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Northwestern spring 2014 preview: five storylines to track

Here are five storylines to keep an eye on throughout spring practice, which begins on Wednesday.

Who’s gone?

Fourteen players from last season’s team graduated. Nine of them (S Davion Fleming, PK Jeff Budzien, WR Mike Jensen, LB Damien Proby, RB Mike Trumpy, DL Tyler Scott, LS Pat Hickey, P Brandon Williams and LB Timmy Vernon) were fifth year seniors. Five of them (QB Kain Colter, CB Mike Eshun, DT Will Hampton, WR Rashad Lawrence and CB C.J. Bryant) stayed around for four seasons. Many of those players won’t be easy to replace. But which one was the most valuable? The obvious answer is Colter, so let’s pick someone else.

It’d be easy to make an argument for Budzien. He was a two-time first-team All-Big Ten kicker, and set program records for career points (280), career field goal percentage (.872) and field goals made in a single season (23). He also went 136-for-136 on extra points, which is pretty remarkable. Budzien never got a lot of national recognition, but it’s tough to argue he wasn’t one of NU’s most valuable players the last couple of seasons.

Another option is Proby. He was named honorable mention All-Big Ten for the second consecutive season in 2013 after starting all 12 games and leading NU in tackles. The Wildcats have a talented linebacker corps, but they aren’t as deep at the position as they are some others, and Proby was a rock in the middle of their defense. It will be difficult to find another player who can replicate his consistently strong performance. So, maybe Proby is the right answer here. We’ll get to see the defense line up without him in spring practice.

Parrker Westphal Enrolls Early

One of the most heralded recruits of NU’s 15-man signing class enrolled early and will participate in spring practice. If you’re unaware of Westphal's credentials, check out his 247 profile. Westphal, the first player during Fitzgerald's tenure to enroll early, was a big get for NU, and he projects as a starting cornerback.

This season, though, it’s unlikely Westphal will start. As discussed below, NU’s pretty solid at corner. So unless Westphal clearly outplays Nick VanHoose or Daniel Jones (not available for spring practice) or Matt Harris in spring practice and training camp, you probably won’t see him lining up with the first team this season.

But will he redshirt? If Harris was good enough to play right away, maybe Westphal is, too. There’s a reason Ohio State and Florida and Michigan and Notre Dame and other top programs offered him a scholarship. He’s, uh, good. Even if Westphal doesn’t start, he could provide depth in the secondary, help out in NU's DB-heavy sets and play on special teams.

It’s too early to say where he’ll fit in this season. But it will be interesting to see him compete with NU’s other corners in spring practice. He was good enough in high school to garner offers from some of the top programs in the country – the schools NU typically loses its high-end targets to. Maybe he expects to play right away. At spring practice, we’ll see where he stacks up against NU’s other corners.

Some interesting position battles

With older players graduating and younger ones improving, there will be competition for starting spots at certain positions. Final determinations on who starts won’t be made, in some cases, until right before the season opener (at least not publicly). But during spring workouts we should be able to get a sense for which players have an edge on their competitors. There are a number of positions at which there is no clear starter, but I’d like to focus on two: quarterback and cornerback.

A lot of fans seem to believe NU would be better off starting redshirt freshman Matt Alviti at quarterback this season. Most of these fans haven’t seen Alviti play in practice. Some of them didn’t even see him play in high school, and are probably more enamored with the prospect of what Alviti – a former four-star recruit with a nice offer list – could grow into than Alviti himself.

Alviti is a talented player who has the potential to become NU’s starter later in his career, but I don’t think he will beat out Trevor Siemian for the No. 1 spot on the depth chart this season. Siemian wasn’t consistently great last season, but – as we learned after the season-closing Illinois game – he dealt with a heel injury that limited him for several games and was brilliant (31-of-44, 414 passing yards, 4 TDs, 0 picks) against the Illini. Siemian will probably be the starter this season, and you can expect him to be running the first-team offense in spring practice.

The other position battle I’d like to address is cornerback. Let’s assume, for the sake of this argument – and because I’m going to address him in a separate section of this preview piece – that Westphal won’t compete for a starting job. NU has four players (VanHoose, Harris, Jones and Dwight White) competing for two spots. VanHoose didn’t have the breakout season many expected he would in 2013, but he’s still the frontrunner to win one of the corner spots.

The other one is less clear. I don’t expect White, who was benched after getting burned for a touchdown against Minnesota, to win one of the two starting corner spots. Harris started five games last season after replacing White and more than held his own. I think he has All-Conference potential. Harris just needs to add some weight so he can avoid getting pushed around by bigger, more physical receivers.

He played well enough to earn a starting spot for this season, in my mind, but where does that leave Jones, who was the starter entering 2013 but tore his ACL in the first half of the season opener at Cal? It will be interesting to see if coach Pat Fitzgerald goes with the veteran in Jones or the younger Harris, who showed great promise last season. In spring practice, expect Harris to get most of the first-team repetitions, as Jones is sitting out with an injury.

Oh yeah, that union thing

Attorneys representing Northwestern and the College Athletes Players Association are expected to give their closing arguments Tuesday at the Dirksen Federal Building before a National Labor Relations Board hearing officer. Some of the testimony given in the hearing – particularly that of former quarterback Kain Colter – didn’t paint the university or the football team in a particularly positive light.

Fitzgerald said some things that called into question the legitimacy of claims Colter made, but the coach refrained from blasting his former starting QB. Still, the testimony given by Colter and NU officials that described some of the program’s inner-workings – the process by which recruits are evaluated through admissions, schedule specifics, the leadership council, etc. – was revealing.

What’s odd is that the matter being disputed in the case – whether college athletes are employees under federal labor law – is getting less attention than some of the details provided through testimony (such as the payment for an MRI Colter needed after the season; he claimed it was “in dispute.”)

Fitzgerald will want the focus at spring practice to be on football, but he’s going to be asked questions about the hearing and his testimony therein. I’m sure players will also be asked about their involvement with CAPA – namely, whether they signed union cards – which could make post-practice media sessions a little awkward. They probably won’t say anything, and Fitzgerald might not, either.

But this is a national topic that’s too big to ignore; Fitzgerald can’t expect not to be asked about it. As much as Fitzgerald and the rest of the football program probably wants to move on and get to preparing for the upcoming season, it’s impossible to simply put aside the events that have taken place over the past month. This is a big story, and people are going to want Fitzgerald to talk about it.

Venric Mark and the running backs 

You may have heard that Mark, who played in just games last season while battling several injuries, was granted a fifth year of eligibility. That’s great news for NU. When Mark is healthy, he’s one of the most explosive players in the Big Ten. Remember 2012? Mark rushed for 1,366 yards and ran back two punts for touchdowns.

Even though he played three games last season, Mark was hampered by a hamstring injury he suffered in the preseason and never looked like he was completely healthy. He’ll be looking to regain his dazzling 2012 form this season, and if completely healthy, it's not unreasonable to suggest Mark could again put up big rushing and return numbers (if not quite as gaudy as what he posted in 2012).

Mark is just one of the many running backs offensive coordinator Mick McCall will have at his disposal this season. NU has lots of depth at RB. There’s Mark, redshirt freshman Stephen Buckley, Treyvon Green, Warren Long and possibly freshmen Justin Jackson and Auston Anderson.

Mark should be the starter, but the competition for the carries he doesn’t get will be fierce. Green and Buckley, provided he has recovered from his injury, should get the bulk of the backup reps, but could Long or either of the freshmen move up the depth chart?

We won’t see either of the freshmen in spring practice -- and there’s a decent chance both of them end up redshirting -- just like we won't see Buckley or Mark, who are sitting out while rehabbing injuries. When they are healthy, it will be interesting to see how McCall elects to use them. NU probably won't run the option as often this season as it did the past two, but the running backs – whether Mark or Buckley or Green or someone else – should get plenty of touches.