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Northwestern training camp primer: 5 storylines to track before week 1

Preseason camp is a time for preparation and anticipation. Northwestern enters its 2013 version with plenty of the latter and, like every other team around the country, plans to execute the former in the most efficient and beneficial was possible. The Wildcats are expected to do big things this season with a roster that returns most of 2012’s major contributors, and preseason camp is an important step of the journey.

It’s when the Wildcats, after a long and brimmingly positive offseason, will finally get a chance to place their entire roster – true freshmen and all – in one competitive setting to start figuring out depth chart alignments, redshirt decisions, position battles and other roster-related questions. We’ll have a separate post devoted solely to position battles, but for now, here are five basic storylines to think about as the Wildcats gear up for 2013. Football creeps ever closer. August 31, the date of Northwesern’s season opener at Cal, is not far off.

Rebuilding the offensive line

The position group people seem most concerned about this offseason is the offensive line. They point out the difficulties of replacing three starters (left tackle Patrick Ward, and guards Brian Mulroe and Neal Deiters), and how Northwestern’s run game – including the option strain that worked so well last season – could suffer as a result. These fears are not unfounded: Northwestern does need to replace three starters, but there seems to be a misperception about how Northwestern will replace those three starters.

The answer? Check out Northwestern’s recent signing classes, where Pat Fitzgerald and his staff targeted a raft of big and talented linemen, highly touted players with bright futures in the college game. A lot of these guys come with impressive high school credentials – Adam DePietro and Ian Park (2012 signees), for example, both spurned numerous BCS offers, and their performance in scout team and spring practice backed up every bit of high school hype they brought to Evanston. Both should see major snaps this season. 2011 recruits Geoff Mogus and Shane Mertz will also have major roles to play along the line – Mogus at guard and Mertz at tackle – while junior Paul Jorgensen and redshirt freshman Eric Olson will also compete for playing time at tackle. Our best guess at a starting front five hasn’t change since our latest post-spring projection, but we should get a clearer picture once camp begins.

The line may be young, and it’s impossible to understate the importance of experience in the trenches, but there is plenty of talent (and plenty of depth) at every position and if the youngsters can pick up coordinator Mick McCall’s various schemes and protections in these next few weeks, there should be little drop off from last season’s group.

That two-quarterback thing

Last season, questions surfaced about the sustainability of Northwestern’s two -quarterback system, which – from week one on, almost without fail – elicited weekly debates about coaching decisions and offensive philosophy and the profoundly dumb idea that two different quarterbacks with two different skill sets in a well-defined dual quarterback rotation were in direct competition for a mostly superficial “No. 1” depth chart designation. That last bit was the worst part, and if it seems sort of ridiculous, that’s because it is – but the topic was discussed, and it got to the point where, despite Northwestern’s relative offensive success, the fact the Wildcats were winning games with two quarterbacks somehow made the success phony or gimmicky.

The hope for 2013 is that the 10-win season Kain Colter and Trevor Siemian helped engineer last year will silence the outside criticisms, because honestly, I don’t think I can handle another post game press-conference leading off with, “Coach Fitzgerald, who do you consider the starting quarterback?” Seriously. But there is good news! Both quarterbacks should be better this season; at media days two weeks ago, Colter talked about his improved downfield throwing accuracy, while Siemian should be more comfortable simply by virtue of banking a year of experience. He’s also, as he proved with a slick third-quarter misdirection keeper TD in the Gator Bowl, more mobile than most are willing to give him credit for, which should offer McCall the confidence to at least dip his toes in the Siemian-option read concept. Colter, meanwhile – if his offseason work yields veritable results, and to his credit, Colter did look sharper with his throws in spring workouts – should become more involved in the passing game.

Watching these two guys run the offense together with a year of comfort and experience tucked away will be one of the more interesting tactical developments of preseason camp.

The secondary

Pass defense has been one of Northwesern’s biggest weaknesses over the past few seasons. In 2012, the Wildcats ranked last in the Big Ten in this category (250.5 yards per game), and in the offseason saw three major or semi-major contributors from last season – Demetrius Dugar, Quinn Evans and Jared Carpenter – graduate. In their place is a younger but possibly more talented overall group, led by All-Conference-caliber safety Ibraheim Campbell and redshirt sophomore cornerback Nick VanHoose, another player emerging as one of the conference’s DB standouts. VanHoose and Campbell are practically locked into starting positions. The interesting part about training camp will be figuring out who fills out the other two spots.

At the cornerback spot opposite VanHoose, a host of competitors (Daniel Jones, Dwight White, Jarrell Williams, Jordan Perkins, C.J. Bryant, freshmen Kyle Queiro, Keith Watkins, Marcus McShepard, Matt Harris) will use camp to stake their claim in a wide open race. Right now, I’d have to say Jones, despite enduring a somewhat rocky two-year career to date, holds a slight lead over the rest, but I wouldn’t rule out White surpassing him on the depth chart, or even one of the true freshmen making a run for the job. The other safety spot is, for all intents and purposes, settled. One of three NU players to burn his redshirt last season, true sophomore Traveon Henry is all but guaranteed to start alongside Campbell. If he’s not starting week 1, junior Jimmy Hall would likely take his spot, though I expect Hall to play more of a specialty nickel/star/hybrid position this season.

Each player will be discussed in greater detail in the position battles piece mentioned above, but hopefully this gave you a basic picture of how Northwestern’s secondary – so crucial to its success, or lack thereof, in close games over the past few seasons – is shaping up as we creep closer towards week 1 

Emerging offensive playmakers

In the five years since Mick McCall inherited Northwestern’s offensive coordinator job, the Wildcats have ranked no worse than sixth among conference opponents (and no worse than 64th nationally) in total offense. Bold prediction: they’ll finish higher than sixth in 2013. Another prediction: the Wildcats will get a lot of help from some relatively untested underclassmen perimeter playmakers.

The first group to focus on is running back, where Venric Mark and Mike Trumpy front a backfield supplemented by (along with senior Treyvon Green) redshirt freshmen Stephen Buckley and Malin Jones, the latter of which could well pass Trumpy on the depth chart by the end of Fall camp. Jones was highly regarded coming out of Joliet Catholic (Ill.) high school, redshirted last season and was one of Northwestern’s standout offensive performers during spring practice. Buckley’s talents feel better suited for option sets and outside stretch plays; what he lacks in bulk and between-the-tackles-grit Buckley makes up in speed and elusiveness. He quarterbacked a version of the option-infused veer offense in high school, and said during spring practice he felt comfortable not only lining up in the backfield for Northwestern’s various option formations, but also (if need be) taking snaps under center. If Northwestern plans to roll out any tricky reverse passes or other types of trick plays, expect Buckley to be involved.

The opportunity for youngsters to step up at receiver are more limited, but three players to watch over the next few weeks are redshirt freshman Mike McHugh and sophomores Cameron Dickerson and Pierre Youngblood-Ary. I’m not sure how often any of these guys will be targeted this season, but at least one of them should have the opportunity – probably Dickerson – to carve out a prominent role in the passing game. The competition for targets in a veteran-laden receiving core will play out in training camp.

(The offensive line will also feature a slew of underclassmen, most of which are discussed above.)

Resetting expectations

The excitement is palpable. Big Ten folks and national media types are beginning to accept the idea, begrudgingly or no, that Northwestern is not only a consistent bowl-bound outfit under Pat Fitzgerald, but a realistic Legends Division contender. The team itself, the players that compose the roster, is probably better than last year’s group. Losing guys like Ward, Brian Arnfelt, David Nwabuisi and Demetrius Fields will no doubt require big adjustments, but it’s not crazy to think – with only a couple exceptions to the contrary (defensive tackle, offensive line) – the Wildcats are just as good, if not better, at every position group. This team is well equipped for division contention, and after last season’s success, many believe the Wildcats have an excellent opportunity to reach their first conference championship game.

And maybe they will! But before you plant your feet and use last season’s 10-win mark as a barometer – before you preemptively decide anything less than double-digit wins and an upper-tier bowl game is a failure on at least some level – there is one important thing to remember about Northwestern’s 2013 season: the schedule is much, much harder – hard enough that, no matter how much Northwestern may have improved since 2012, their win-loss record may not reflect those improvements at season’s end. It’s a lesson that applies to college football writ large, and most people don’t need it repeated, but wins and losses are delicate data points, determined by a number of variables outside of basic roster construction. The Wildcats have the look of a conference contender, but their schedule – combined with the natural regression that typically happens when a team posts a league-best + 14 turnover margin – could leave them with a less flattering win-loss record than 2012, improved and talented as this roster stands to be heading into 2013.

The point is not to suppress excitement for the upcoming season, or downplay the overall talent and depth on this roster. Northwestern is a good team. How good? We don’t know. But we do know the answer can’t be encapsulated by a simple comparative analysis of Northwestern’s roster, using last season’s 10-win group as a standard from which to draw conclusions about this season’s eminently improved team. There are other factors to consider, and the schedule – which replaces last season’s manageable crossover schedule (Penn State, Indiana) with maybe the toughest possible Leaders’ division duo available (Ohio State and Wisconsin) – is arguably the biggest one.