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Take Two: Which player has the most to gain in spring practice?

For some players, spring practice is a big opportunity. They can impress coaches and give themselves a leg up on the competition at their respective positions heading into preseason camp. A few of Northwestern’s players could use strong spring sessions, and today, your humble InsideNU take two authors are going to select two Wildcats who have the most to gain over the next few weeks of workouts. As always, feel free to leave comments. We welcome your feedback.

Matt Harris

Midway through the second quarter of Northwestern’s 20-17 loss to Minnesota last October 19, Gophers receiver Derrick Engel beat Wildcats corner Dwight White for a 29-yard touchdown. White was pulled from the game, and true freshman Matthew Harris took his spot. Harris started the final five games of the season, served as NU’s primary kick returner and was named to ESPN.com’s Big Ten All-Freshman team. There were times when Harris, who is still listed at 5-foot-11, 180 pounds, got pushed around by bigger receivers, but all in all, he acquitted himself pretty well in his first season.

Harris probably deserves a starting spot in NU secondary for 2014. He’s one of NU’s most athletic players, teammates rave about his work ethic and attention to detail and he seemed to improve over the course of the season. But there’s a chance that when NU’s defense takes the field for the first time this upcoming season against Cal on August 31, Harris will be watching from the sidelines. He wasn’t one of NU’s top two cornerbacks coming out of training camp last season; Nick VanHoose and Daniel Jones were. But Jones wasn’t able to play almost all of 2013 because he tore his ACL in the first half of NU’s opener at Cal.

Jones is sitting out of spring practice while he continues to rehab, but the expectation is that he will be ready for the start of the 2014 season. It’s hard to predict what kind of player Jones will be when he returns to action, but if he makes a full (or close to a full) recovery Jones should be something close to the guy that earned a starting spot last summer. In the meantime, it will be on Harris to show coaches he’s too good to be kept on the bench. That’s why Harris has so much to gain over the next few weeks.

How a player performs in spring practice isn’t the final piece of evidence coaches use when sorting out depth charts at various positions. Summer camp is a more important evaluation period. That’s when players hoping to make the two-deep or earn a starting spot need to make the strongest impression. But a strong effort in spring workouts can put them ahead of their competitors, to the point that they’re not stuck trying to catch up – and have at least created some separation – when spring practice opens.

With Jones not participating spring workouts, Harris can play well enough to solidify his status as the frontrunner to earn one of the two starting cornerback spots (VanHoose wasn’t great last season, but there’s no getting around the fact he remains one of NU’s top two corners). Of course, Harris will need to prove himself again in August. If Jones returns from his injury and plays better than Harris, the progress he made in spring workouts will be undone. But if he plays well enough in the spring, Jones will spend the summer trying to make up lost ground – and that’s without taking into account the difficulty the senior could have trying to ramp back up to full speed after having surgery on a major knee ligament. This is Harris’ time to cement his status as one of NU’s two starting cornerbacks.

- Chris Johnson

Eric Olson

Northwestern's offensive line returns five starters this year, which you'd think would make it a strength heading into 2014. However, after an inconsistent year in 2013 that accounted for at least part of the offensive drop-off, Pat Fitzgerald said there is open competition on the line.

The center spot is pretty well-established, as Brandon Vitabile could be a first team All-Big Ten player, and Geoff Mogus's guard spot also looks pretty safe. Beyond that, who knows?

We wrote in our offensive line preview before spring practice that the guard spot opposite Mogus looked to be the biggest battle on the line. And while the starter at that position is anything but settled, one of the tackle jobs is more hotly-contested than we anticipated. After starting at left tackle last season, Jack Konopka has been replaced on the first team by Eric Olson so far this spring. Konopka's spot figured to be pretty safe, and even if he was benched, Shane Mertz was generally considered the No. 3 tackle last year.

Fitzgerald said that lineups could rotate by the practice, but this is a huge opportunity for Olson. A former three-star prospect from Massachusetts, he's 6-foot-6, 290 pounds, had a Michigan offer and also starred as a basketball player. He's a good athlete, and that's the type of lineman NU needs.

Fitzgerald said that there are essentially no "returning starters" on the line right now — his way of saying everyone gets his shot — but since Olson has been running with the first team, it seems to be his spot to lose. Position battles are won in August, but if Olson has a good spring, it's going to be tough to keep him out of the starting lineup come the fall. After a year of inconsistent play, consistency will be valued by the coaches this spring. It's a long haul, but Olson needs to be at his best every day in the spring, because he still has some talented linemen breathing down his neck.