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Northwestern Spring Guide: Five big storylines

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Jerry Lai-USA TODAY Sports

It's (not quite) spring time, and that means it's (not really) football season! Less than three months after the 2014 campaign ended in disappointment, Northwestern football is set to ramp things up again with spring practice. The Wildcats officially begin on Feb. 25. To get you back into football mode, at least temporarily, we've compiled a comprehensive spring preview. We'll start with the five storylines to watch, then dive into position previews, further examine the hot topics heading into spring ball, and conclude with a projected depth chart. So let's get going!

Amazingly, college football in Evanston is only eight days away! Northwestern begins its month-ish long spring practice schedule on Feb. 25, and will wrap things up at the annual 'spring game' on April 4 or 11. The Wildcats then return to practice in the summer in preparation for the start of the 2015 season, which begins against Stanford on Sept. 5 at Ryan Field.

After back-to-back 5-7 seasons, there seems to be an air of urgency within the program and among its fans. There was some talk of coaching changes, particularly on the offensive side of the football, but Northwestern decided to retain offensive coordinator Mick McCall despite a disappointing season. In addition, Northwestern will be without multiple key contributors from last year, as Trevor Siemian, Brandon Vitabile, Chi Chi Ariguzo and Ibraheim Campbell are all graduating.

It's premature to say that Pat Fitzgerald is on the hot seat, but it's feasible to believe that his seat is just a tad warmer than it has been in recent years. A strong bounce-back season and a trip to a bowl game would go a long way to prove that this program is indeed trending in the upward direction.

It's worth noting that none of the 20 incoming freshmen will be on the field for spring football (none will enroll early like Parrker Westphal did last year), and it's feasible to believe that at least some of them will compete for playing time once they get to campus in the summer. However, spring practice is each returning players' first chance to prove his worth. For incumbent starters, it's a chance to cement a spot atop the depth chart. For non-starters, it's an opportunity to show the coaching staff that they deserve more time on the field.

Let's take a look at the five storylines you should watch most closely during spring practices.

1. Quarterback competition

Trevor Siemian's graduation means that the starting quarterback position is there for the taking. Quarterback is the most important position on the field, particularly for a team like Northwestern that doesn't have the size or depth to play smash-mouth football. Siemian's inconsistent play plagued Northwestern last year, but a lot of that had to do with what he had around him. Without him, Fitzgerald and McCall have a big question to answer.

At signing day, Fitzgerald stopped short of naming names but did say that three guys will compete for the position. It's virtually certain that these three players will be junior Zack Oliver, redshirt freshman Matt Alviti, and Clayton Thorson, who redshirted this year and has four years of eligibility left.

The favorite to win the job is probably Thorson, a four-star recruit from Wheaton, Ill. who has ideal size at 6-foot-4 and is more mobile than he may appear.

Alviti saw some playing time this year, but it came mostly in option-sets where it was quite clear that he would either run the ball or hand it off. Alviti, also a highly-touted recruit who received a four-star rating, is more of a dual-threat; he doesn't possess great size but is a shifty runner and a fiery competitor.

Oliver has the advantage of having been in the program longer and having actually started a football game at Northwestern, but he's fighting an uphill battle. The game that he did start was a disaster, as he turned the ball over five times (four in the first half) and Northwestern got blown out at home by Illinois.

Fitzgerald made a point to say that the three will compete until "one, or maybe two" guys emerge from the pact. It's noteworthy that he made a point to establish that there's at least some possibility the offense might return to the dual-quarterback system that brought the team so much success in 2012.

We're all eager to see what changes Mick McCall has in store for this offense, and the direction the offensive goes will be heavily influenced by who's leading it.

2. Which redshirt freshmen will step up?

Only four of Northwestern's 15 freshmen played during their first years on campus--Justin Jackson, Garrett Dickerson, Xavier Washington, and Salomon Vault. You have to believe the other 11 guys are chomping at the bit to finally get onto the field and battle for some playing time.

Of those 11, there are a few guys you should keep your eyes on. The first is Parrker Westphal, a cornerback who redshirted due to injury but was Northwestern's highest rated recruit from the class of 2014. (In unrelated news, he has undoubtedly the best hair on the team.) Both guys who started at corner in 2014, Matt Harris and Nick Van Hoose, are returning, but Westphal might possess more natural talent than both of those guys and could battle for a starting spot, or have a big role to play in nickel and dime packages.

The aforementioned quarterback Clayton Thorson is another guy to follow, as is running back Auston Anderson, who, like Westphal, redshirted to recover from an injury. Anderson is a stocky back (5-foot-9 and 180 lbs.) who had an impressive list of offers that included UCLA, Arizona State, TCU, Texas, and Nebraska. While Justin Jackson will start barring injury, Treyvon Green's graduation opens up carries that Anderson, Warren Long and Solomon Vault will compete for.

Lastly, Tommy Doles and Blake hance are two offensive lineman who could battle for playing time due to a ton of uncertainty up front on offense. Which leads nicely into our next storyline...

3. The offensive line

Northwestern's offensive line was shaky (to put it kindly) last year, allowing 24 sacks in eight conference games, the second highest mark in the Big Ten. To make matters worse, Northwestern loses its most consistent performer on the offensive line, as Brandon Vitabile is graduating after 50 starts in four years. Northwestern also loses Paul Jorgensen, its starter at the most crucial offensive line position, left tackle, to graduation.

Shane Mertz will be a senior and is the favorite to replace Jorgensen, but both Vitabile and the backup center (Hayden Baker) are graduating. Someone--perhaps one of the redshirt freshman--will have to step up to fill that void. Ian Park and Brad North are both candidates to move inside to play center, as is Matt Frazier, a starting guard for much of last year.

In any case, Northwestern has to hope that its offensive line play will be steadier than it was last year, as whoever the quarterback may be is going to need some time if he's going to be effective.

4. Who is going to lead the receiving corps?

The answer to this question depends firmly on Christian Jones' health. After leading Northwestern in receptions and tying for the team lead in touchdowns in 2013, Jones injured his knee in preseason practice and missed the entirety of the 2014 season. Jones redshirted and will play in 2015, but his effectiveness upon returning to the field is a question mark. If he's back to 100%, he should be Northwestern's main target in the upcoming season.

Miles Shuler, who transferred to Northwestern from Rutgers prior to the 2014 season, also missed the last four games of last year with a hand injury. One would think that he'll return to the field at full strength for spring practice, but his health is worth keeping track of.

Northwestern also loses Kyle Prater, the 6-foot-5 target who finally developed into a solid option on the outside after a string of frustrating, disappointing years. He led the team in receptions, yards, and touchdowns in 2014. Tony Jones also graduates, leaving a lot of playing time on the table at the wide receiver position.

Enter the freshmen. Five of Northwestern's 20 recruits from the Class of 2015 are listed as primarily wide receivers: Flynn Nagel, Cameron Green, Charlie Fessler, Jelani Roberts, and Steven Reese. While the majority of these freshman will redshirt, don't discard the possibility of one, or even two, catching passes in 2015. They'll compete with Cameron Dickerson--who struggled with drops in 2014--and Pierre Youngblood-Ary for the playing time that Prater's and Jones' respective departures opened up.

5. Defensive personnel

Northwestern will be without its two best defensive players from a year ago in 2015, as Chi Chi Ariguzo and Ibraheim Campbell are both moving on. Another starting linebacking spot is also open with Jimmy Hall also graduating.

Drew Smith will likely take over one of the outside linebacking spots and freshman Anthony Walker is the favorite to start at middle linebacker after putting together some impressive performances during his redshirt freshman campaign. But that leaves one of the three linebacker spots open.

There have been murmurs that that spot will be taken by Traveon Henry, whose big frame suggests that a move to outside linebacker isn't out of the question. However, doing that would mean starting two inexperienced players at safety. In all likelihood, however, Henry will remain at safety opposite Godwin Igwebuike, who filled in late last year when Henry went down with an injury. That leaves Joseph Jones as the likely third starter at linebacker.

Last year, the defensive unit was better than the offensive one, but its success in 2015 will depend on how well NU is able to replace the production of players like Campbell and Ariguzo.

Check back with us once spring practice starts, as we'll have comprehensive coverage of all the above storylines and much more.