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Northwestern practice notes: Wednesday, 9/18

EVANSTON, Ill. -- We have officially reached the driest of dry spells in Northwestern’s 2013 season. The Western Michigan game was interesting for a quarter, but eventually played out the way most predicted (No, Northwestern didn't cover the spread, but for win-loss purposes, was there really ever any doubt after halftime?), and Saturday's matchup against Maine probably won't be all that much different. There aren’t many story lines to report from Northwestern’s Wednesday practice, the second of the week leading up to the Saturday, but here are a few things that stuck out:

-- Cornerback depth was a big question entering the season, and an even bigger one once Daniel Jones suffered a season-ending knee injury in the season-opener at Cal. Dwight White replaced him, but has been targeted by opposing quarterbacks frequently, and clearly needs some work before becoming a reliable cover man. True freshman Matt Harris has performed well on special teams, and is beginning to make a name for himself on defense. On Wednesday, he lined up with the first-team unit, and while my characterization of the division of repetitions isn’t scientific, it’s safe to say he “split” reps with White. Since suffering an injury on the season-opening kickoff while plowing through three Cal blockers, Harris has impressed coaches with his athleticism and work ethic. He’s already considered one of Northwestern’s primary options for returning kicks (with Mark hurt), but he could soon unseat (or at least play himself into an "or" deadlock) White at the second cornerback spot. “Matt’s a very talented young man,” coach Pat Fitzgerald said Wednesday. “We thought right away when we started camp that he was a difference-maker kind of guy. He’s getting more involved, and we’ll continue to bring him along. He’s obviously an explosive athlete, fast guy. Great attitude.” Harris was not made available for comment after practice.

-- The continued non-involvement of Pierre Youngblood-Ary, who has zero catches on the season, baffles the mind. The sophomore is almost always among the better performers at his position in practice, often making tough catches near the sidelines – including today, when redshirt freshman Andrew Scanlan, on a reverse pass (an impressive spiral on an across-the-body throw), hit Youngblood-Ary, heavily covered, on a deep ball. I have to wonder if there’s something going on behind the scenes, something that hasn’t been made public, something Youngblood-Ary did to, as they say, land in the coach’s “dog house.” It’s perplexing, really, because even though Northwestern is plenty deep at wideout, Youngblood-Ary, surely, has proven himself enough to earn a more prominent role in Northwestern's passing offense.

-- There was a lot of emphasis on blitz packages Wednesday; linebackers regularly lined up close to the line of scrimmage, either rushing the passer, or hesitating before dropping back in coverage. The defense also continued to utilize its speed-rush, four-defensive-end formation, with Tyler Scott and Dean Lowry lined up at tackle, and Ifeadi Odenigbo and Deonte Gibson at end. Given Northwestern’s relative lack of depth at defensive tackle, that formation could be something coordinator Mike Hankwitz opts to use more often during the conference season.

-- On several occasions, Nick VanHoose lined up in the nickel, flanked by White and Harris at cornerback. I wasn’t sure what to make of this at the time – whether Jimmy Hall might have been losing his grip on the position – but Fitzgerald assured after practice that Hall remains the first option. When asked whether VanHoose was in the mix at nickel, Fitzgerald said, “We’ll always move guys around to see what we can do best, but right now Jimmy Hall’s playing that position.” Which probably makes the most possible sense. VanHoose has struggled at times this season, but he remains Northwestern’s best cornerback by a significant margin. If, for whatever reason, Fitzgerald/Hankwitz decides to move Hall out of his position, or his performance lags, VanHoose has the versatility to step in capably. And besides, Hall seems to have found a niche at the nickel/star spot – quick enough to run down receivers, and strong enough to bring down ball carriers in the open field.

-- This will be the last practice report for the week, which means we’re one step closer to being able to talk about the Ohio State game as a real, actual, thing without having to throw the standard “I know you’d never look ahead, but…” disclaimer in front of every question to Fitzgerald.