It's easy to forget about redshirt freshmen.
Incoming recruits are thoroughly analyzed and we love to forecast how they'll fit into a program. However, the majority of these players redshirt their freshman year, seeing the field only during practice, which is, of course, out of the public eye.
Thus, it's understandable for one's knowledge of the Northwestern recruiting class of 2014 to be a tad rusty. But the class was, despite being relatively small, one of the most talented in Northwestern history and there are multiple players who sat out last season that could have an immediate impact.
Let's take a look at the guys you should keep track of.
QB Clayton Thorson
Though Pat Fitzgerald says it's an open competition, Thorson enters spring practice as the slight favorite to take over for Trevor Siemian as Northwestern's starting quarterback. The 6-foot-4, 200 pounder from Wheaton, Ill. was a four-star recruit who chose Northwestern over Ole Miss, Penn State and Iowa, to name a few.
Thorson has the size of a pocket-passer, but is also deceivingly mobile. He'll be battling Zack Oliver and Matt Alviti for the starting quarterback spot. Oliver filled in for Siemian after his injury with little success, and Alviti played some snaps in option sets.
There is a possibility that offensive coordinator Mick McCall returns to the dual-quarterback system that was successful with Kain Colter and Trevor Siemian. If he does go that route, it's fairly certain that Alviti will be the primary running threat as Colter was, and either Thorson or Oliver will be the passing threat, though few expect Oliver to win the competition.
CB Parker Westphal
Westphal, a cornerback from Bollingbrook, Ill., was Northwestern's highest rated recruit in the class of 2014. ESPN rated him as the 95th best recruit that year, and Westphal chose Northwestern over the very best Big Ten programs in Ohio State, Michigan State and Nebraska. Westphal also had offers from the likes of Florida and Arizona State.
Long story short, he was a highly sought after recruit and his commitment to Northwestern was a big victory for Pat Fitzgerald and staff.
The primary reason for Westphal's redshirt was injury, not lack of ability or readiness. The cornerback position will be particularly intriguing to follow this offseason: both starters, Nick Van Hoose and Matthew Harris, will return, but it might actually be Westphal that's the most physically gifted of the group. Westphal could push the two incumbent starters for playing time.
RB Auston Anderson
Anderson, like Westphal, redshirted due to injury. And like Westphal, Anderson was offered by elite programs and ultimately chose Northwestern over his home-state Texas Longhorns (Anderson is from Plano, Tex.).
At 5-foot-9, Anderson relies on his speed as a runner. He could be an excellent change of pace to Justin Jackson, who, despite possessing marvelous vision, isn't the most explosive back.
His battle to secure carries won't be easy. The aforementioned Jackson will enter the season as the starter after a stellar 2014, and Solomon Vault and Warren Long will be looking for expanded roles next season. There are carries to be had, however, as Treyvon Green was Jackson's primary backup and is graduating.
OT Tommy Doles
Doles played left tackle in high school, but was only listed at 240 pounds on his recruiting profile. Quite simply, that is way too small to play offensive line in the Big Ten, and it's likely that Doles redshirted to bulk up, which it seems he has. He was listed at 270 pounds on the roster this year. If he keeps up that rate, he'll be 390 pounds by his senior year, which is roughly the average weight of Wisconsin's offensive linemen.
Seriously though, the offensive line is one of the biggest question marks facing this Northwestern team. The line's best player, center Brandon Vitabile, is graduating, as is left tackle Paul Jorgensen.
It is more likely than not that a player with at least some experience will fill in for those two guys, but of the recruits in the class of 2014, Doles was the highest rated offensive lineman. If he's actually put on as much weight as the roster would lead us to believe, he's worth keeping track of as a potential replacement for Jorgensen.