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Northwestern Kenosha scrimmage: Zack Oliver impresses, Matt Alviti struggles

Saturday was our first chance in 2015 to see the quarterbacks and true freshmen in game-like situations. We came away with plenty of observations.

Dennis Wierzbicki-USA TODAY Sports

Northwestern scrimmaged for about an hour Saturday in Kenosha. With practices being closed to the media this year, it was our first chance to see many potential contributors in game situations, and it was our first chance to do any evaluating of the quarterbacks. Here's what we saw:

Veterans not in uniform

The following offensive players did not suit up for the scrimmage: Justin Jackson, Solomon Vault, Warren Long, Stephen Buckley, Christian Jones, Miles Shuler, Cameron Dickerson, Mike McHugh, Dan Vitale, Garrett Dickerson, Geoff Mogus and Shane Mertz.

The following defensive players did not suit up for the scrimmage: Dean Lowry, C.J. Robbins, Max Chapman, Greg Kuhar, Deonte Gibson, Anthony Walker, Drew Smith, Brett Walsh, Matt Harris, Nick VanHoose, Keith Watkins, Traveon Henry, Godwin Igwebuike and Montre Hartage.

Jack Mitchell also did not participate.

Many of those players are just resting. The exceptions are Kuhar, who is still considered probable for the Stanford game, but is working his way back from ACL surgery; Walsh, who has missed the past week with an injury; and Watkins, who is expected back next week. It's unclear why Hartage, a true freshman who has impressed in camp, did not play. Jaylen Prater and Kyle Queiro were in uniform, partially because the Wildcats needed numbers, but both played only sparingly, and might have rested if others were healthy.


Any takeaways have to be prefaced by noting that Saturday was still a very small sample size. Each of the three quarterbacks probably got somewhere between 15-25 snaps. But if Saturday is all we are going off of, Zack Oliver appears to be the favorite for Northwestern's starting quarterback job. To be clear, that does not mean Oliver is the favorite. We simply don't know. But that's what it looked like Saturday.

Oliver got the first drive of the scrimmage, and thus the first chance to impress... and he did just that. The offense was by no means expansive—it was a lot of dinks and dunks—but Oliver was sharp on his reads and got the ball out quickly and on the money. And then when the offense neared the red zone, Oliver threw a strike to true freshman Jelani Roberts on a corner route. Roberts, who lined up in the slot, got one (if not both) feet in bounds and hauled in the pass right near the sideline. On the very next play, true freshman running back John Moten — who looked good overall — found the end zone.

Clayton Thorson got the second drive and also led the offense down the field, but many of the yards came on the ground, or on runs after the catch. The highlight was a bubble screen to Roberts, who made multiple defenders miss on the way to a roughly-20-yard gain. In the red zone, Thorson found Macan Wilson on a crossing route for a touchdown.

Overall, the redshirt freshman looked pretty comfortable in the offense, and showed some nice mobility, but was inconsistent. A handful of throws were inaccurate—he missed high on multiple short throws—and he didn't really get a chance to showcase his arm strength.

Matt Alviti, unfortunately, did not look good. There's no other way to put it. He certainly wasn't helped by penalties and mistakes around him, but his reads looked slow, and he didn't have much success, if any, throwing the ball. On his first drive, he underthrew a deep ball on third down to a receiver that looked like he had a step. Later, he rolled to his left, had time, and had Pierre Youngblood-Ary wide open on a hitch route, but the throw was weak and low, and Youngblood-Ary went to a knee and dropped it. And the worst throw of the day by any of the three quarterbacks was Alviti's duck over the middle of the field that fluttered right into the arms of linebacker Nate Hall. There were no receivers in the area.

Throughout the scrimmage, the offense barely moved the ball with Alviti in command. His mobility was on display, and he used it to escape pressure on a few occasions, but there was no flow to the offense when he was in. It's tough to rule out any of the three quarterbacks based on one day, but if Saturday is representative of the past few weeks, McCall's and Fitzgerald's decision will come down to Thorson vs. Oliver.

Starting teams

With the veterans sitting, the starting offense alongside Zack Oliver was as follows:

RB Auston Anderson, WR Pierre Youngblood-Ary, WR Andrew Scanlan, WR Flynn Nagel, SB Jayme Taylor, RT Eric Olson, RG Connor Mahoney, C Brad North, LG Ian Park, LT Blake Hance.

The starting defense was as follows:

DE Ifeadi Odenigbo, DT Tyler Lancaster, DT Jordan Thompson, DE Joe Gaziano, OLB Jaylen Prater, MLB Cam Queiro, OLB Joseph Jones, CB Marcus McShepard, CB Parrker Westphal, S Terrance Brown, S Kyle Queiro.

True freshman receivers

Jelani Roberts and Flynn Nagel both were impressive, and both appear to be in line to play as true freshman. Roberts especially looked good, and even in a scrimmage, there seemed to be a conscious effort from McCall to get the ball in his hands. Roberts' speed and agility stood out. Nagel is more of a possession guy, and looks to have a college-ready body.

Both have been playing in the slot, and that's where they were used early and often Saturday. Nagel has also been working as a punt returner, and Roberts has been working as a kick returner.

Other notes

- The biggest takeaway on the defensive side of the ball is at defensive tackle. Tyler Lancaster got a strong push on multiple occasions, wreaking havoc in the backfield. And next to him, Jordan Thompson didn't necessarily stand out, but the fact that he was playing alongside Lancaster is noteworthy. Both Fitzgerald and defensive coordinator Mike Hankwitz mentioned Thompson Thursday as a guy who had caught their eye, so it appears Thompson is on track to play as a true freshman.

- Auston Anderson looked shifty as advertised, but it might be telling that he suited up and played a fair amount, while the other three running backs were rested. He might not be ready to handle a significant role just yet.

- Nathan Fox was another true freshman who looked good. On one play, Fox, playing middle linebacker, showed great range and laid a big hit on Roberts on a bubble screen, stopping him after a minimal gain. Fox was a big time recruit who had offers from Oregon and Mississippi State. However, due to a high school injury, he was limited in his workouts prior to his arrival at Northwestern. Fox, therefore, has been working himself into playing shape as camp progresses, but based on his performance Saturday, appears to be where he needs to be. It's still unclear whether or not he will redshirt though.

- With Jack Mitchell sitting out, Matt Micucci sent two kickoffs into the end zone, one of which bounced towards the back of the end zone and went for a touchback. Both might have been aided by wind, but it was more of a cross-wind than a back-wind, so it was noteworthy. Jack Mitchell struggled on kickoffs last year, so perhaps there's a chance we see Micucci given a shot at kickoff duty.

- Hunter Niswander boomed one punt 65 or 70 yards.

- Corey Acker, listed as a wide receiver on NU's official roster, ran for two touchdowns out of the backfield. One was a 60-yarder...

- Northwestern University president Morton Schapiro was in attendance, as was Jim Phillips. "Morty" addressed the team afterwards, and ended with a fist pump and a "Go 'Cats!"

- When head coach Pat Fitzgerald was asked about his general reaction to the scrimmage, he pulled out his list of notes, and said, "I got a lot. Anytime you get in a football situation, there's a ton of learning. From a freshman catching a punt at the 1-yard line, to 20 yards of penalties by the offensive line to start a series, to no strip attempts and rip attempts by the defense to create fumbles, not enough getting off blocks...a lot of stuff. But that's all stuff we'll get corrected. Great learning experience for those younger guys."

- Neither Fitzgerald nor Mick McCall felt like getting into specifics when asked about the quarterbacks or the true freshmen. I asked McCall whether or not the fact that the first team defense wasn't playing changed his evaluation of the quarterbacks at all, and he said it didn't.

- Northwestern's true freshmen — namely Roberts, Nagel and Thompson — are already well-schooled in media-speak.

- Looking ahead: Northwestern returns from Kenosha early next week. We will be able to speak with coaches and players Tuesday and Wednesday. On Friday, Fitzgerald will announce the team's 2015 captains at Meet the Team Night.