For the second straight year, we're releasing a Northwestern football summer guide. Since the end of Northwestern’s spring practice, we’ve run through each position unit and listed our projected depth chart, stock reports, position battles and questions heading into the summer. The capsules were written over the past two weeks by Henry Bushnell (@HenryBushnell), Chris Johnson (@ChrisDJohnsonn), Josh Rosenblat (@JMRosenblat) and Kevin Trahan (@k_trahan). Also be sure to follow football writers Jason Dorow (@JasonDorow) and Kevin Dukovic (@kdukovic), and of course, @insidenu, on Twitter. Enjoy!
Full Projected Depth Chart
QB — Trevor Siemian, Matt Alviti
RB — Venric Mark, Treyvon Green OR Stephen Buckley OR Warren Long
WR — Tony Jones, Miles Shuler
WR — Christian Jones, Andrew Scanlan
WR — Cameron Dickerson, Kyle Prater
SB — Dan Vitale, Mark Szott OR Jayme Taylor
OT — Paul Jorgensen, Shane Mertz
OG — Geoff Mogus, Kenton Playko
C — Brandon Vitabile, Hayden Baker
OG — Matt Frazier, Adam DePietro
OT — Eric Olson, Jack Konopka
DE — Dean Lowry, Max Chapman
DT — Chance Carter, Greg Kuhar
DT — Sean McEvilly, C.J. Robbins
DE — Ifeadi Odenigbo OR Deonte Gibson, Eric Joraskie OR Jack Schwaba
SAM — Drew Smith, Jimmy Hall
MIKE — Collin Ellis, Jaylen Prater
WILL — Chi Chi Ariguzo, Joseph Jones
CB — Nick VanHoose, Daniel Jones
S — Ibraheim Campbell, Godwin Igwebuike
S — Traveon Henry, Kyle Queiro
CB — Matthew Harris, Dwight White
K: Hunter Niswander, Jack Mitchell
P: Chris Gradone
PR: Venric Mark, Miles Shuler
KR: Venric Mark OR Matthew Harris OR Miles Shuler
Returning starter(s): Trevor Siemian (Sr.)
Others returning: Zach Oliver (Jr.), Christian Salem (So.), Matt Alviti (Fr.)
Incoming recruit(s): Clayton Thorson
Depth chart projection
1. Trevor Siemian
2. Matt Alviti
3. Zack Oliver
4. Christian Salem
Explaining the depth chart
While Siemian had been listed at "1b" for most of the last two seasons, the senior will finally have the reigns to the offense completely to himself. He is the only quarterback on the roster with any significant college experience and deservedly has the starting job. Behind Siemian, Alviti has received the most snaps this spring after the highly-touted recruit redshirted last season. Oliver who backed up both Siemian and Kain Colter last year has slid down to the third spot and Salem, a sophomore, fills in the final spot.
Stock up: Matt Alviti
Alviti, in many ways, was the prize of Pat Fitzgerald's 2013 recruiting class. A four-star quarterback who ESPN rated as the number-2 dual-threat quarterback in his class, Alviti committed to Northwestern despite offers from Notre Dame, Michigan State and Nebraska. Listed at only six-feet tall, Alviti is known to use his feet to make plays as both a runner and a dangerous passer outside of the pocket.
In fall practices, it seemed that the defense was a bit too fast for the freshman and he struggled to harness is abilities into tangible success in practice. Moving into the spring, the game has slowed down for him and he is more comfortable going through his reads and making the right decisions about where to put the ball.
Stock down: Matt Alviti
Is it possible for a player's stock to be both trending up and down? In Alviti's case, yes. The danger with being such a major recruit is the expectations. After Siemian's less-than-stellar performances in certain games last season, many felt that Siemian would be challenged by the younger Alviti for the starting job. From all indications so far this spring, Alviti is not ready for that role. Although it may be conceivable that he could come in as a change-of-pace quarterback at certain points to provide more of a running threat at the quarterback position, Alviti has done nothing substantial enough to take the job away from Siemian this spring.
Position battle: Trevor Siemian vs. Matt Alviti
This isn't technically a battle, per say, but there is a small chance that Siemian may rotate with Alviti like he did with Colter, but on a much smaller scale. In practice, Alviti hasn't been shy about tucking the ball and running. He has confidence in his abilities as a runner and presents an extra challenge for defenses. It's hard to see Alviti taking over the job full-time unless Siemian is injured, but he could take a few snaps away from the pocket passer because of his ability to run.
Biggest offseason question: How much will Northwestern's offense change?
Without a mobile quarterback at the helm like Dan Persa or Kain Colter, Northwestern's offense will look different than it has the past few seasons. Siemian is built from more of the C.J. Bacher, Mike Kafka mold of Northwestern quarterbacks: a strong-armed, pocket passer. What that means for Northwestern's offensive approach is that certain schemes--like zone-reads or spread-options--won't be as successful. Those plays--staples of the Northwestern offense for years--are far more successful when the quarterback is a threat to run. Because Siemian is not, Northwestern may rely on more conventional running plays. Offensive Coordinator Mick McCall will need to come up with a way to balance the running and passing attacks.
Last season, Siemian played a ton due to various injuries to Colter and finished with mixed results. It seemed as though the more Siemian was forced to throw, his effectiveness decreased.
Siemian is at his best when used more moderately than when the offense completely falls upon his shoulders. Northwestern will need to utilize a deep and talented stable of running backs to help Siemian have as much success as possible in 2014. Basically, instead of relying on the quarterback to generate the majority of the offense, Northwestern will be better served to strive for more balance.
Returning Starters: Venric Mark, Treyvon Green
Others Returning: Stephen Buckley, Warren Long, Tim Hanrahan, Malin Jones, Xavier Menifield, Mike Panico
Projected Depth Chart
1.a. Venric Mark
1.b. Treyvon Green
2.a. Stephen Buckley
2.b. Warren Long
Explaining the depth chart
The running back depth chart is as crowded as ever, and it’s also very fluid. Because each player possesses a unique skill set, there’s no way to concretely label a player first or second team – with a few exceptions of course.
Those exceptions are at the top of the depth chart. Venric Mark entered last season as arguably the top running back in the Big Ten, but injuries derailed his season. Now he’s back, and on track to be at 100 percent for summer camp, and thus naturally assumes a place atop the depth chart.
Since Green is a solid option, Mark doesn’t need to be an every down back, and NU can reduce wear and tear by playing them both. Last season, in Mark’s stead, Green racked up over 800 total yards and 9 total touchdowns on 5.4 yards per carry, and as a senior, he’ll undoubtedly have a big role again this season.
After that, there are question marks. Stephen Buckley is recovering from a serious injury, but he was Northwestern’s top newcomer on offense last year, and should get his share of touches. Warren Long, meanwhile, has looked good in spring practice, but it’s difficult to imagine him supplanting more experienced players on the depth chart.
Stock up: Warren Long
Presented with an opportunity this spring, Long seemingly took advantage. First-team reps became a regular occurrence with Mark and Buckley sidelined, and Long looked solid when he needed to be solid, and at times spectacular when in a position to be spectacular.
Now, Long poses offensive coordinator Mick McCall with the challenge of incorporating the sophomore into an already crowded backfield rotation. Long isn’t really suited to be a pass-catching third down back or a specialist though, so his opportunities might yet be few and far between. However, injuries happen, as Northwestern knows all too well, so sooner or later, he’s likely to get his shot.
Stock down: Malin Jones
When Jones signed a letter of intent to play at Northwestern, many thought he’d be a contributor by at least the 2014 season, if not earlier. But after being suspended late last season, Jones is all but out of the picture.
Uncertainty persists. Is he a superback? Is he a running back? Is he both? Or neither? Nobody, perhaps not even the coaching staff, can answer those questions definitively at the moment. Jones didn’t make much noise during spring practice, and it’d be a surprise to see him leap over Long or Buckley on the depth chart.
Position battle: Buckley vs. Long
It might be a bit of a stretch to call this a position battle, because these players would occupy two different niches in the offense. But it is a battle in that the players’ performances during the summer and early weeks of the season have the potential to drive the offense in two different directions.
Buckley, who came in with the “athlete” designation, is better in space, and has better hands. That’s not to say Long doesn’t have speed, but he’s a more traditional, between-the-tackles back. Playing time here could depend on where McCall goes with the offense… or conversely, perhaps, where McCall goes with the offense could depend on which of these two he feels needs more touches.
Biggest summer question: Health
So there’s depth at running back this year… but on paper there was depth last year, too. That just goes to show that with a few injuries, it can all go horribly wrong.
The biggest summer question, therefore, is not only whether the likes of Mark and Buckley can come in healthy, but also whether they (and others) can remain healthy. Northwestern’s offense could be potent, but before the talk even goes to schemes or play-calling.
Returning starters: WR Christian Jones (Sr.), WR Tony Jones (Sr.), SB Dan Vitale (Jr.)
Others returning: WR Corey Acker (RS Fr.), WR Quinn Baker (RS Fr.), WR Cermak Bland (Jr.), WR Austin Carr (Sr.), WR Cameron Dickerson (Jr.), SB Doug Diedrick (Jr.), WR Tom Fuessel (RS Fr.), WR Mark Gorogianis (RS Fr.), WR Mike McHugh (So.), WR Jordan Perkins (Jr.), WR Kyle Prater (Sr.), WR Andrew Scanlan (So.), SB Jack Schwaba (So.), WR Miles Shuler (Jr.), SB Mark Szott (Jr.), SB Jayme Taylor (RS Fr.), WR Macan Wilson (RS Fr.), WR Pierre Youngblood-Ary (Jr.)
Incoming recruits: Solomon Vault
Depth chart projection
WR — Tony Jones, Christian Jones, Cameron Dickerson; SB — Dan Vitale
WR — Kyle Prater, Miles Shuler, Andrew Scanlan; SB — Mark Szott/Jayme Taylor
Explaining the depth chart
The starting line for both the receivers and superbacks is about as obvious as it’s going to get when we make these position groups. The Joneses established themselves as starting receivers last year, and Cameron Dickerson was the clear “next man in” after the departure of Rashad Lawrence. Those three have taken the first string reps all spring, and in a new — likely more pass-heavy — era, they have a chance to be pretty good this season. After starting the last two seasons, Dan Vitale is the obvious starer once again at superback.
The second string is a bit more complicated. I know a lot of Northwestern fans have given up on Kyle Prater, but the coaches really seem to like what he’s done this spring, and he may finally be able to contribute. Rutgers transfer Miles Shuler has shown a lot of flashes during the spring, as well. There’s still room for another player to step up, and my money’s on Andrew Scanlan, who the coaching staff is high on. At superback, Mark Szott is the established backup and should retain that position, but I included Jayme Taylor, because the coaches have really liked what he’s shown.
Stock up: Cameron Dickerson
Dickerson’s stock isn’t necessarily up because of anything he’s shown in camp, but it’s surprising how quickly he went from role player to cemented starter seemingly overnight.
But don’t get me wrong, I really like Dickerson’s potential. He has done a great job using his big frame to make outstanding catches in tight coverage on the sideline, and with Northwestern likely passing more often this year, I think he’ll have a big year.
Stock down: Mike McHugh
There isn’t an obvious “stock down” choice here, because in general, the receivers have had a pretty productive spring. Part of that is because of the incredible depth at the position. But after a few years of struggling to meet lofty expectations, the receivers seem to be in position to live up to those expectations.
The reason I list Mike McHugh is because he’s dropped a bit since last spring. He was the star of last year’s spring and figured to contend for a spot in the rotation. However, he never caught on during the regular season, and he will likely have to battle Andrew Scanlan for a rotation spot.
Position battle: The Transfers vs. The Young Guns
This isn’t really a position battle, but it will be interesting to see how the battle for playing time goes behind the top three receivers. Right now, it looks like Kyle Prater and Miles Shuler have a chance to get a lot of playing time, but they’ll have to battle Andrew Scanlan, Mike McHugh and Pierre Youngblood-Ary for those spots. Can the transfers live up the the hype? Will the young guys step up? It will be interesting to track the progress of everyone in fall camp.
Biggest offseason question: How will the transfers contribute?
I know I’ve talked a lot about Kyle Prater and Miles Shuler already, but they’re really all anyone wants to talk about. The starters are already set and should have big years as NU looks to pass more, but Prater and Shuler are still unknowns. Can Prater turn into a productive player and live up to the five-star rating he received coming out of high school? Can he at least be a viable endzone threat? Pat Fitzgerald seems to think he is finally able to contribute, which is encouraging, but he’s still an unknown.
The same is true of Miles Shuler. He’s a quick, athletic receiver who has the ability to make some big plays for NU. But while he might be a star down the line, it might take some time for him to settle into the offense. So be optimistic, but don’t set your expectations too high.
Here’s what we know about the transfers right now: They’re both very promising and very unproven. There’s still a long way to go, but this year, it seems like things might fall into place.
Returning starters: OT Jack Konopka (Sr.), OT Paul Jorgensen (Sr.), OG Geoff Mogus (Jr.), OG Matt Frazier (Jr.), C Brandon Vitabile (Sr.)
Others returning: OT Shane Mertz (Jr.), OT Eric Olson (So.), OG Hayden Baker (Sr.), OG Adam DePietro (So.), OG Ian Park (So.), OT Kenton Playko (So.), OT Sam Coverdale (RS Fr.), OT Graham Bullmore (RS Fr.), OG Zack Guritz (RS Fr.), OG Blake King (RS Fr.), OG Brad North (RS Fr.)
Depth chart projection
OT – Paul Jorgensen, Shane Mertz
OG – Geoff Mogus, Kenton Playko
C – Brandon Vitabile, Hayden Baker
OG – Matt Frazier, Adam DePietro
OT – Eric Olson, Jack Konopka
Explaining the depth chart
Offensive line was one of Northwestern’s worst positions last season. The group failed to adequately protect quarterbacks Kain Colter and Trevor Siemian and it struggled to open up holes for the running backs. Perhaps the biggest culprit was Konopka. The 6-foot-5, 300-pound senior seemed to regress in his second season starting at tackle, and it looks like Konopka’s poor play could cost him his starting spot. He lined up with the second unit at spring practices, with senior Jorgensen filling his spot at left tackle. Sophomore Olson looked good taking first-team reps at right tackle, while fourth-year starter Vitabile and the two guards who started last season, Matt Frazier and Geoff Mogus, manned the interior.
Something to keep in mind over the next few months is the possibility that Konopka could win back his starting spot. He lined up with the second team during the spring, but Konopka has proven himself a capable starter. At the very least, he could push Olson for the starting right tackle spot. DePietro started one game last season, against Michigan State, and could push for playing time. If the depth chart holds as is, Northwestern will have a ‘veteran’ offensive line, with the exception of Olson, who has yet to start a college game.
Stock up: Paul Jorgensen
After starting all 12 games at right tackle last season, Jorgensen will switch over to the left side in 2014. Much like Northwestern’s offensive line as a whole, Jorgensen had an up-and-down season, but he was good more often than not, and after a strong spring he should be ready to play the demanding left tackle spot. Northwestern had to beat out Michigan State and Stanford, among other programs, to land Jorgensen out of DeWitt High School (Mich.); the Wildcats’ commitment appears to be paying off. While the interior of Northwestern’s offensive line looks solid, it remains to be seen whether the tackles can do a better job than they did last season.
Jorgensen proved he can play the right side, but how will he fare against better pass rushers on the left side? That question feels even more important this season, as Northwestern doesn’t have the luxury of a mobile quarterback capable of evading oncoming blitzers. Jorgensen has played well enough over the past year, during the season and in spring workouts, to earn the starting spot (at least temporarily) at one of the most important positions on the field. Now he has to prove he deserved it.
Stock down: Jack Konopka
Konopka’s first season at left tackle did not go as well as Northwestern hoped. He played well enough at right tackle during the Wildcats’ 10-win, 2012 season that coaches saw fit to move him to the other side. Given the other candidates (or lack thereof) for the left tackle spot, this seemed like a reasonable decision. Perhaps it was not. Konopka regularly got beat by opposing pass rushers, and were it not for Colter’s mobility, his faults would have been even more glaring. Konopka was appropriately demoted to the second unit, replaced by promising redshirt freshman Olson. Now Konopka finds himself in a place few thought he’d be two seasons ago: looking up at someone else on the depth chart.
The silver lining here is that the strides Northwestern has made on the recruiting trail have created a situation where a multi-year starter lost his spot to a player who has yet to start a college game. Olson, who received scholarship offers from Virginia and Michigan, among others, is talented and it appears he has a bright future with the Wildcats. But if Konopka plays well enough in preseason camp, it would not be surprising if he moves to the top of the depth chart. Konopka was selected for the stock down section for good reason: he was bad in 2013. He earned this. Should we decide to use the same classifications to wrap up training camp, however, you may see Konopka’s name where Jorgensen’s is right now. Konopka is good enough to repair his ‘stock,’ in other words. Will he? Maybe. Maybe not.
Position battle: Right tackle
I have mentioned the possibility that Konopka could win back his starting spot in previous sections, so I will keep this brief. The starting right tackle spot could be up for grabs – and when I say up for grabs, I mean there’s a real chance more than one person could win it; as opposed to the coachspeak you hear about no one being guaranteed a starting spot – because Olson, while talented, is far less experienced than Konopka, who has proven himself a capable starter. Konopka struggled on the left side in 2013, but he acquitted himself well on the right side the prior season. Konopka’s track record at the latter position bolsters the argument that he, not Olson, should be the starter there in 2014.
Biggest offseason question: Was 2013 a ‘transition’ season?
The offensive line was one of Northwestern’s strengths in 2012. It did a decent job protecting Colter and Siemian and was particularly good at getting upfield and opening up running lanes for Colter and Venric Mark on option plays. Then came last season, when the O-line was one of Northwestern’s weakest position units. Lapses in critical situations – from missed blocks to communication breakdowns to penalties – contributed to Northwestern having one of the worst offenses in the Big Ten (9th in yards per play). As the Wildcats’ struggles deepened and losses piled up, the popular diagnosis for the line’s issues was inexperience. 2013 was a transition season, observers remarked, and everything would get better in time.
That line of thinking is about to be put to the test. Northwestern’s line returns basically everyone from last season, and one could posit that the growing pains from a dismal campaign will help the line make a collective leap in 2014. Perhaps that will be the case. It sounds reasonable. An alternate possibility is that the players who started last season and return for this season simply aren’t very good. We tend to assume that the number of returning starters correlates positively with success, but that’s not always the case. What if players who return to start performed poorly the previous season? Why would anyone be excited about that scenrario? It’s unclear whether the fact Northwestern returns a bunch of starters on its line is a good thing or not. If they play the way they did last season, we’ll know the answer after a few games.
Returning starters: DE Dean Lowry, DT Sean McEvilly, DT Chance Carter
Others returning: DE Ifeadi Odenigbo, DE Deonte Gibson, DT Greg Kuhar, DT C.J. Robbins, DE Jack Schwaba, DE/DT Max Chapman, DE Eric Joraskie, DT Tyler Lancaster, DT Connor Mahoney
Projected Depth Chart
DE: Dean Lowry
DT: Chance Carter
DT: Sean McEvilly
DE: Deonte Gibson/Ifeadi Odenigbo
DE: Max Chapman
DT: Greg Kuhar
DT: C.J. Robbins
DE: Eric Joraskie/Jack Schwaba
Explaining the depth chart
There are two near certainties on the defensive line: Dean Lowry and Sean McEvilly will, barring something unforeseen, retain their starting spots at defensive end and tackle respectively.
After that, it seems like any of five players could realistically take the remaining two spots. Chance Carter is the other returning starter, but Carter was lining up with the 2nd team defensive line towards the end of the spring, even with McEvilly sidelined by injury.
In their places were Greg Kuhar and C.J. Robbins. Coach Pat Fitzgerald has on multiple occasions warned against reading too much into spring trends, so we’ll continue to list Carter as the starter, but we do so with more trepidation than a month ago.
At defensive end, both Ifeadi Odenigbo and Deonte Gibson missed spring practice, so we’re no closer to affirming who’ll start opposite Lowry. Regardless of who plays regularly on first downs though, a rotation of sorts is probable, with all three seeing significant time. Max Chapman could see a decent amount of snaps too.
Stock up: Kuhar and Robbins
It was a surprise to see both Kuhar and Robbins given first team reps over Carter this spring. But that’s not the only reason their stock is on the upswing. Despite the inexperience, both are apparently thought highly of within the program, with Kuhar specifically touted to be an impact player at some point during his career. And furthermore, the majority of observations and reports regarding their performance during March and April have been positive.
Maybe Fitzgerald is seriously considering handing a starting nod to one of the two. Or, conversely, maybe he’s just presenting them with a low-pressure opportunity. But either way, it appears they’ve seized that opportunity. If nothing else, maybe they’ll be able to provide some much needed depth on the interior of the defensive line.
Stock down: Carter
As stated above, this sort of comes out of the blue. Our Chris Johnson wrote back in February, “there shouldn’t be any competition for the two starting tackle spots. Those’ll go to Carter and McEvilly.” And he wasn’t the only one to hold that belief – that was the general consensus from those who cover the team.
Fitz won’t budge when it comes to an explanation for Carter’s (possibly temporary) relegation, so it remains to be seen whether this alteration will carry over to the summer and subsequently to the fall. But for Carter, anything less than an assured starting spot means his stock has fallen.
Position battle: Odenigbo vs. Gibson
The battle for the second starting tackle spot is summed up in the “Stock up” and “Stock down” sections, so let’s take a look at the one for the second starting end spot, which is equally undecided.
If you look at natural talent, Odenigbo stands out. His size was part of the reason he was limited to mostly third down snaps last season. He bulked up a lot, though, and could easily challenge for the starting spot. Gibson, on the other hand, isn’t the physical specimen that Odenigbo is, but he’s solid against both pass and run, and athletically, he’s no slouch. Oh, and he’s an upperclassmen.
Both players will certainly have a role, it just remains to be seen how exactly those roles are defined. This “position battle” won’t be decided until August 30th… at the earliest. Regardless of who starts, Gibson, Lowry and Odenigbo will all see major playing time.
Biggest summer question: Who will step up to replace Tyler Scott?
Clearly Scott’s graduation creates a huge void on the defensive line, so in reality, the question might not be “who will?” but rather “will anybody?”
Realistically, it’s not fair to expect any one player to be the answer to that question. If the answer is a single name, the most likely name is Odenigbo. Chris Johnson wrote extensively about Odenigbo’s credentials and potential back before spring practice, and the sophomore clearly has the most athletic prowess of any candidate to replace Scott.
But the key could be contributions from the likes of Gibson, Chapman and others. In fact, if some of these players do provide that extra bit of quality and depth, the D-line could go above and beyond and be even better than last season’s.
Returning Starters: Chi Chi Ariguzo (Sr.), Collin Ellis (Sr.)
Others Returning: Jimmy Hall (Sr.), Eric Hauser (So.), Cole Johnson (Fr.), Joseph Jones (So.) Jaylen Prater (So.), Josh Roberts (Fr.), Drew Smith (Jr.), Anthony Walker (Fr.), Brett Walsh (Fr.)
Projected Depth Chart:
SAM (strong side): Drew Smith, Jimmy Hall
MIKE (middle): Collin Ellis, Jaylen Prater
WILL: (weak side): Chi Chi Ariguzo, Joseph Jones
Explaining the Depth Chart:
With the departure of Damien Proby, Collin Ellis, who started all 12 games at SAM last season, will move over to MIKE, opening the door for a new starter at SAM. During training camp last season, Ellis was locked in a position battle with Drew Smith for the starting spot on the strong side and Smith has gotten the opportunity to take over for Ellis this season. Jimmy Hall, a former defensive back,moved to linebacker this spring to compete with Smith. After starting as a sophomore at SAM, Chi Chi Ariguzo moved over to WILL last season and excelled.
Stock Up: Chi Chi Ariguzo
It’s been awhile since since Ariguzo’s stock wasn’t up. He has been one of Northwestern’s top defensive players for the last couple seasons playing alongside veteran players. If he’s able to stay healthy, Ariguzo will be one of the top linebackers in the Big Ten in 2014. Over the years, Ariguzo has developed from a run-stopper on the strong side to an athletic, versatile player in space on the weak side. Last season, Ariguzo’s first playing WILL, he showcased an innate ability to make plays from sideline to sideline.
Stock Down: Pass defense
Last season, Northwestern’s linebackers were forced into a tough situation. Because the defensive line was unable to plug running holes up front, the linebackers had to inch closer to the line of scrimmage to contain the running game. That allowed for teams, such as Ohio State, to burn the now-out-of-position-defenders on play action passes. With Ellis shifting over to the middle and Smith taking Ellis’ spot on the strong side, Northwestern may be in trouble defending against the pass yet again. Because Smith’s instinctual tendency is to be as aggressive as possible, he will have to learn be patient when looking into the opponent’s backfield and adjust his positioning accordingly.
Position Battle: Drew Smith vs. Jimmy Hall
After losing out at the starting job last offseason, Smith looked poised to take hold of the position this spring. But with Hall’s conversion from safety to linebacker, Smith has found himself in another position battle. Smith has always been one of the hardest hitting players on Northwestern’s roster but his instincts and footwork in coverage have come into question. On the other hand, Hall has the ability to cover player receivers and the quickness to make plays in open space, but his linebacker instincts are still developing. So far, Smith has at the upper hand due to his ability to stop the run, but both players could play situationally during the season with Hall spelling Smith on passing downs.
Biggest Summer Question: Can Collin Ellis replace Damien Proby?
During spring practice in 2013, Ellis filled in for an injured Proby at middle linebacker. The experience, he said, gave him “a holistic view of what the defense does from the linebacking core. You can understand where your help is coming from in different situations. You can be more aggressive and go out and make that play that you previously thought you couldn’t have made.” That experience could prove to be valuable as Ellis looks to take over at middle linebacker.
After taking over the middle linebacker spot midway through the 2011 season, Proby has been a mainstay on Northwestern’s defense. Besides his stellar play, Proby was also a leader for Northwestern as a 2013 co-captain. According to Pat Fitzgerald, though, Ellis has picked up where Proby left off and immediately became a leader on the defensive side of the ball when spring practice began.
On the field, though, Fitzgerald said Ellis’ eyes are just starting to adjust to where they should be. The vision lines are different for outside and inside linebackers, Fitzgerald said, and knowing where to focus his vision will be key for Ellis. But based on his performance last season, especially returning two interceptions for touchdowns against Cal, Ellis has the playmaking ability and versatility to have a major impact in the middle of Northwestern’s defense.
Returning starters: CB Nick VanHoose (Jr.), CB Dwight White (So.), CB Matthew Harris (So.), S Ibraheim Campbell (Sr.), S Traveon Henry (Jr.)
Others returning: CB Joe Cannon (Sr.), CB Daniel Jones (Sr.), CB Marcus McShepard (RS Fr.), CB Troy Sheppard (So.), CB Keith Watkins II (RS Fr.), CB Parrker Westphal (Fr.), CB Jarrell Williams (Jr.), S Terrance Brown (So.), S Godwin Igwebuike (RS Fr.), S Tommy Odell (RS Fr.), S Kyle Queiro (RS Fr.)
Incoming recruits: CB Parrker Westphal
Depth chart projection
CB – Nick VanHoose, Daniel Jones
S – Ibraheim Campbell, Godwin Igwebuike
S – Traveon Henry, Kyle Queiro
CB – Matthew Harris, Dwight White
Explaining the depth chart
Northwestern’s defensive back depth chart hasn’t changed since the end of the 2013 season. The four players you see listed above on the first unit are the same four that started the Wildcats’ season finale against Illinois. Perhaps the most interesting secondary-related development of the spring was Jimmy Hall’s move to outside linebacker. His position switch will open up more playing time for Igwebuike and Queiro, Northwestern’s two backup safeties. Both saw plenty of action with the first team after Campbell went down with an injury in early March. Igwebuike, a former high 3-star recruit who garnered offers from Wisconsin and Nebraska, among others, was particularly impressive.
Jones sat out while rehabilitating the knee ligament tear he suffered in the Wildcats’ season opener against Cal. Harris and VanHoose are the frontrunners to earn the two starting corner spots, but Jones was one of Northwestern’s top defensive performers in preseason camp last summer. If he is healthy and back to being the player he was before the injury — which is no sure thing, mind you – Jones could at least push Harris and VanHoose for playing time. One player not listed on the two-deep who could get some action this season is Keith Watkins. Coach Pat Fitzgerald has said he is encouraged by the progress Watkins has made.
Stock up: Godwin Igwebuike
When Northwestern was recruiting Igwebuike, he was offered the choice of playing defensive back or running back. Igwebuike chose defensive back and he iscomfortable with his decision. He won’t start this season, but he should see extensive action as a reserve behind Henry and Campbell. Igwebuike possesses above-average athleticism and has great instincts. When players make their first appearances in games, there is always the possibility of mental breakdowns occurring, but if Igwebuike can master the defensive scheme – and Fitzgerald said Igwebuike, like Watkins, is progressing in that respect – he will be a valuable piece in Northwestern’s secondary.
With Campbell graduating after the upcoming season, Igwebuike has an excellent shot at becoming a starter in 2015. His efforts in the spring suggest he’s ready to be a serviceable backup this season. Whether he can be more – whether he can push Henry for playing time and establish himself as one of NU’s top defensive players heading into 2015 – remains to be seen. A lot of Northwestern fans were excited when Igwebuike committed to Northwestern, because he’s not the type of player (fast, athletic, strong) the Wildcats have typically had in their secondary in recent years. How Igwebuike performed this spring should not suppress that excitement. He looked good, and so high expectations are appropriate.
Stock down: Daniel Jones
This is totally unfair. Trust me, I know. Jones didn’t play this spring because he is still working his way back from a knee injury. He cannot prove he belongs on the first or second team until he is healthy. Jones very well could win a starting spot at cornerback, but he’ll need to wait until preseason workouts to do so. While he was out, other players – including Harris, his main competition – only solidified their standing in Northwestern’s secondary. Harris stepped up in Jones’ absence last season and, while he struggled at times, the sophomore looks like he could develop into one of the better cornerbacks in the Big Ten.
That leaves senior Jones, a starter entering last season, in a tough spot. He will have to fight to earn his starting spot back. Does he have a chance at beating out Harris? Maybe. How good of a chance? I can’t say, because I don’t know what kind of effect a major injury like an ACL tear will have on Jones. If his rehab went well and he’s retained most of his quickness and athleticism, maybe Jones can prove he’s one of NU’s two best corners. It will be an uphill battle, we know that much. Harris took over for Dwight White as a starter in the middle of last season and played well this spring. Jones looked good in practices last summer, but he hasn’t done much of note in games … besides get steamrolled by Le’Veon Bell.
Position battle: See the ‘Stock down’ section
Biggest offseason question: Is secondary Northwestern’s best position group?
I provided a lengthy answer to this very question last month. Here’s the short version: Maybe. Northwestern has more depth and athleticism in the secondary than it’s had at any point since Pat Fitzgerald took over as head coach. When Big Ten fan bases would poke fun at Northwestern in previous years, they would point to a pass defense that couldn’t stop anybody. That wasn’t the case last season – Northwestern tied for fifth in the Big Ten in passing yards allowed per attempt – and it’s unlikely it will be the case in 2014. Why am I optimistic about Northwestern’s secondary? Look at the two deep.
VanHoose had an uneven season but if he plays to his potential, he is, at minimum, a decent-but-not-great cornerback. Harris is young, but his performance as a true freshman hinted that he has a bright future, and he should be improved as a sophomore. It’s not a huge stretch to posit that Campbell could be recognized as first-team All-Big Ten (he was honorable mention in 2013). Henry had a few mental lapses last season, but he’s made strides since breaking in as a true freshman two years ago.
Those are just the starters. Northwestern has quality backups at safety and cornerback, the kind of depth that will be useful against teams that like to deploy four and five wide receivers and air it out. This is not the best secondary in the Big Ten; it may not even be Northwestern’s best position group (you could make a strong case for the running backs). But it has the potential to be better than the pass defenses Northwestern has fielded in the recent past.
Returning starters: KR Matt Harris (So.), KR Venric Mark (Sr.), KR Stephen Buckley (So.), PR Tony Jones (Sr.)
Others returning: K/P Hunter Niswander (RS Fr.), P Chris Gradone (Jr.), P/PK Matt Micucci (So.), PK Jack Mitchell (So.), PK Arthur Omilian (Jr.)
Incoming Recruits: None
Projected Depth Chart:
Kicker: Hunter Niswander, Jack Mitchell
Punter: Chris Gradone
Punt Returner: Venric Mark, Miles Shuler
Kick Returner: Venric Mark OR Matthew Harris OR Miles Shuler
Explaining the Depth Chart:
There are going to be a lot of new faces on Northwestern’s special teams depth chart this year, especially in the kicking game. Hunter Niswander seems like the most likely choice to replace Jeff Budzien, while Chris Gradone is the obvious choice to step in for Brandon Williams, since Gradone replaced Williams in a couple games at the end of last year.
The return game should get a boost. It was pretty clear from last season that Tony Jones absolutely hates to return punts. Venric Mark is one of the nation’s best punt returners, and having him back will be a major upgrade. Everyone will be excited to have Mark back for kickoffs too, though Matthew Harris has actually been a marginally better kick returner. I know, Fitz fans, #StatsAreForLosers, but generally people with better statistics also perform better on the field, and I think there’s a decent chance the coaches will see that they can limit Mark’s injury risk and still have a solid returner by featuring Harris, or potentially Miles Shuler, on kickoffs instead.
Stock Up: The coverage units
Full disclosure: We don’t get to see the specialists practice, so it’s tough for us to be able to tell who is gaining and losing ground, aside from what the coaches tell us. One thing that should improve is kickoff coverage. Better recruiting typically leads to better athletes, which typically leads to better coverage units. Given how NU’s recruiting has taken off, the coverage units should continue to improve.
Stock Down: ???
Again, we can’t watch the specialists practice, so it’s not fair for us to make any judgements here.
Position Battle: Kicker
The only place there seems to be a major position battle is at kicker, between Hunter Niswander and Jack Mitchell. While Niswander is considered by most people to be the next man in, Mitchell could certainly make a run. We’ll get a better idea in fall camp.
Biggest Summer Question: What will get better and what will get worse?
Given who was lost and who is coming back, I expect Northwestern’s special teams to be all over the map in 2014. Sometimes it will be really good, and sometimes it will be really bad. That’s how it goes when you have so much inexperience. Let’s take a look at what should improve and what could decline:
Improve: It’s pretty clear that the punt return game will improve, while the kick return game should be just fine. With Mark returning, that’s expected.
Decline: It’s going to be tough for either Niswander or Mitchell to live up to Jeff Budzien’s legacy in year one. In fact, does anybody remember Budzien’s 2011 season? He went six-for-10.
Questions: Punter will be a major question mark, as the lack of punting efficiency really hurt NU’s chances to win in a couple games last year. For NU to be successful, Gradone has to be better than Williams was last year.
It’s hard to know what to make of this mix. Can the freshmen step up? Can Gradone improve NU’s standing in the field position battle? Those are the questions that need answering this summer.