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Northwestern 2015 Spring Guide: Five sleepers

Which Wildcats could take a big step forward from last season?

Matt Marton-USA TODAY Sports

The Inside NU spring guide is back as we get set for Northwestern's spring football practice. Practice starts February 25 and runs through the spring "game" on April 11, with a break for finals and the school's regularly scheduled spring break. Before practice begins, here's a look at several underrated players who could make a big leap this season.

Solomon Vault

One of just four true freshmen to see the field in 2014, Vault's start to the season looked promising. He got at least six touches in each of his first three games and scored two touchdowns on the ground against Western Illinois. However, a leg injury derailed his season, and he was limited in the few games he did play. Following the departure of Treyvon Green, the back-up running back slot is now Vault's to lose. His ability to catch the ball out of the backfield is a good complement to Justin Jackson's power and finesse. Only one Division I college football team generated fewer 30+ yard plays than Northwestern last season, and Vault's explosiveness could change that. Also, watch out for Vault on special teams. Either he or Miles Shuler will most likely be returning punts and kicks, and they both can make big plays with the ball in their hands.

Pierre Youngblood-Ary

Somebody has to step up at wide receiver this season. One of the freshmen could surprise in camp and move up the depth chart, but more likely it will be the redshirt senior that rounds out NU's receiving corps. Youngblood-Ary totaled 105 receiving yards on seven catches last season after he primarily played special teams in 2013. Like Christian Jones and Cameron Dickerson, Youngblood-Ary has good size at 6-foot-3. However, he only weighs 185 pounds. While he's not as strong as NU's other wideouts, he does possess breakaway speed. He probably won't move into any of the four starting receiver spots, but Younglood-Ary is a versatile receiver who's bound to receive more play time and get behind the defense every now and then.

Xavier Washington

There are a lot of different ways the rotation on the defensive line could shake out in 2015. Northwestern doesn't have a position as deep as defensive end, but they'll definitely find a way to mix in Xavier Washington. He played in 11 games as a true freshman and recorded 13 tackles, including 2.5 tackles for loss. Washington will get many of his opportunities in passing situations, when defensive coordinator Mike Hankwitz likes to throw three or four pass-rushing ends on the line. Because of the limited downs, Washington won't have a breakout season, but he should see his numbers increase and could create havoc in the opponents' backfield.

Drew Smith

Smith isn't really a "sleeper," but he's due for a huge jump in production this season. The rising senior played in every game last season and started in seven of them, but he always had to split time with Jimmy Hall. Now, the SAM linebacking spot should belong solely to Smith, and the loss of NU's leading tackler Chi Chi Ariguzo leaves a big gap opposite him at the WILL position. With the added workload, it would be feasible for Smith to double his 2014 tackle total of 37. He's an excellent run stopper and known for laying some big hits. Smith just needs to improve in coverage, and judging by Pat Fitzgerald's staff's track record with linebacker development, he will take a step forward. Drew Smith would be my early selection for Northwestern's breakout player in 2015.

Blake Hance

The position battle at offensive tackle will be one to watch this spring. Northwestern has veterans returning in Eric Olson, Shane Mertz and Adam Depietro, but redshirt freshman Blake Hance is going to compete for a starting spot. He's a pretty ideal size at 6-foot-5 and 275 pounds. Having played tight end and defensive end in high school, Hance is fairly athletic too. The Wildcat offensive line was rather poor in pass protection during the past couple seasons, especially at the tackle positions. It would be ideal for NU if Hance could hold down the left tackle spot for several years to come.