Northwestern's fall camp kicks off today, meaning football season is officially here. Spring practice gave us a nice glimpse of where the team stands, but training camp is where the depth chart really starts to take shape and the identity of the team starts to come together. The Wildcats will have four practices in Evanston this week, then go to Kenosha, Wisc., for four practices next week, then they'll have three more the following week, which leads right up into game week for the opener against Cal. With practice set to kick off, we give you the most intriguing position battles to watch. Also be sure to check out five storylines for training camp and our ultimate summer guide, which gives an in-depth breakdown of every position unit heading into camp.
Cornerback: Daniel Jones vs. CJ Bryant vs. Dwight White
One cornerback spot is already settled, with Nick VanHoose sitting well about his peers as he heads into a second straight season as the starter. However, the spot on the other side of the field is a toss-up. Daniel Jones, CJ Bryant and Dwight White are the three players expected to make a run for the starting role, but nobody emerged in the spring, meaning the next three or four weeks will decide the starter. Each player brings something different to the table.
Jones has starting experience and has been there the longest, but he struggled with inconsistency last year. Bryant saw a decent amount of time last year, especially when VanHoose was injured, but he never "wowed" anyone with his play — though to be fair, he didn't have a lot of time to. White is a redshirt freshman who emerged as a challenger to Jones and Bryant during the spring. The coaches are clearly high on him and he has a bright future, but does he have the potential to be the next VanHoose, going straight from a redshirt year to a starting spot? Pat Fitzgerald tends to like to go with experience, so that could give the edge to Jones. However, he showed last year that if a young player really steps up, that player will get the chance to start. By the end of a Kenosha, we should have a much better idea of where this one stands.
Defensive Tackle: Will Hampton, Chance Carter, CJ Robbins, Greg Kuhar, Max Chapman
We've already noted the importance of finding consistency at defensive tackle and Mountain Tiger of Sippin on Purple had a great post just how important Brian Arnfelt's presence was to Northwestern last year. Sean McEvilly started opposite Arnfelt last year, so he figures to be the No. 1 starter this season, and he must step up to become a difference-maker inside like Arnfelt was in 2012. Who replaces him is anyone's guess.
Hampton and Carter are the most likely replacements. They were originally considered the frontrunners to place alongside Arnfelt last year — Hampton started week one against Syracuse — but were passed up by McEvilly. Both are very experienced and very capable players who have shown flashes of their ability. Hampton didn't play in the spring, so it's tough to judge where he stands relative to Carter. However, both will get their fair shot this fall. Also keep an eye on Greg Kuhar and CJ Robbins. Robbins was the surprise performer of the spring and has the ability to play both tackle and end — expect to see him at both this year — while Kuhar redshirted last year, but should see time this fall. Also keep an eye on Max Chapman, another hybrid tackle/end who received praise from star defensive end Tyler Scott at Big Ten Media Days.
Defensive End: Deonte Gibson, Dean Lowry, Ifeadi Odenigbo
Northwestern is stacked at defensive end this year, with Tyler Scott anchoring the unit on one end and a host of young talent on the other. Deonte Gibson and Dean Lowry served as the backups last season, but both were impressive when they saw time, particularly in the pass rush. Ifeadi Odenigbo was the star recruit, but Lowry came into his own and made an impact as early as the Syracuse game. He has a big frame, but has a tremendous amount of athleticism. Now he's put on weight and should be even more of a force on the edge. Gibson is also a very capable player who offers a good combination of strength and athleticism. Also watch out for Odenigbo, who was undersized last year, but has put on (at least some of) the weight necessary to be a defensive end in the Big Ten. No matter who wins this battle, NU will be in good hands, and expect a rotation of some sort.
Offensive Tacke: Paul Jorgensen vs. Shane Mertz
With the departure of Pat Ward, Jack Konopka will switch from right to left tackle this season, leaving a battle between Jorgensen and Mertz on the right side. Both would be new to the starting job, but they both have the talent, size and experience to be just fine this season. Jorgensen saw time as a backup the past few seasons — he even caught a touchdown pass last year! — and now moves into the group of "top three" tackles. Mertz, a 6-foot-8, 295-pound sophomore — nicknamed the SS Mertz — missed last year due to injury after redshirting as a freshman. It's anyone's guess who will win this battle, but either way, NU figures to be in good hands. Once the starter becomes more comfortable, there's also the chance that he could switch over to the left side if Konopka's switch doesn't work well.
Offensive Guard: Geoff Mogus, Matt Frazier, Adam DePietro, Hayden Baker, Ian Park
Northwestern has two vacant guard spots to take care of this fall, with a lot of talent, but a lot of inexperience looking to fill those voids. Matt Frazier is the lone player returning with starting experience — he started a few games where he wasn't actually listed as the starter last year — but he missed the spring, allowing Mogus and DePietro to gain some more experience with the first team. Mogus, DePietro and Frazier are definitely the frontrunners for those two spots. Mogus played last year as a backup, while DePietro was a highly-touted recruit, but redshirted in 2012. It's tough to tell who has the upper hand right now and expect the battle to last throughout most of camp. Also watch out for Baker and Park, who could see time as backups. Baker played in a backup role in the spring, while Park is the backup center, but will also see time at guard.
SAM Linebacker: Drew Smith vs. Collin Ellis
I've written numerous times that Northwestern has four starting-caliber players at linebacker, and no matter who wins this battle, both will see the field a lot. Ellis has experience as a starter, but struggled with injuries last year and lost that spot to Chi Chi Ariguzo, who has since moved to the starting spot at WILL linebacker. Even if he doesn't start, Ellis will get a lot of playing time because of his ability to play every linebacker position. Smith burst onto the scene as a playmaker last year, and he has a reputation for being a big hitter. NU has big plans for him in the future and he certainly has star potential, whether that means starting this year or not. Because starting middle linebacker Damien Proby was injured in the spring, Ellis and Smith were often both on the field at the same time, with Ellis playing WILL or MIKE linebacker while Smith was at SAM, meaning they didn't get much of a chance to go head-to-head. This fall, they'll be able to fight for the starting spot.