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Northwestern preseason camp primer: Position battles, players to watch, storylines

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Everything you need to know heading into the Wildcats' training camp.

Bradley Leeb-USA TODAY Sports

Northwestern's preseason camp starts Monday, and the season is less than a month away. The three-week camp will begin in Evanston, then head to Kenosha, Wisconsin, for a week, then come back to Evanston to finish up before Cal game week. We made a primer to get you ready, looking at players to watch, position battles and the biggest storylines from camp.

Position Battles

1. Right tackle: Jack Konopka vs. Eric Olson

Northwestern has so much experience returning on its offensive line that it returns five starters and might only start four of them. This spring, Jack Konopka — returning starter at tackle — mostly took part in second team reps, behind left tackle Paul Jorgensen and right tackle Eric Olson. Jorgensen is well-established at left tackle (though he does have a formidable backup in Shane Mertz) but the right tackle situation is interesting.

NU's offensive line struggled with inconsistency last year, but it wasn't as bad as you might think. While pass protection was rough at times, it was one of the top 25 run-blocking lines in the country, and there's no reason to think that can't improve this year. Konopka seems to fit NU's zone-blocking scheme well, given that he's an athletic lineman who even played superback for a spell. Still, his struggles in pass protection were enough for Pat Fitzgerald to give Olson a serious look this spring.

Olson flew under the radar in his first two years in Evanston, but he's an impressive prospect and part of NU's offensive line overhaul on the recruiting front. He's 6-foot-6, 290 pounds, and had an offer from Michigan, so he certainly has the potential to be good for the Wildcats for a long time. It will be interesting to see how playing time works out for these two. I'd imagine Konopka, Olson, Jorgensen and Mertz will all play a good amount, but can Konopka earn his spot back? Olson seemed to have a solid spring, so it might be tough, but as the senior and the returning starter, he'll certainly have a shot. But regardless of who stars, NU is in very good shape at tackle.

2. Defensive back seven: Jimmy Hall vs. Wherever he fits in

Late in the 2013 season, while everything was falling apart for NU, Jimmy Hall ended up being one of the lone bright spots. A not-quite-safety, not-quite-linebacker, Hall excelled as a nickelback, and this spring, it was clear the coaching staff took notice, as Hall saw reps as a safety, a linebacker and a nickelback (a fifth defensive back that replaces an outside linebacker).

Hall is clearly an impressive player and the coaches want to find a spot for him in the defense. But he's not likely to be a starting outside linebacker in the traditional sense, and he's also not likely to start at safety. He's caught somewhere in the middle, but he's still going to play.

Perhaps the most interesting thing to watch on defense all throughout camp is how often Hall comes in and where he does it. Will be be a third safety, will he play outside linebacker, or will he function as a nickelback like he did at the end of last season? My guess is it will be a little bit of everything — with a little more outside linebacker than we're used to seeing — but it will take until the end of fall camp to really get a feel for what his role will be on the team.

3. Kicker: Hunter Niswander vs. Matt Micucci vs. Jack Mitchell

Heading into next season, Northwestern's biggest question mark isn't on offense or defense at all ... it's on special teams, where the Wildcats need to replace ultra-productive kicker Jeff Budzien.

After struggling in 2011, Budzien came into his own in 2012 and continued in solid form in 2013. His loss could be big if NU can't find someone to replace him, and it could ultimately make the difference in a few games. Niswander was the biggest recruit of the bunch vying to replace Budzien, and he's probably the favorite, but it will be interesting to see how that all works out in fall camp.

- Kevin Trahan

Three Players to Watch

Trevor Siemian, senior QB

After splitting reps with Kain Colter the past two seasons, Trevor Siemian will be Northwestern's only starting quarterback in 2014 (We think). What does that mean for the offense? Jason Dorow tried to explain by isolating Siemian-led drives over the past two seasons. That's a good place to start, but there remains some uncertainty about how he'll fare operating solo. Many have argued that NU's offense lacked an "identity" last season - when it ranked 10th in the Big Ten in points per game and 9th in yards per play - and suggested that Siemian taking over full time will help fix that. I'm not so sure. Not having Colter could make the offense more predictable, easier to defend - though Siemian does have a big arm and a solid group of receivers to work with. Whatever the effect, Siemian will have more influence over the unit this season than he has in previous ones. He is Northwestern's Most Important Player. That alone makes him someone you'll want to keep an eye on in preseason camp.

Sean McEvily, senior DT

One of the biggest differences between NU's 2012 defense and its 2013 defense was the former's success stopping the run. The Wildcats allowed 3.77 yards per rush in 2012, good for fourth in the Big Ten, but yielded 4.15 in 2013 (8th). It was clear early on that the departure of Brian Arnfelt would be more costly than most suspected, and the Wisconsin loss - in which the Badgers amassed 286 yards on the ground, with Melvin Gordon going off for 172 and a touchdown - drove home that point. Having McEvily available for only five games didn't help matters. Though he sat out spring practice while recovering from foot surgery, McEvily is expected to be healthy for the start of the season. And NU really needs him. Most of the guys projecting to line up at tackle don't have much game experience. If McEvily were to go down again - or if he's not at full strength - an already weak position would have a hard time improving on last year's poor performance.

Kyle Prater, senior WR

Is this the year Prater finally lives up to his potential? For those who don't know: Prater was the top-ranked receiver in the class of 2012, according to Rivals.com. He caught one pass at USC in 2011 before transferring to NU and gaining immediate eligibility. Over two seasons with the Wildcats, Prater has recorded 19 receptions for 113 yards and zero touchdowns. Some are expressing confidence that he could make a big leap in production this season. "I'm looking forward to great things happening this year," Prater told ESPN.com. "I can honestly say I feel like I'm back, and I'm ready to go." Preseason practice should give us a good idea of how big his role will be. At 6-foot-5, 225-pounds, Prater has a height advantage over practically every defensive back he faces and could be a dangerous red zone target. Still, if he hasn't flashed the talent and athleticism that had scouts doing double takes at his high school games, why should we expect him to suddenly morph into one of NU's top receivers?

- Chris Johnson

Storylines

How the union will impact the season

How much, if at all, the offense will change under Trevor Siemian

The point has been made often so, to put it bluntly, Trevor Siemian is not Kain Colter. He's not the athlete Colter was, he's not the runner Colter was and he hasn't had the career Colter had. That's not to say Siemian is a "worse" player, but he's different. In fact, after breaking down the numbers, Dorow concluded that, "From a purely statistical standpoint, Siemian moved the offense just as well, if not better, than Colter in the last two seasons." So, after three years of Colter's heavy influence on the offense, it remains to be seen if Northwestern's offensive scheme will reflect he change in quarterback play. Training camp could show the first indications of what Mick McCall may have in store for the team: whether it will focus more on a pocket-passing scheme that seems to fit the strengths of Siemian better than an option-based playbook.

How the offensive weapons–Venric Mark, Miles Shuler, Dan Vitale (and a few more actually)–will be used

It could be said that the most impressive thing about Northwestern on the offensive side of the ball is the crop of athletes the team can use on every single play in a variety of ways. Over the years, Northwestern's offensive has thrived on misdirection (see these in-depth looks at Northwestern's win over Michigan in 2000 here and here) as it has allowed players to make the most out of what pundits have long considered to be "limited natural ability." But this season with weapons at running back (Venric Mark, Treyvon Green, Stephen Buckley), super back (Dan Vitale) and wide receiver (Miles Shuler, Tony Jones, Christian Jones, Kyle Prater) the misdirection may not be so much in the scheme of the play but in the players that are featured or used as decoys. At Big Ten Media Days, Trevor Siemian kept saying that the team "doesn't have enough balls to go around" due to the amount of gifted skill players Northwestern can feature this season. It remains to be seen if the Wildcats go with a more spread-the-wealth approach or focus on really utilizing the talents of a few of the aforementioned players.

Ifeadi Odenigbo's progression

Moving to the defensive side of the ball, talk of the biggest weapons has to start with defensive end Ifeadi Odenigbo. He's big, he's fast, he's strong and gets after the quarterback. As a redshirt freshman in 2013, Odenigbo was primarily a pass rusher, playing almost exclusively in obvious passing situations. In that limited time, the Ohio-native racked up 5.5 sacks and 6.5 tackles for loss. Not only should it be interesting to see what moves Odenigbo has added in the off season, but training camp will also show if he has progressed enough to spell Dean Lowry and Deonte Gibson in run situations. That will be the next step for Odenigbo and could push Northwestern's defense to a new level.

- Josh Rosenblat