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Five things to pay attention to in Northwestern football spring practice

There are plenty of storylines to track.

NCAA Football: Pinstripe Bowl-Northwestern vs Pittsburgh Vincent Carchietta-USA TODAY Sports

It’s been well over a month since Northwestern kicked off spring practice, but over the next two Saturdays we’ll get our first opportunities to see what this team looks like.

That starts tomorrow when the Wildcats’ first open spring practice gets underway at 10 am. There’s obviously a long ways to go until Northwestern hits Ryan Field to take on Nevada in the opener, but we should be able to learn a decent amount over the next week-plus.

Here are five things we’ll be keeping an eye on.

1. How does Clayton Thorson look without his safety blanket?

Thorson made a massive jump in every major statistical category last season after a rocky freshman campaign, but did so with the help of one of the country’s best receivers. Austin Carr was on the receiving end of 32 percent of Thorson’s completions, 39 percent of his passing yards, and 55 percent of his passing touchdowns. It seemed like every single time the sophomore QB needed someone to go to on third down, Carr was the man. Now Carr’s off to (hopefully) the NFL, and Thorson will need to show he can continue to be just as productive without him. This spring, we’ll especially be watching for Thorson’s decisiveness and his ability to throw on the run, both of which were question marks at times last year. Oh, and I’m very curious to see who he’s established a strong connection with during the early stages of the offseason, which leads into my next question(s)...

2. Can Flynn Nagel take over for Austin Carr? Who else could emerge at receiver?

Nagel is the obvious leading candidate to become Thorson’s new go-to target this season. He got plenty of experience last year and showed great hands and impressive quickness. If he can take a major step forward as a route-runner this offseason, Nagel could be a problem for Big Ten secondaries in 2017. We’ll be watching to see what the rapport between Thorson and Nagel looks like. Spring practices should also help give us a sense of who else is likely to play important roles at the position. Last year, Andrew Scanlan impressed in the spring and wound up having a career year. Can Macan Wilson step up into the No. 2 role? How will Oregon transfer Jalen Brown look in the offense? Does Bennett Skowronek have the speed to be a prominent option on the outside? Will a player like Riley Lees or Charlie Fessler stand out? We should know more pretty soon.

3. Is the offensive line getting better?

Of course, any improvements from Thorson and his targets will be hard to spot if the offensive line doesn’t do its job. The line was much-maligned a season ago but returns four of five starters and added grad transfer Trey Klock, which should help with depth. Ideally, we won’t be talking about this unit much after the two spring practices, because if we are talking about them, it’ll likely be due to breakdowns in protection. I’ve said it before: the line is the x-factor. If it becomes consistently solid, watch out for this offense.

4. Can the linebackers survive the loss of Anthony Walker Jr.?

Anthony Walker Jr. is gonna be an early to mid-round draft pick, which is awesome. However, his departure leaves a gaping hole in the middle of Mike Hankwitz’s defense. Nathan Fox appears to be the most likely replacement; it’ll be interesting to see how he looks in a greatly elevated role. Outside linebackers Brett Walsh and Nate Hall have more experience but will both need to improve for this defense to be at its best. Also, who’s first in line behind those three? Paddy Fisher and Jango Glackin are names to follow.

5. Is Joe Gaziano ready for an every-down role?

The third major departure from the Pinstripe Bowl champs is Big Ten sack leader Ifeadi Odenigbo. His replacement, redshirt sophomore Joe Gaziano, is big, strong, and loaded with potential going forwards. The question becomes: how will Gaziano adjust to a much bigger list of responsibilities? If he can come close to replicating Odenigbo’s production in the pass rush and develop solid run-stopping skills, Gaziano could be even better than his predecessor as soon as...this year? Oh, one more thing. You probably haven’t watched this in a while; go ahead and do that now.