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Northwestern football: Five redshirt freshmen to watch in spring practice

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It was second-and-4, and Northwestern desperately needed a stop. Trailing 21-20 in the fourth quarter of their Nov. 7 game against Penn State, the Wildcats needed the ball back. But as standout Nittany Lion running back Saquon Barkley darted towards the first-down marker, hope seemed to drain out of Ryan Field.

Then, out of nowhere, up stepped Nate Hall.

Hall, a redshirt freshman linebacker who hadn't started a game all season, had been pressed into duty by an injury to starter Jaylen Prater. Hall had seen plenty of snaps throughout the season as a rotation linebacker after impressing in spring practice and fall camp, but hadn't had his time to shine. Until now. He tripped up Barkley short of the line to gain, and the rest is history.

Several months later, the question is, who is this year's Nate Hall? Or this year's Blake Hance? Who are the redshirt freshmen that could become a big contributor for Northwestern in 2016?

Here are five candidates:

1. Joe Gaziano

Of Northwestern's 15 redshirt freshmen, defensive end Joe Gaziano has the best chance to break out and be a major player for the Wildcats in 2016. He has the talent. And with Dean Lowry and Deonte Gibson gone, he now has the opportunity too. If not for the depth at defensive end last year, Gaziano may have played as a true freshman. If one of Xavier Washington or Ifeadi Odenigbo can't develop a standard-down skillset, don't be surprised if Gaziano is playing over 50 percent of defensive snaps by midseason.

2. John Moten

Something would likely have to go wrong for freshman running back John Moten to be a significant contributor in 2016 for Northwestern. Justin Jackson and Warren Long are solidified ahead of him on the depth chart. But with Long out for the spring, and with Solomon Vault moving to wide receiver, Moten will get his opportunity. He possesses a good balance of speed, strength and agility. Even if Moten gets buried behind Jackson and Long this year, expect him to show glimpses. And expect to hear from him down the line. People around the program are excited about his prospects for the future.

3. Jake Murray

Safety Jake Murray was the second-lowest rated player in Northwestern's 2015 recruiting class. His offer list consisted of five schools: Northwestern, Nevada, Air Force, North Texas and UT-San Antonio. But Murray has been a pleasant surprise ever since he set foot on campus. Listed at 6-foot-3, 200-plus pounds, he has impressive size. Last summer, Nick VanHoose compared him to former Northwestern linebacker/safety Brian Peters. He caught a few eyes in camp. And now, with Traveon Henry gone and no clear third in line at safety, Murray could be that primary backup to Godwin Igwebuike and Kyle Queiro.

4. Charlie Fessler

Wide receiver Charlie Fessler is still more of an unknown than most redshirt freshmen are after their first eight months in the program. He's a lanky pass-catcher that is sort of emblematic of a philosophy change for Pat Fitzgerald and Northwestern at wide receiver. That philosophy has led to a lot of recruiting misses (and poor luck) though, so Fessler is also something Northwestern desperately needs. Clayton Thorson needs a big target on the outside. Fessler still has a lot of learning to do if he is to become that in 2016, but spring practice will be the time to do that learning. If Fessler can make route-running a strength and learn how to use his long frame, he has a chance to make some noise in the fall.

5. Jared Thomas

Interior offensive lineman Jared Thomas is the most talented offensive lineman of the three in Northwestern's 2015 class, but it's unclear whether he'll be ready to step into a role as a redshirt freshman. He'd have to supplant veterans at either center or guard to see the field consistently. However, Northwestern's centers and guards had both performance and health issues in 2015. If those issues recur in 2016, keep an eye out for Thomas.

Bonus: Trae Williams is another unheralded defensive back who could see time in nickel or dime packages.