The focus shifted away from unionization and, for the first time in what seems like forever (at least from a media perspective), back onto football Tuesday for Northwestern football players and coaches. Here are the highlights and takeaways from practice.
Offense vs. Defense
In general, the defense outplayed the offense Tuesday. Offensive coordinator Mick McCall grew frustrated with his players at times, berating them for a lack of focus, which perhaps contributed to multiple dropped passes from receivers and running backs during both 7-on-7 and 11-on-11 drills. A lot of credit goes to the defense though, especially the secondary.
Goal Line and Red Zone offense
This seemed to be one of the themes of the day. A lot of 11-on-11 time was spent in the red zone, and given last year’s offensive struggles inside the 20, you can’t blame coach Pat Fitzgerald for dedicating a lot of time to this area of the field.
One specific thing to note was how Northwestern lined up in these situations. On one series of five plays, all five were run from a tight goal line formation, with the quarterback under center, an I-formation behind him, two tight ends, and a wide receiver who then went in motion to line up as a third tight end.
The offense scored on three of the five plays, and four of the five were running plays (the fifth being a Siemian play-action role out on which he couldn’t find an open receiver). If the offensive line exhibits the improvement expected of them this season, Northwestern may be able to pound the ball into the end zone more often than it did last year.
None of the three quarterbacks had outstanding days. Matt Alviti probably had the best; he threw a couple nice balls, including a perfectly weighted post-corner throw during receiver-defensive back 1-on-1 drills. But even he struggled in more game-like situations, with one lowlight being a weak seam pass that was picked off by Keith Watkins.
Trevor Siemian, who will be the Wildcats’ starter, made two notably poor decisions that also turned into INTs. Both were on sideline throws that came out of his hand without the required zip, andjust a half-second too late.
Long, Running Backs
Warren Long, who has been presented with an opportunity this spring in the absence of Venric Mark and Stephen Buckley, saw a decent amount of time with the first team, and both he and Treyvon Green popped off some nice runs. When Mark and Buckley return from injury, running back figures to be one of the deepest positions on the roster.
Fitzgerald had this to say about senior wideout Kyle Prater: “I’m really happy with the spring that Kyle Prater is having. It’s been a long, long road for him, and I think he’s finally healthy for the first time. I see a young man that’s finally coming into his own confidence-wise. I’m really happy for him.”
Prater, who said he’s added 10 pounds of muscle and is now at 230 pounds, said he’s been feeling great. “I finally feel the effects of being healthy,” Prater said. “I’ve been doing little things, just taking care of my body more.”
As for the on-field improvement that Fitzgerald noted, Prater said he’s trying to better take advantage of his 6-foot-5 frame. “Me and [wide receiver] coach [Dennis] Springer have been focusing on playing to my strengths, playing big, and using my size,” he said.
Competition at Defensive Tackle
On both Saturday and Tuesday, there were some surprise faces on the first team defensive line – sophomore Greg Kuhar and junior C.J. Robbins. That’s partly due to the fact that returning starter Sean McEvilly is sitting out spring practice with an injury, but it’s peculiar to not see the other returning starter, Chance Carter, running with the first stringers. Carter instead was with the second team.
Fitzgerald warned media to not read too much into the situation, but it’s something to watch. Even if Carter is still secure as a starter, having fresh and able bodies in reserve on the defensive line can never be a bad thing, and Kuhar especially has some potential.
Competition at Outside Linebacker
With Collin Ellis making the transition to middle linebacker, there’s one outside spot up for grabs. At the moment, the decision seems to be between Drew Smith and Jimmy Hall. Smith looked especially good Tuesday, blowing up a screen play in the backfield during a 4-on-4 drill, and later showing his versatility in coverage during 7-on-7 and 11-on-11.
Three cornerbacks stood out Tuesday. And there’s no way to start the conversation without mentioning Matt Harris. He appears to be Northwestern’s most physical corner, and was probably the standout performer on the day. He picked off Siemian on one occasion, and rarely got beat otherwise. After stepping into the starting lineup midway through last season as a true freshman, Harris has been on the first team throughout the spring.
Keith Watkins also had a solid practice. His highlight was stepping in front of an Alviti pass and taking it the other way, but just as impressive was his tackling. Nick Van Hoose also was very good in coverage.
With Ibrahim Campbell out for the spring, there’s been a temporary whole to fill in the secondary. Saturday, the position was Kyle Queiro’s. Tuesday, it was Godwin Igwebuike’s. Both are getting the opportunity after redshirting this past season, and by the looks of it, both are impressing in Campbell’s absence.
As he did on Saturday, Fitzgerald maintained that his team, especially the freshmen, are behind schedule. He notes the lack of the extra month of bowl practice as the reason. However, Fitz did say Tuesday that everything is starting to click for some members of last year’s recruiting class.