What is the mark of an established college football program?
Continued and sustained success.
A program, especially one such as Northwestern can accomplish this through a consistent string of players, replacing those who have graduated or moved on from the university. In years past, Northwestern has had 22 or so (11 starters on both offense and defense) quality players that could rightfully play in the Big Ten. But the difference came when one of those 22 went down. At Michigan or Ohio State or other members of the Big Ten's top tier, the next man steps up with little drop off. Chances are, both the starter and his replacement were top recruits out of high school. That continues on to the offseason when young players are called upon to replace the now former starters. It's a train that keeps on moving with few hiccups along the way.
Now, where does Northwestern sit?
The program is getting there. There's no doubt about it. And that's why 2014 will be different than 2013.
At a training camp practice this summer, the football team from nearby Evanston Township High School was invited to observe the Wildcats work out. I overheard one of the players say to his teammate, "We've gotta practice with this tempo. We've gotta pick it up." They were watching the defense backs go through drills, the position group that has been one of, if not the best, groups throughout the offseason.
This tempo, this increased sense of urgency and intensity, is one of the few things in a college football program not generated from those at the top of the food chain. It starts with the young guys. It starts with their ability and commitment to challenge those who are listed above them on the depth chart. It starts with the understanding that it is their responsibility to replace the starters when called upon with no drop off and in some cases even raise the level of play. The old adage that "you're only as strong as your weakest link" rings true here.
Last season, when something went wrong, when a starter went out with injury, there was a drop off and it was clear. The younger guys, it seemed, weren't ready to step up. They weren't there yet physically or mentally. This season, it's clear they are. Players such as Kyle Queiro, Xavier Washington and Justin Jackson have all excelled in practice, pushing guys in front of them. Even senior defensive tackle Chance Carter, a player who has contributed on the interior line for the past few seasons, was supplanted on the week one depth chart by junior CJ Robbins and sophomore Greg Kuhar. In the spring, there was a question as to whether Collin Ellis could replace Damien Proby. It's clear, just a day away from the season opener, that Ellis is more talented than Proby with more physical tools and should be a far better and more productive player than Proby was.
Those are the types of circumstances that programs such as Northwestern need to see. Not only do that season's starters perform, but the players working beneath them must build upon the player they will replace. It's the continued competition within the program that will make a team more competitive outside of it.