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Northwestern's Top Five Training Camp Position Battles

There'll be a lot of competition in August.

Dennis Wierzbicki-USA TODAY Sports

Fifty-five days.

That’s how long Northwestern has until its season opener. But before Pat Fitzgerald can fully prepare for Stanford’s formidable roster, he has to finalize his own. A multitude of starting spots are still up for grabs and NU has just a month of practice left to fill them. So what are the top position battles to follow during fall camp?

1. Quarterback

By now, Northwestern fans are well familiar with the three-way QB competition between Zack Oliver, Matt Alviti and Clayton Thorson. Spring camp came and went without a clear favorite emerging. Many in the media have dubbed Thorson, with his four stars and dual-threat prowess, as the slight frontrunner. But don’t count out the others. The starting job is still very much there for the taking.

Speculation aside, the only certainty about this competition is that NU’s offensive scheme will, to some extent, hinge on the winner. Should Oliver win, look for Northwestern to lean more towards a pass-happy offense. Should Alviti win, expect the Wildcats to incorporate more option and designed QB runs. Should Thorson win, we'd anticipate a combination of those two styles.

This competition could last all the way through fall camp. And knowing how much Fitzgerald loves playing things close to the vest, don’t be surprised if he waits until kickoff against the Cardinal to reveal the starter.

2. The whole offensive line

Geoff Mogus is the only sure-fire starter on the offensive line entering camp. That leaves Adam DePietro, Brad North, Matt Frazier, Eric Olson, Tommy Doles, Conner Mahoney, Ian Park, Shane Mertz and Black Hance to duke it out for the other four spots. It will be intriguing to see if the talented redshirt freshmen, Hance and Doles, can earn enough of Fitzgerald’s trust in August to nab a starting role come Sept. 5. If they do and Mogus sticks at left guard, one of those freshmen will likely start at the all-important left-tackle position.

After a strong spring, North figures to be the successor to stalwart Brandon Vitabile at center. But the right side of the line is even more uncertain than the left. Frazier and Olson, with 26 starts between them, have the edge in experience over DePietro, Mertz and Hance. But that experience could actually hurt Frazier and Olson, because they both struggled at times last season. So don’t be shocked if the coaching staff decides to go in another direction at right guard and/or right tackle depending on performance in August.

Considering how critical the offensive line is to the success of any offense, and how poor NU’s line was last season, these position battles matter greatly, so make sure to keep an eye them. And if last season was any indication, expect them to continue into the season.

3. WILL Linebacker

With Chi Chi Ariguzo gone, Joseph Jones, Nate Hall, Brett Walsh and Tommy Vitale, none of whom has significant experience at the college level, are left to compete for the starting weak side linebacker position. Jones got most of the first team reps during spring ball, but Hall was a close second. The starting job will most likely go to one of those two, barring a breakout fall camp by Walsh or Vitale.

While the WILL is one of the few uncertainties Northwestern faces on the defensive side of the ball, it's essential to Northwestern's defensive scheme. Whoever emerges as the starter will have his hands full as the primary run defender in Mike Hankwitz’s 4-3 defense.

4. Outside Receiver

As with the offensive line, this isn't a straightforward battle. It's pretty convoluted. The only sure thing is that if Christian Jones is healthy, he will start, likely as the Y receiver. He is great over the middle of the field. But who will start outside, at the X and Z receiver positions?

Cam Dickerson seems like a pretty good bet. Mike McHugh, if healthy, could see his role expand. And interestingly, after, one spring practice, Matt Alviti said that Miles Shuler had been playing outside instead of in the slot. Additionally, with the lack of established talent at receiver, don't be surprised if a true freshman steps up. Flynn Nagel could be an option in the slot, and Cameron Green could be an option out wide.

5. Defensive Tackle

This one is pretty straightforward. There are three leading candidates — Sean McEvilly, C.J. Robbins and Greg Kuhar — for two starting spots. The main battle here is health though, with Kuhar coming off ACL surgery and McEvilly forced to the sidelines the past two years by a foot injury. Those two seem to have greater potential than Robbins though. If health does turn out to be a problem, the dark horses are sophomore Tyler Lancaster and redshirt freshmen Fred Wyatt and Ben Oxley. No matter how the competition plays out though, this will be a rotation. Connor Mahoney will also factor in.