EVANSTON, Ill. -- Preparing for the comparatively cool climate of the Bay Area, along with the time change, has been a point of emphasis for coach Pat Fitzgerald throughout game week as he readies the Wildcats for their first game of the season at Cal Saturday. Whereas Tuesday night’s workout was beset by hot and muggy conditions, Wednesday brought a refreshingly temperate climate, with a foggy mist blanketing Lakeside Field, and temperatures more in line with what Northwestern can expect around kickoff Saturday.
It was one of the best workouts I’ve observed this summer. Plays were executed with few errors, there was plenty of competitive intensity throughout and most guys – the receivers in particular – managed to stay loose while remaining focused on the challenge ahead.
A few quick observations:
-- The depth chart released Monday has an “OR” between Deonte Gibson and Dean Lowry at defensive end; Tyler Scott is the unchallenged starter on the other side. Ifeadi Odenigbo won’t start Saturday, but on Wednesday, he looked quicker, stronger and was more disruptive off the edge than Gibson. The former five-star recruit has put on 40 pounds since arriving in Evanston last year, and you get the feeling – after redshirting, hitting the weight room, and combining his raw potential with a solid tactical and schematic understanding of the defense – he’s ready for a breakout season. He won’t rival Scott for team sack leader, but he will infuse Northwestern’s pass rush with some much-welcomed speed and power, and hopefully get to the quarterback a few times, this year. I wouldn’t be surprised if he’s challenging Gibson for reps sometime down the line.
-- It was another impressive workout from the wide receivers. Mike Jensen made a few nice catches (and flashed the ability to step outside his rigidly-defined slot role and make plays on the perimeter), Pierre Youngblood-Ary continues to defy the perplexing decision to leave him off the WR two-deep and Rashad Lawrence hauled in some tough throws while consistently abusing true freshman cornerback Marcus McShepard, who was assigned to cover him near the end of practice. The question with this group, as it was last season, will be whether it can find a big-play receiver. Christian Jones might be that guy. Maybe Tony Jones has it in him. We should find out soon enough.
-- Toward the end of last season, Dan Vitale emerged as one of Northwestern’s most versatile offensive weapons. He continued his multi-purpose work Wednesday by lining up in different spots, catching patches short and long, running away from linebackers and outmuscling DBs. Vitale is good; you already knew this. But it’s not crazy to think he could make a Dunsmore-like sophomore leap (Dunsmore had his best year as a RS Sophomore) this season.
-- I figured I should mention this before the season starts, because we probably won't talk about it much during the season: The future at quarterback is bright. And it could be more competitive than once believed. Zack Oliver continued to show Wednesday why he won't be easily pushed aside by more highly-touted recruits like Matt Alviti and Clayton Thorson (if he doesn't play wide receiver). Oliver has a strong arm and shows great composure in the pocket. He probably won't play much, if at all this season in competitive games, but watching him develop next spring and summer behind Trevor Siemian, with Alviti likely competing for the backup job, will be fascinating.
-- Of all the practices I’ve seen this summer, Wednesday might have been Kain Colter’s best. He flung the ball around to different receivers with excellent precision and accuracy. Siemian has the bigger arm, but on Wednesday, Colter’s oft-criticized arm-strength didn’t look too far behind. He launched a few bullets, accurate ones, and looked more comfortable slinging deep balls from the pocket than any practice or game I can remember.
-- Neither Fitzgerald nor any players were accessible for interviews after practice, and there will be no media availabilities the rest of the week. We will have more preview coverage on Thursday and Friday. Everything from informative Cal-focused links to unit breakdowns to predictions are on the docket. Stay tuned.