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Northwestern football’s top position battles heading into 2016

There are starting jobs to be claimed.

NCAA Football: Northwestern at Minnesota Jesse Johnson-USA TODAY Sports

As with every offseason, Northwestern is looking for players to step up, separate themselves from the pack and earn a starting role. As we near camp up in Kenosha, players hope to get closer and closer to securing a spot. Then again, we may not know much until very shortly before the season starts. Pat Fitzgerald didn’t officially announce Clayton Thorson the starter until about a week before the season opener against Stanford. As we creep inside two months until football season, here are five key position battles.

Y wide receiver

Flynn Nagel vs. Andrew Scanlan vs. Charlie Fessler vs. Ben Skowronek vs. RIley Lees vs. Marcus McShepard

We currently have Flynn Nagel starting out wide opposite presumed No. 1 Austin Carr, but that could certainly change. Nagel is coming of a brutal ankle injury and donned a non-contact vest during spring ball, indicating that — although he participated fully — he wasn’t 100 percent, and the coaches certainly weren’t about to test that. Behind Carr, the entire wide receiving corps is wide open. The job could go to a bigger guy like senior Andrew Scanlan, redshirt freshman Charlie Fessler or even true freshmen Ben Skowronek or Riley Lees. Maybe Marcus McShepard makes a quick transition from cornerback and claims the job. It’s certainly one worth watching this summer.

Z wide receiver

Solomon Vault vs. Flynn Nagel vs. Jelani Roberts

The slot man, according to our projected depth chart, is Solomon Vault. But that, too, is an open competition. Nagel could slide inside, where he saw a decent amount of action before the injury against Minnesota. Jelani Roberts has legitimate speed/acceleration/agility/quickness. He can fly, and if he can improve his hands and route-running, he could be very useful, and not just on reverses.

SAM linebacker

Joe Jones vs. Jaylen Prater

Prater initially earned a starting role alongside Anthony Walker and Drew Smith last season, but after a season-ending knee injury, Nate Hall took his spot at WILL linebacker and ran with it, performing exceptionally down the stretch of the regular season. Prater is regarded as a solid player against the run but not quite as good against the pass. Even last season before the injury, he would come out for Hall on typical passing downs. With Hall and Walker locked in as starters, it comes down to the third spot, a battle between Prater and Joe Jones. Jones runs exceptionally well (watch his contributions on special teams) and is the superior athlete. Plus, he’s not coming off surgery. But the key to this defense is stopping the run, and Prater can certainly do that. It could end up being a similar situation to last year, with Prater in on early downs and Jones coming in to defend the pass.

Nickel cornerback

Trae Williams vs. Montre Hartage vs. Alonzo Mayo vs. Roderick Campbell

Another position that’s wide open. Unlike his competitors, Hartage played college football last year. But he mainly saw action on special teams. Williams and Mayo will push Hartage for time, as could true freshman Roderick Campbell, a decorated recruit with a legitimate shot to play this year. At this point, it’s very hard to point to a definite leader, and Fitzgerald likes to rotate players in and out, so we could see several players at this position. Having moved Marcus McShepard to the offensive side of the ball, though, it’s clear Fitzgerald and defensive coordinator Mike Hankwitz are confident in this group.

Center and right guard

Ian Park vs. Brad North vs. Shane Mertz

These two positions are grouped together because it could go one of several ways. Last season, Park saw time at both guard and center and overall played solidly. His versatility should earn him a spot at one of these spots. Where exactly he ends up could depend on his teammates. Brad North had issues snapping the ball accurately last year, eventually ceding his spot to Park. But if he’s cleaned up this aspect, he could push Park to guard. If he hasn’t — or if the coaches simply deem the line better off with Park in the middle of things — he’ll battle it out with sixth-year Shane Mertz for the spot at right guard.