquired about his legendary weight room reputation.

-- The defensive end battle between Deonte Gibson, Dean Lowry and Ifeadi Odenigbo appears to be coming to a close. More on that here.

-- Strongside linebacker is the biggest position battle remaining on the defensive side of the ball; Collin Ellis and Drew Smith will be awarded the starting spot before next week’s opener at Cal. But the uncertainty shouldn’t gloss over how good the backups – including senior Timmy Vernon, redshirt freshmen Jaylen Prater and Joseph Jones and true freshman Anthony Walker – have looked running with the second team unit. Senior Damien Proby will leave in the offseason, but the Wildcats look well-equipped to replace him. There will be plenty of good, healthy competition for first team reps next season.

-- The wide receiver rotation has crystallized into a clear top-four: senior Rashad Lawrence, junior Christian Jones, junior Tony Jones and sophomore Cameron Dickerson. Behind them, in no particular order, are senior Mike Jensen; sophomores Pierre Youngblood-Ary and Cermak Bland; redshirt freshmen Mike McHugh, Andrew Scanlan and Austin Carr; and junior Kyle Prater. Given the hype surrounding his arrival, it’s kind of crazy to think Prater might not even crack the starting lineup this season.

-- The offseason graduation of Steve Flaherty meant Northwestern would need to find someone else to take on kickoff duties. Fitzgerald provided an answer Wednesday. "I would assume that Jeff Budzien will be doing the kickoffs," he said. "He's a talented guy and he'll be poised. He's as strong as he's ever been."

-- Kick returns are another minor unknown as Northwestern prepares for its season opener. Asked who will return kicks when the Wildcats take on Cal next Saturday, Fitzgerald said he "doesn't know. It's to be determined." He did mention the possibility of Tony Jones assuming at least a portion of the kick return work load. "Last year, when V [Venric Mark] got a little banged up, I think you got to see a little glimpse of what he could do in the kicking game," he said. "We'll kinda see, maybe take a hit off Venric here or there. At the same time, Tony's a playmaker. He's got great speed, great vision and he's done some nice things back there for us in the past." Fitzgerald also discussed his rule of thumb for running kicks out of the end zone. "When it goes into the letters, we typically take the knee. I've watched all these guys in the NFL tape that I've studied take the ball out and get their lips knocked off at the 11."