EVANSTON, Ill. -- For the second night in a row, Northwestern practiced under the lights for roughly two hours in preparation for the prime time kickoff (7:30 PT) Saturday at Cal. With just four days standing between now and the season-opener, and a nasty mixture of heat and humidity enveloping Lakeside Field, coach Pat Fitzgerald emphasized preserving energy and not peaking too far in advance of Saturday. “We’re just being smart,” Fitzgerald said Tuesday before practice. “Don’t want to take too much out of the guys legs.”
The general plan for this week’s practice, according to Fitzgerald, has been installing base packages early in the week and saving situational play and scheme specifics – mostly through the first team offense taking on the second-team defense, and vice versa – for Thursday, including mapping out the Wildcats’ first drive and honing in on two-minute drill-type situational play. The game day depth chart was released Monday, so most of the intrigue about position battles has, at least for now, subsided.
Some notes from Tuesday's workout:
-- Wide receiver was the most impressive position Tuesday. Everyone from Rashad Lawrence to Mike Jensen to Cameron Dickerson to Cermak Bland was on point, snatching not-always-accurate passes and making tough plays in traffic. On one sequence, Trevor Siemian dropped back and rifled a pass between a sea of defenders to Lawrence for a long touchdown. He broke into an intricate triumphal dance routine immediately thereafter, naturally.
-- One player who was seemingly all over the place on offense, and even contributed on kick returns, was Stephen Buckley. I still don’t know how coordinator Mick McCall plans to use the versatile Buckley – in fact, neither does he – but he is one of the best pure athletes Northwestern has on offense, and it will be interesting to see how he’s deployed in the Wildcats’ spread attack. Buckley won’t be used much as a conventional between-the-tackles back, but he made a few nifty plays bouncing runs to the outside, and has shown the ability to line up in the slot. More coming on him later this week.
-- The cornerback battle is settled – Daniel Jones will get the start Saturday against Cal, and redshirt freshman Dwight White is listed as the backup. But if either Jones, White or both struggle to matchup with opposing receivers, the Wildcats might have to take a long, hard look at burning true freshman Matthew Harris’s redshirt. He turned in another impressive practice, and looks mature beyond his years, physically and mentally. Fitzgerald’s reticence to play true freshman is well known, but if NU needs help at corner, Harris deserves consideration.
-- There was no media availability for Monday night’s practice – a workout Fitzgerald referred to as “Tuesday,” thanks to this week’s atypical schedule – but Fitzgerald was apparently impressed, calling it “One of the best looks I’ve ever seen for a first Tuesday.”
-- No consensus has been reached on the kick return situation. Last week, Fitzgerald said he was still deliberating who would return kicks this season, but talked of Tony Jones possibly spelling Venric Mark to reduce the number of hits he takes over the course of the season. On Tuesday, he reiterated the same basic stance, and mentioned the possibility of “playing multiple guys back there. We’ll see how things go.” It sounds like Mark he will shoulder the majority of the kick return load, though Fitzgerald does seem concerned with the possibility of Mark’s various responsibilities (running back, punt returns, kick returns) taking a toll on his body. “Venric can go out and do those things for us at any time,” Fitzgerald said. “But at the same time, it’s a long year.”
-- The night practice schedule was installed as a preemptive measure to ease the difficulties of acclimating to a two-hour time difference. Whether it helps ensure body clock continuity or makes the Wildcats feel comfortable in some other way, no one can say for sure, but know this: Fitzgerald would rather not put his players through this routine again. “Now, we have too much time on our hands,” he said. “We’re thinking about too many ifs and what-ifs and that sort of stuff. There’s no way in heck we’re ever going this late again unless I have to.”
-- There will be a press conference tomorrow afternoon, and another night practice. We will have updates from both. Stay tuned. College football -- the real, actual thing -- creeps ever closer.