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Northwestern at Big Ten media days: What's there to talk about?

Let's talk Northwestern football


It’s that time of year when football season feels closer than it actually is. At conference media days, coaches radiate optimism and players proudly proclaim that they're in the best shape of their lives after rigorous offseason training programs. Back at home, fans awaiting their favorite team's first game start to get antsy.

Unfortunately, more than a month remains before Northwestern's 2014 season opener against Cal. As a consolation, Coach Pat Fitzgerald and three players (safety Ibraheim Campbell, linebacker Collin Ellis and quarterback Trevor Siemian) will talk about that game and more over two days at a large hotel in Chicago. Here are seven topics NU’s media days contingent will probably have to address.

Oh yeah, that union thing

An update on where we stand in the union case: The National Labor Relations Board has agreed to review Northwestern’s appeal of the ruling by NLRB regional director Peter Sung Ohr granting its football players employee status. The board will either uphold, modify or overturn Ohr’s ruling, setting a precedent for scholarship football players at private universities (which are subject to federal labor law; public universities are subject to state labor laws). A decision is expected by December.

The ballots NU players cast in April on whether to form a union will be impounded until the appeals process is complete. It is expected that a majority of players who partook in the voting sided against unionization. If instead a majority of players voted to unionize, CAPA, the formal entity that would represent those players, could initiate collective bargaining with NU. The school would probably refuse to engage, inviting an unfair labor practice lawsuit and sending the case to federal court. From there, it could be appealed up to the Supreme Court. A yes vote on the union would be meaningless, however, if Ohr’s ruling is reversed. So, in the grand scheme, the result of the vote is far less important than the NLRB’s decision.

Fitzgerald has already spoken publicly about the union. In a news conference after a spring practice in April (before the vote), he said, "I believe it's in their best interests to vote no. With the research that I've done, I'm going to stick to the facts and I'm going to do everything in my power to educate our guys. Our university is going to do that. We'll give them all the resources they need to get the facts."

Fitzgerald was accused of fronting a push to defeat the union campaign, with the New York Times detailing the lengths NU went to dissuade players from voting yes. Fitzgerald was described as having ‘framed a vote for the union as a form of personal betrayal.’ A few days earlier, CBSSports published a 21-page document authored by NU and Fitzgerald warning players, parents and staff about the consequences of a union, including the possibility that emergency home visits might no longer be allowed because they would be ‘subject to negotiation.’

A quote from junior punter Chris Gradone in an Al-Jazeera documentary – "if a union is brought in, all the benefits we get now are taken away and re-bargained for, so we might not get them back" – led to more speculation that Fitzgerald and NU may have run afoul of laws governing union elections. Gradone clarified his position in a first-person essay published on Lake The Posts, writing "This is a fact, and not a threat."

NU has publicly defended its actions leading up to the vote and stood behind Fitzgerald. "Northwestern has conducted its campaign regarding the possible unionization of scholarship football players according to the procedures and rules established by the NLRB," wrote vice president for university relations Alan K. Cubbage in an email to msnbc. "That includes the statements by Coach Fitzgerald and other University officials."

Fitzgerald and the three players will continue to face questions about their eventful offseason, many of which they will have already heard before. Most of the questions, I’d imagine, will center on whether the union case will be a distraction. You can expect the same answer repeated over and over again. ‘No, it will not be a distraction’. Other than that, there’s not much Fitzgerald and the players will say publicly.

Remember, the NLRB has yet to issue its ruling. We’re all waiting for the next step in this process to unfold, while at the same time looking ahead to the upcoming season. The union will be discussed, and Fitzgerald and his players will have answers prepared for every conceivable question, but at this point, what’s left to ask that either has not been addressed or can be addressed? For the first time in months, Northwestern football actually may be a bigger talking point than the groundbreaking reform movement conceived on its campus. Perhaps not.

Kain Colter’s gone, so what’s the offense going to look like?

Northwestern’s two-quarterback system became a national storyline in 2012, but it was first used two seasons earlier. There will be one QB running the show this season – Trevor Siemian – and no one’s quite sure whether that’s a good or bad thing. Kain Colter’s ability to evade pressure and run option packages were huge benefits, but might the offense be better off with one player handling all the snaps? Will the lack of variability make NU easier to defend? Help solve the ‘offensive identity problem’ so many pointed to last season? Both? Neither?

Trevor Siemian isn’t nearly as mobile as Colter, but he does have a stronger arm, which should allow coordinator Mick McCall to take shots down field more often (we all know NU could use more big plays). Oh, and by the way? Siemian, when healthy, was pretty good last season, which concluded with him lighting up Illinois’ admittedly mediocre-if-poor pass defense for over 400 yards and four touchdowns in a three-point win at Memorial Stadium.

There’s no telling how the offense will fare under Siemian and Siemian alone. We certainly won’t find out next week. Not even Siemian knows. What he and Fitzgerald can speak to is the Wildcats’ wealth of returning playmakers. There’s Cameron Dickerson and Tony and Christian Jones and Venric Mark (more on him below) and Miles Shuler and Dan Vitale and Stephen Buckley and Kyle Prater and others. If those guys are on the same page as Siemian and the line holds up – neither of which anyone should feel comfortable taking for granted at this point – the offense could be one of the better ones in the Big Ten.

If injury problems arise again and Siemian can’t curb his tendency to fling passes into too-tight windows, you’re looking at a punchless offense and another disappointing season. We’ll have a better feel for the unit, and the personnel manning it, at preseason training camp. How it will all come together – how Mark looks coming off an injury; how Vitale rebounds after a down season; how Shuler’s blazing speed will be unleashed; how Christian and Tony Jones could see their receiving totals surge now that they’ll be working with a quarterback who can consistently deliver them the ball – is up for debate. Even this far off from Week 1, there is plenty to ask about.

You guys think you can win a championship, huh?

In the realm of retweets from official college football program accounts, few this offseason were more perplexing than @NUFBFAMILY passing along, to its nearly 8,500 followers, the new College Football Playoff trophy. NU’s not making the playoff – not this year, not next year and probably not before it inevitably expands to eight teams. Aspiring to win the national championship isn’t a bad idea; every team wants to be great, right?

But I suspect a large segment of the fan base saw this manual RT, presented without comment, and did one of three things: 1) rolled their eyes, 2) laughed or 3) didn’t pay any attention. No. 3 was probably the most popular course of (in) action. Still, the person running that account is getting fans’ hopes up, and if NU doesn’t follow through with a national title, everyone reading this will seethe as they recall NU’s College Football Playoff Trophy Retweet of July 14. No, no they won’t.

In all seriousness, no one is going into this season thinking NU has a shot at making (much less winning) the CFP. A bowl game? Realistic. Likely, even. A division title? Not unfathomable, and if you bought the argument one writer on this site made last week, NU has a better shot than many suspect. But the reason I mentioned that retweet is that it reminded me of one of my favorite media days questions. Fitzgerald, Campbell, Siemian, and Ellis, be prepared to answer some form of the following: "Do you think you can win a [conference] championship?"

Wouldn’t we all like to know? The response will be something along the lines of, "Yeah, that’s our goal." Which is … what any coach on any team would say. One player on one Big Ten team may even go so far as to predict his team will win a championship (!). If things break right, NU might be able to play its way into contention. It doesn’t seem likely, but it’s not so ridiculous that reporters won’t ask about it. As for the CFP, well, that trophy looks like things and other things. Discussing the playoff in the context of NU’s 2014 season doesn’t seem worth your time. Future events could (almost certainly won’t) force me to amend that statement.

Nebraska might be a boring place

Fitzgerald will be asked about the remarks he made at a charity golf outing on Monday. "It's a pretty boring state, so they're really excited to see Chicago," Fitzgerald said of Nebraska, according to the Chicago Tribune. "I talked to the state senator about putting state troopers out on I-80 (to block them)." The Nebraska media contingent will want to know why Fitzgerald thinks their state of residence is boring. Maybe he’ll explain. Maybe he won’t. He may retract his comment. He may refuse to back down.

If Fitzgerald wants to take this a step further, he should ask Nebraska reporters whether they’re "excited" to be in Chicago. I attempted to explain earlier this week why I didn’t think his characterization of the state was anything to fuss over, why the furor was largely unwarranted. Fitzgerald’s words can be perceived as complimentary Think about it: He's acknowledging Nebraska fans travel well to road games – so well, he jokingly suggests, that he wants police to block them on the highway.

If you’re cynical, you could say that Fitzgerald was alluding to what many view as the biggest hurdle Nebraska faces in trying to lure elite high school players from the Midwest (players Northwestern also recruits, mind you). UNL is isolated, relatively speaking. Prospects have other options closer to home. Plus, most of them are too young to remember when Nebraska was a national power. So when you frame it that way, then yeah, maybe Fitzgerald’s remarks were a little more pointed than they initially seemed.

But I still go back to the fact that Fitzgerald was speaking to fans at a charity golf event. After a disappointing season that saw NU endure a seven-game losing streak and fail to qualify for the postseason for the first time since 2007, he wants to give Wildcats supporters something to look forward to. Northwestern and Nebraska have played some great, thrilling games in recent years – from the Wildcats’ stunning upset in Lincoln in 2011 to the Huskers’ 29-28 win at Ryan Field a year later to last season’s Hail Mary finish. I can’t wait for their homecoming matchup this season. Fitzgerald added even more intrigue by riling Huskers fans.

What’s up with Venric?

The NU player everyone is excited to watch play will not be at media days. The NCAA granted Mark’s request for a medical hardship waiver after he missed most of 2013 due to injury. The last time Mark was healthy for an entire season, in 2012, he was one of the best offensive players in the Big Ten. Mark rushed for 1,366 yards, ran back two punts for touchdowns and was a threat to reach the end zone every time he touched the ball.

Mark may have been at full health for only one game last season (against Ohio State). After injuring his hamstring in preseason camp, Mark carried 11 times for only 29 yards against Cal, sat out the next three games and went for 60 yards on 17 carries against the Buckeyes. His season ended when he hurt his ankle on a goal line play at Wisconsin. When asked in February whether Mark’s injury could linger into preseason camp, Fitzgerald told the Tribune, ‘I hope not.’

The Doak Walker committee may not be interested in Mark, but NU fans and media are. There are lots of unknowns: How healthy is he after offseason surgery? Will his workload be reduced to minimize the number of hits he takes? Will NU go with more of a by-committee approach, given its depth at running back? Will defenses have an easier time stopping him without Colter there to run option plays? Will he run back every punt and kick?

If Mark can even come close to producing the way he did in 2012, NU’s offense can be very, very good. Which isn’t to say Mark’s performance is more important than Siemian’s, say. It’s not. But Mark brings a dimension NU lacked last season, the home run threat defenses need to account for on every play. He also may be NU’s most recognizable player. To find out, perhaps we should apply the Salem, Ore., Dairy Queen litmus test.


Mark was one of 11 players to sit out spring practice with an injury. The others: safety Terrance Brown, cornerback Daniel Jones, running back Stephen Buckley, wide receiver Cermak Bland, offensive linemen Brad North and Ian Park and defensive linemen Deonte Gibson, Sean McEvilly, Max Chapman and Ifeadi Odenigbo. Tyler Lancaster was limited. The length of that list is troubling, given it pertains to a team whose main downfall last season was injuries.

While statistics point to NU staying healthier this season, it’s tough to have faith. What if the ailments those players were battling in the spring are re-aggravated before conference play or, worse, in preseason camp? Maybe some of the guys were held out for precautionary reasons, or whatever. They weren’t healthy enough to practice with the team. That is not good.

What are the chances we get meaningful updates next week? Low. This is a perfect time to pull out the trusty terms sheet. "Upper/mid/lower-body injury - The only terms Northwestern or Fitz will use to classify injuries." Those players could be 100 percent, still injured or somewhere in between. Whatever the case, don’t expect to find out. Your injury-related angst will persist into preseason camp.

In the meantime, I advise you to read Phil Steele’s 2014 study on starts lost to injury, in which he mentions NU as one of only six teams who lost six or less starts to injury in 2012 (four of those teams, including NU, posted a worse record in 2013). According to Steele’s calculations, Northwestern lost 10 starts on offense and 16 on defense last season, tied with five other programs for 49th in the country. Will NU have better injury luck in 2014? Is there a regression to the mean in the offing? Keep telling yourself that, and remember not to look at the spring injury report.

Which freshmen are going to play?

Every preseason, we take stock of the incoming freshman class. We research their backgrounds and pick apart their scouting reports and survey the depth chart. We try to discern which will play right away and, of those, which have a shot at earning significant playing time. Sometimes the first-year players who shine catch us off guard.

In 2012, for instance, Dan Vitale emerged as a significant contributor at superback after earning a two-star rating and a scholarship offers from NU and one MAC school. Will anyone in this year’s class surprise us the way Vitale did? Or, conversely, is there a heralded player – cornerback Parrker Westphal, quarterback Clayton Thorson, running back Justin Jackson and tight end Garrett Dickerson all earned four-star ratings – who won't live up to expectations?

It’s tough to say. Different opportunities arise at different positions over the course of the season. If a starter or key reserve is lost to injury, maybe then Fitzgerald will decide to burn a true freshman’s redshirt. Most of Fitzgerald’s players have sat out their first year. But that won’t stop people from probing him about whether, say, Westphal is ready to compete for a starting cornerback spot or Jackson can ease Mark’s rushing workload.

Freshmen are always an interesting topic because we’ve haven't seen them play full games. We long to decipher the unknown. Fitzgerald talked about the 2014 recruiting class – which has been called the best in program history – on signing day. If you heard his comments then, don’t expect what he says next week to be much different.