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Northwestern Training Camp Wrap-Up, Depth Chart Projection

In just over one week, Northwestern will take off its fall camp training wheels, the offseason will become the season and the Wildcats will attempt to begin 2013 1-0 against a mysteriously threatening Cal team under the lights at a newly refurbished Memorial Stadium. We hope you’ve prepared for this moment; a few months back, we gave you all the necessary materials. Now it’s time for an update. On the eve of Northwestern’s first “game week,” we’re combing through every position unit and bottling up our offseason knowledge in one, convenient, pre-official depth chart reveal snap shot.

The goal is to provide you with a nice refresher of depth chart intricacies and position battles just before the season begins. The only thing left to do now is read up, find something – maybe binge watching Breaking Bad, or purchasing NCAA ’14, or I don’t know, be creative – to do over the next week, recall all of your pre-NU game rituals and settle in for the most thrilling four months of the year.

You can read through the whole 5300-word guide, or click on the units you most want to know about.

Quarterback

Running Back

Wide Receiver/Superback

Offensive Line

Defensive Line

Linebacker

Secondary

Special Teams

Full Depth Chart Projection

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Quarterback

Overview

For some reason, some Northwestern fans seem to have gotten the idea that things are going to change in NU’s quarterback situation. Spoiler: not much will change. Kain Colter is still a quarterback — as he should be — and he’ll be a quarterback a majority of the time he’s in the game. Trevor Siemian will also get a lot of playing time, and he’ll throw the ball a lot more than he’ll run with it. Colter, meanwhile, will throw the ball and run with it roughly the same number of times. So in short, expect to see a lot of the same from how NU uses its quarterbacks.

What’s changed since spring?

Not much. As we wrote above, we’ve known NU’s quarterback depth chart all winter, spring and summer, and nothing is going to change now. Colter and Siemian will essentially share starting duties, and their reps in both the spring and the fall have reflected that.

Projected depth chart

1.A. — Kain Colter

1.B. — Trevor Siemain

3 — Zack Oliver

Depth chart explained

This is probably the least amount of explaining we’ll have to do for any unit on this list. Well, it should be. There are still the people who want Colter to play mostly wide receiver, which is not going to happen. Colter is a solid runner and an accurate passer, even if he doesn’t take risks — it always amazes me that people want Colter to make more risky throws — and the zone read makes the entire offense move. It keeps the defense back and in effect takes defenders out of the play, which makes Colter and Venric Mark even more dangerous. It amazes me how many people thing NU just tells Colter to run around. These same people say that the zone read will be neutralized once Colter faces a defense that can match his athleticism, which isn’t true. The zone read is based off discipline, not pure athleticism — if the quarterback makes the right read (as Colter almost always does), the offense has numbers and is tough to stop.

Whether or not you want to accept the basic fundamentals of the play and of how NU uses Colter is up to you, but regardless, Pat Fitzgerald knows the value Colter brings to the offense as a quarterback, and that’s why he has been — and will continue to be — the starter. However, there is certainly a place for Siemian in NU’s offense, and he’ll rotate in, as well. In short, as we said above, expect a lot more of what you saw in 2012. Considering the way last season worked out, that doesn’t sound too bad for NU.

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Running Back

Overview

There aren’t any questions at the top of the depth chart — Venric Mark is Northwestern’s starting running back and will be as long as he is healthy. The senior broke out last season and returns as one of the best running backs in the Big Ten. He and Kain Colter have mastered the zone read and the option, and he has the ability to run between the tackles or get around the edge. He may be small, but he’s an all-around back. Behind Mark is Mike Trumpy, who has solidified himself as the backup. Then things get interesting, with Treyvon Green, Stephen Buckley and Malin Jones fighting for the rest of the carries. It should be interesting to see how that develops.

What’s changed since spring?

Not much. Mark is still the starter and Trumpy is still the backup. We also still have no idea how, exactly, Buckley, Jones and Green will all be used. Since NU already knows who is going to get the bulk of its carries, it’s not necessary to have figured out the backup situation just yet. More than likely, that will be figured out throughout the season. Perhaps the biggest change from the spring is that Buckley may not have as big of a role as we had previously thought, but he still will have a major role down the road.

Projected depth chart

1. Venric Mark

2. Mike Trumpy

3. Treyvon Green/Stephen Buckley/Malin Jones

Depth chart explained

As we said above, there is no need to explain why Mark and Trumpy make the top of the list. However, the battle for carries behind them is interesting. Green is the most proven back of the three. He served as Jacob Schmidt’s primary back his freshman season after Trumpy got hurt, but injuries got in the way last year and he struggled to make much of an impact behind Mark and Trumpy. He’s a good player, but is he good enough to warrant taking more carries away from Mark and Trumpy?

Green also has to worry about the challenges from beneath him. Stephen Buckley and Malin Jones are both standout young players who figure to be major contributors down the road. Buckley is considered a Mark-type back — he’s speedy and can get around the edge. Jones, meanwhile, has picked up a “power back” label, but that isn’t really fair. He can run between the tackles, but he also has the ability to get around the edge and juke defenders in the open field. Again, both Buckley and Jones have promising futures, but they may have to wait their turn. They’ve shown some promises catching passes in the slot, and that may be the best way for them to see the field this season.

It’s too early to tell how the third string situation will work itself out. That role will develop throughout the season. Right now, Green probably has a slight edge, but Buckley and Jones will also get their chances, both at running back and slot receiver. The good news for NU: the No. 1 and No. 2 roles are set, and the players sitting in those spots on the depth chart are very good.

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Wide Receiver / Superback

Overview

Last year, Northwestern’s wide receiver group was considered one of the best in the league heading into the season, but the unit failed to live up to the hype, especially early in the season. There were too many dropped passes and there wasn’t a lot of flash. However, things got better at the end of the season, and the perimeter blocking, in particular, was much improved. NU will still be a run-first team this season, so the receivers’ numbers won’t be great. However, it’s a unit with a lot of potential, and despite the numbers, they can still have a successful season.

What’s changed since spring?

Four things were certain in the spring: Christian Jones, Rashad Lawrence, Tony Jones and superback Dan Vitale would all earn starting spots. The final receiving spot was a little bit more open, but we figured Cameron Dickerson would win the starting job, and it appears he has. Now the question becomes how the rest of the rotation shapes out between Kyle Prater, Pierre Youngblood-Ary, Mike Jensen and younger guys like Mike McHugh and Andrew Scanlan.

Projected depth chart

Y — Cameron Dickerson, Kyle Prater

X — Tony Jones, Pierre Youngblood-Ary

Z — Rashad Lawrence, Mike McHugh

H — Christian Jones, Mike Jensen

SB — Dan Vitale, Mark Szott

Depth chart explained

The actual wide receiver positions can change, so don’t get too caught up on that right now. NU will get its best receivers out on the field, and where they line up can vary. Right now, Christian Jones looks like the best bet to be NU’s leading receiver. He’s a big, talented player who showed a knack for catching balls over the middle of the field — he became one of Colter’s favorite targets doing that last year. He’s a big target who can also make things happen after the catch, which explains why he was such a highly sought-after recruit coming out of high school. Tony Jones is a solid deep-play threat who got open a lot last season, but had trouble holding on to catches. If he figures that out, he can have a big impact. Lawrence is the leader of the group and quietly has become the most reliable sideline threat on the team. Dickerson hasn’t had a lot of game experience, but he’s a big target who has made some nice catches in the endzone. We’ve mostly seen him going up for jump balls and catching passes in tight spaces, but if he shows an after-catch component to his game — he needs to be given the chance for that before we can judge — he has the potential to surprise some people.

The biggest question most people have is what Kyle Prater’s role can be. Prater certainly has the potential to be a factor in the red zone, given his size, and he’ll get chances even if he isn’t the starter. Right now, his biggest limitation seems to be speed, as he’s struggled to create separation from defensive backs.

In addition to Prater, expect Mike Jensen to get some looks. The former walk-on has come into his own and earned a spot in the rotation after years as an under-study. Youngblood-Ary and McHugh are both relative unknowns, though McHugh, in particular, has impressed in spring and fall camp. Also keep an eye on Andrew Scanlan. He may not crack the rotation, but he’s gotten a lot of praise and should be a factor in NU’s passing game down the road.

At superback, there are really no questions. Dan Vitale will be the starter after already proving to be a threat in the receiving game as a true freshman. Could NU have its next Drake Dunsmore? It’s possible, as is a breakout sophomore season.

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Offensive Line

Overview

Many national writers have considered the offensive line to be one of NU’s biggest issues this season, but I don’t see it. Yes there is inexperience, but there is also arguably more talent and depth than the Wildcats have had during the Pat Fitzgerald era. It’s a mixture of strong veterans and promising newcomers, and while there may be some growing pains early on, this group has the potential to be as good as or better than last season’s unit.

What’s changed since spring?

If NU had to play real games in the spring, offensive line depth would have been a concern. In fact, the Wildcats didn’t hold a traditional spring game because they didn’t have enough offensive linemen to make it worthwhile — tackles Jack Konopka and Paul Jorgensen, and guard Matt Frazier were all hurt. Now that they’re back, we get a clearer picture.

The biggest change from the spring is the emergence of Ian Park. During the spring, Park didn’t figure to be a major player in the competition for a starting spot at guard — he looked like the backup center — but now he’s in position to earn a starting spot as a redshirt freshman.

Projected depth chart

LT — Jack Konopka, Shane Mertz

LG — Geoff Mogus, Adam DePietro

C — Brandon Vitabile, Matt Frazier

RG — Ian Park, Hayden Baker

RT — Paul Jorgensen, Eric Olson

Depth chart explained:

Heading into camp, the offensive line battles were for right tackle and both guard spots. Vitabile and Konopka were both locks to start from the beginning, but there were questions in the other line spots. Jorgensen and Mertz both have imposing size at tackle, and while Jorgensen has more experience, Mertz has been praised in practice by Pat Fitzgerald, who calls him “the SS Mertz.” Jorgensen won that battle, meaning Mertz looks will be Konopka’s backup at left tackle, but he’ll also see some time on the right side. In fact, there’s even the possibility — read: slim possibility, but it’s there nonetheless — that Konopka could slide back to the right side where he played last season, with Jorgensen and Mertz sharing the left tackle spot. But for now, it’s Konopka on the left and Jorgensen on the right.

Park, as we mentioned above, was the surprise winner of one of the guard spots. He’s long been considered a potential replacement for Vitabile at center, but there’s no use keeping Park off the field if he’s one of the Wildcats’ best interior linemen. Hayden Baker has been lining up as the second team right guard, but also look for Matt Frazier to see a lot of time in that spot, since Vitabile is going to be on the field a lot.

Though there was technically a position battle for both guard spots, Mogus at left guard seemed closer to a lock than a toss-up. He had a good spring and continued that into the fall, earning the starting spot as a sophomore. He’ll be backed up by Adam DePietro. Like Frazier, DePietro will get plenty of chances to see the field even though he’s a backup.

NU’s offensive line situation may have been uncertain heading into this season, but that didn’t mean the unit was bad. In fact, the Wildcats have a lot of depth and a lot of different possibilities at both guard and tackle. Don’t expect the growing pains to last too long.

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Defensive Line

Overview

The most underrated factor behind Northwestern’s 10-win surge last season was the defensive line, which jumped from 10th in the Big Ten in rushing defense (4.49 yards per play allowed) in 2011 to 4th (3.77), and 12th (17) to 5th (28) in total sacks. Even if the latter measure can’t be attributed exclusively to the defensive line, there’s little doubt the group made visible strides last season, and the statistics plainly validate that improvement.

This unit has a chance to maintain the high standard set in 2012, but there is reason for concern, particularly at tackle, where the Wildcats must find a way to replace stalwart Brian Arnfelt (now a member of the Pittsburgh Steelers). Northwestern also loses Quentin Williams at defensive end, but there is enough quality depth waiting in the wings to reprise his production. One of the reasons Williams was effective last season was the extra blocking attention his DE partner, Tyler Scott, regularly commanded; he’s back for one more season after finishing second in the Big Ten with nine sacks.

The defensive end rotation is talented and deep, while the tackle situation is less promising. Reaching the sacks benchmark set in 2012 is a reasonable expectation, but NU could have trouble stopping the run. An injury to any of the Wildcats’ top defensive tackles would be devastating.

What’s changed since spring?

Two starting spots were locked in following the spring session. Junior Sean McEvilly had earned one tackle spot and Scott, well, he didn’t really need spring practice to prove he deserved a spot in Northwestern’s starting lineup. The other starting defensive end spot was left to be resolved in training camp, and sophomore Dean Lowry appears to have fended off strong competition from redshirt freshman Ifeadi Odenigbo and sophomore Deonte Gibson, both of whom should be featured in specialty, third-down pass rushing roles. Defensive line coach Marty Long recently said both guys will play on all three downs, even if their speed and apparent weaknesses in defending the run lend themselves to more limited (mostly passing down) roles.

The tackle spot next to McEvilly is another ongoing battle. It was difficult to judge whether junior Chance Carter or senior Will Hampton would win the job out of spring practice, mostly because Hampton didn’t participate in spring practice. The situation isn’t as clear as some of the other position battles, but Carter has been more impressive in training camp, and should be the one lining up next to McEvilly with the first team defense next Saturday. Carter is more athletic, more explosive and has shown the ability to, with the help of McEvilly, force the offensive line to sink deeper into the pocket, collapsing space around the quarterback. Carter was a standout performer in spring practice last year, and he looked good again this year. But unlike 2012, he should become a first-team regular.

Depth chart projection

DE – Tyler Scott, Ifeadi Odenigbo

DT – Sean McEvilly, C.J. Robbins OR Greg Kuhar

DT – Chance Carter, Will Hampton

DE – Dean Lowry, Deonte Gibson

Depth chart explained

Few players on Northwestern’s roster are more important than McEvilly. If he misses any significant number of games this season, the Wildcats would be alarmingly short on proven DT depth. Only McEvilly, Hampton and Carter have appeared in actual games, and both Kuhar and Robbins have battled injuries over the past year. Both guys are talented, and they should be able to contribute in a big way this season, but any injury to one of the starters would be a huge blow. Redshirt freshman Connor Mahoney (6-4, 260 pounds) adds depth behind Robbins and Kuhar.

The defensive end rotation is loaded. From Scott to Lowry to Gibson to Odenigbo, there is plenty of speed, power and pass-rushing ferocity to go around. Odenigbo played briefly last season, then redshirted, and has entered this season with his early recruiting buzz toned down to a more moderate level. He may not be a starter, and most of his best stuff will come on passing downs, but Odenigbo looks ready to make good on his high school promise, and should tally a healthy heaping of sacks this season. Scott’s individual forecast needs no explanation. He is one of, if not the best pass-rusher in the Big Ten. His sack total may dip slightly, but the attention he draws (and stilted blocking arrangements he forces) will open up opportunities for others. Gibson is a speed rusher in the Odenigbo mold and gave every indication last season that the ACL injury he suffered his senior year of high school did little to diminish his explosiveness and agility; he should be more effective with more playing time this year. Another player who should see time at end is Max Chapman, a weight room ace who offers an imposing blend of speed and power, but has remained buried near the bottom of a steep DE pecking order. The end rotation is deep again this season, but he should get on the field at some point.

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Linebacker

Overview

Linebacker was considered Northwestern’s best position unit heading into last season, and it has the opportunity to protect that reputation in 2013. One starter (David Nwabuisi) graduated, but the rest of the unit remains intact, and the players competing to replace Nwabuisi are nothing short of starting caliber. This group is fast and athletic, aggressive and disciplined, talented individually and collectively. It has every attribute a linebacking corps in today’s world of pass-heavy offenses needs to succeed.

There are depth concerns in both the secondary and along the defensive line, but the linebackers, even after losing Nwabuisi in the offseason, are loaded for bear. In fact, this group might well be better than last season’s – spring practice and preseason camp has revealed a unit that not only boasts a stout starting three, but a cadre of game-ready reserves. There’s a lot to like here, no doubt, and by season’s end, it won’t be surprising if we’re discussing the linebackers in superlative terms once again.

What’s changed since spring?

The one big question we had after spring practice – who would take over the SAM linebacker spot – has now become “the one big question we have before week 1.” Fact is, we still don’t know whether Collin Ellis or Drew Smith will be the starter when the Wildcats open their season against Cal next Saturday. Both players have acquitted themselves well in training camp, have gotten their share of first-team repetitions and offer different styles – Smith is more athletic and a big hitter; Ellis is more experienced and appears to have a better understanding of coordinator Mike Hankwitz’s system. The Wildcats can’t go wrong with either guy. This is an entirely good problem to have. Better yet, should Chi Chi Ariguzo, the starting WILL (weakside) linebacker, or Damien Proby, the starting MIKE (middle) linebacker, get injured, Ellis can fill in at all three positions. So the Wildcats are covered at every spot, and wouldn’t really risk a downgrade in collective performance if any of their top four linebackers need to miss time. This is good news.

Depth chart projection

SAM (strongside) – Collin Ellis or Drew Smith, Jaylen Prater or Joseph Jones

MIKE (inside) – Damien Proby, Timmy Vernon

WILL (weakside) – Chi Chi Ariguzo, Collin Ellis

Depth chart explained

The starting three need no explanation. Proby and Ariguzo are a small cut below all-conference level. I think Ariguzo has the potential to develop into one of the league’s top linebackers, and Proby – provided injuries don’t get in the way – is all but assured of crossing the 100-tackle threshold again (he had 112 last season). When the first depth chart is released next week, don’t be surprised if Ellis and Smith are listed with an “or” between them, a Fitzgerald hallmark – not to mention a convenient way to avoid the question everyone’s been wanting to know since spring practice: who will be the starting strongside linebacker? When the Wildcats’ D takes the field next Saturday, I expect to see Ellis running with the first team. Make no mistake, Smith will get plenty of snaps, but if pressed to name a true “starter,” Ellis would be my pick.

Let’s look into the backups. Senior Timmy Vernon has played well throughout the spring and into preseason camp, while redshirt freshman Jaylen Prater – a mostly unheralded two-star recruit whose only other Big Ten offer was Indiana – has made a name for himself with some vicious hits over the past few weeks. Redshirt freshman Joseph Jones, a converted safety who, naturally, excels in pass coverage, should likewise battle for a spot on the two deep, and nickel/safety Jimmy Hall could also see time at the linebacker spot in certain packages. Another player who probably won’t see the field this season, but could play his way into a starting spot next year, or sometime in the future, is true freshman Anthony Walker. He brings all the speed and big-hit ability of Smith, but appears more athletic and explodes better when changing direction.

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Secondary

Overview

Like it has been in most recent seasons, Northwestern’s pass defense was something of an achilles heel in 2012. The Wildcats ranked last in the Big Ten in pass yards allowed per game (250.5), and opposing offenses were particularly effective moving the chains through the air on long down-and-distance situations. Northwestern will need to remedy that to have a better chance of reaching its oft-stated (and astonishingly fascinating*) 2013 season goal. The Wildcats lost a few key contributors from last season, but bring back their two best players (Ibraheim Campbell and Nick VanHoose), and should be more collectively athletic than any NU secondary in recent memory. Having two underclassmen starters in the defensive backfield is never ideal, but NU is right to believe it can be better at limiting opposing passing attacks than it was last season.

*You have no idea how many times Big Ten beat reporters walked up to NU players and Pat Fitzgerald at media days and asked them if they wanted to win a Big Ten championship. Of course they do! Isn’t that the entire point?! I digress.

What’s changed since spring?

Three starting positions were – whether formally or not – resolved coming out of spring practice. Campbell is an All-conference- caliber safety, VanHoose is one of the Big Ten’s fastest rising corners and redshirt freshman Traveon Henry flashed enough promise in his first season (and enough improvement during spring ball) to hold off junior Jimmy Hall for the second safety spot. The only question left unanswered was the No. 2 cornerback spot, and after weeks of intense competition, and spitballing a swath of possible contenders, we are inching closer toward a final verdict.

There was plenty of heated competition from players such as C.J. Bryant and Dwight White, but Daniel Jones appears to have ended the speculation. Jones is the only one of the three with any starting experience, and – for all the grief he caused NU fans throughout 2012, and in particular during the waning moments of the Michigan game – entered the offseason with a leg up on the competition. He strengthened his hold on starting duties in spring practice and has looked sharp in training camp.

That is the biggest major change in the secondary. Other small developments include White evincing previously unknown competitive fire, Bryant’s incremental progress and true freshman Godwin Igwebuike’s standout efforts. Of all the 2013 recruits Northwestern welcomed in this summer, Igwebuike may be the most game-ready. He probably won’t play this season unless injuries force him into action – which is good news, considering the fact not even his own players can pronounce his name correctly.

Depth chart projection

CB – Daniel Jones, Dwight White

S – Ibraheim Campbell, Davion Fleming

S – Traveon Henry, Jimmy Hall

CB – Nick VanHoose, C.J. Bryant

Depth chart explained

Starting with Campbell, the unquestioned alpha-dog of Northwestern’s pass defense, this group has talent, speed and athleticism at every position. VanHoose’s position was basically guaranteed before fall camp began, and Jones held off White and others while making subtle improvements – and leaving a strong impression on coaches with his intelligence and spatial awareness – throughout camp. The second cornerback spot is more fluid, more subject to change, than the first one. The gap between Jones and White is narrower than the one between Bryant and VanHoose, so I wouldn’t be surprised to see White get a lot of playing time at Jones’ expense. Bryant should also get some reps at cornerback this season, and will be particularly valuable should the injury-addled VanHoose have to sit out.

This safety tandem has the potential to be good – really, really good. Henry is one of the better athletes on the entire team, full stop, while Campbell is developing into one of the league’s best safeties. Hall may not have won a starting job, but he will get plenty of action at safety and the nickel position (or “star”). With more and more teams implementing a heavier dose of multi-wide receiver sets (even in the traditionally ground-focused Big Ten), Hall’s services will be especially valuable. Fleming hasn’t really done anything to change his relative depth chart standing one way or another; he remains an athletically limited veteran with good instincts, a serviceable stopgap solution if injury problems arise.

Compared to last season, this group is younger, which is slightly concerning, but improved athleticism, combined with the game experience logged by the four projected starters, inspires confidence for improvement after another disappointing pass-defense effort in 2012. It’s been a slow rise, borne of recruiting success and a natural spillover of confidence from other units, but the secondary is working towards discarding its reputation as Northwestern’s weakest position group. The evidence will be apparent this season.

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Special Teams

Overview

There is statistical and observational evidence suggesting the often overlooked third phase of football was Northwestern’s strongest in 2012. Venric Mark was one of the best kick returners in the country. Jeff Budzien missed one field goal out of 20. Punter Brandon Williams had his best season to date. Coverage units were remarkably good. Every player of note from last season’s special teams operation returns, and while natural regression could lead Northwestern to fall from its lofty fourth-in-the-nation special teams efficiency perch, the unit shouldn’t miss a beat. Comparatively speaking, Northwestern’s kicking, punting and returning, when lumped into one special teams whole, is better than its offense and defense. There’s little reason to argue that.

What’s changed since spring?

After losing Steve Flaherty to graduation this offseason, the biggest question about Northwestern’s special teams concerned who would handle kickoffs. Coach Pat Fitzgerald answered that question after practice Wednesday: it’s Jeff Budzien. Will Budzien be an improvement over Flaherty? The biggest criticism of Budzien is that he can’t convert exceedingly long kicks, which suggests he may not have the leg strength to force touchbacks or otherwise cause opposing return men to think twice about running the ball out of the end zone. But Budzien says his leg has gotten stronger, and his performance in preseason camp has done nothing to dispute that assertion. The Wildcats ranked 11th in the Big Ten in kickoff average (59.56 yards) and touchbacks forced (16) last season; Budzien should improve both of those numbers while maintaining his sterling field goal accuracy.

The rest of the special teams lineup was never a matter of uncertainty, other than, perhaps, kick returns. Venric Mark should get the first look here, though Fitzgerald hinted Tony Jones could also get some work on runbacks. The rest of the special teams picture won’t change, which is good – Northwestern’s special teams were great last year. [Insert jaded “Why fix something that…” metaphor here]

Depth chart projection

K – Jeff Budzien, Jeff Mitchell

P – Brandon Williams, Chris Gradone

LS – Pat Hickey, Chris Fitzpatrick

KR – Venric Mark, Tony Jones

PR – Venric Mark, Ibraheim Campbell

Depth chart explained

 The Groza Award Buzz, whether real or imagined, will start to ramp up if Budzien gets off to a hot start. And he should; Budzien has only increased his range, while maintaining his pinpoint precision, this offseason. Mark has few competitive equals in the national punt return landscape, though I wouldn’t be surprised if his 18.67 yards-per-return clip slumps a bit this year. Punt returns are wholly volatile things – even for the best return men. Still, Mark should find the end zone at least once this season, with plenty of coverage teamers left shredded in his wake. Williams, with the help of third-year starter Hickey, should be able to hold steady after posting the best punting numbers of his career (his 37.6 net yards per punt ranked third in the Big Ten), and the coverage units, given the gradual increase in talent and athleticism tethered to NU’s recent recruiting rise, will be stout.

You probably won’t see much of Mitchell or Gradone this season; the bigger question is whether true freshman P/K Hunter Niswander will be involved in any capacity. On one hand, Budzien and Williams are proven producers at their respective positions. There is no immediate need for Niswander’s services. On the other hand, Niswander is one of the best kicking/punting prospects in his class; maybe he deserves a shot. He probably won’t play – Budzien and Williams both redshirted – but it’s worth considering. The kick return situation could change as the season progresses, rooted partially in whether Mark can stay healthy while also juggling punt returns and, oh yeah, being Northwestern’s primary running back. Jones is a serviceable option on kick returns, but Campbell’s sure hands and athleticism give him the edge in returning punts.

This needs no further repetition, but Northwestern’s special teams are good. The unit deserves more attention, and maybe this year – now that we’ve screamed it in your face 8 million times – it will.

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Full Depth Chart Projection

Offense

Quarterback — Kain Colter, Trevor Siemian

Running Back — Venric Mark, Mike Trumpy

Y Receiver — Cameron Dickerson, Kyle Prater

X Receiver  — Tony Jones, Pierre Youngblood-Ary

Z Receiver — Rashad Lawrence, Mike McHugh

H Receiver — Christian Jones, Mike Jensen

Superback — Dan Vitale, Mark Szott

Left Tackle — Jack Konopka, Shane Mertz

Left Guard — Geoff Mogus, Adam DePietro

Center — Brandon Vitabile, Matt Frazier

Right Guard — Ian Park, Hayden Baker

Right Tackle — Paul Jorgensen, Eric Olson

Defense

Defensive End – Tyler Scott, Ifeadi Odenigbo

Defensive Tackle – Sean McEvilly, C.J. Robbins OR Greg Kuhar

Defensive Tackle – Chance Carter, Will Hampton

Defensive End – Dean Lowry, Deonte Gibson

SAM Linebacker – Collin Ellis or Drew Smith, Jaylen Prater or Joseph Jones

MIKE Linebacker – Damien Proby, Timmy Vernon

WILL Linebacker – Chi Chi Ariguzo, Collin Ellis

Cornerback – Daniel Jones, Dwight White

Safety – Ibraheim Campbell, Davion Fleming

Safety – Traveon Henry, Jimmy Hall

Cornerback – Nick VanHoose, C.J. Bryant

Special Teams

Kicker – Jeff Budzien, Jeff Mitchell

Punter – Brandon Williams, Chris Gradone

Long Snapper – Pat Hickey, Chris Fitzpatrick

Kick Returner – Venric Mark, Tony Jones

Punt Returner – Venric Mark, Ibraheim Campbell

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