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April 1 Spring Practice Notes & Quotes: Top receivers shine, secondary impresses

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Beautiful day for some football.

Will Ragatz

Northwestern football held its first open spring practice on a crisp, sunny Saturday morning at lakeside Hutcheson Field. Fans, recruits and media lined the sidelines as Pat Fitzgerald and co. ran through a number of basic drills, seven-on-seven and 11-on-11 scrimmages. A few observations:

Offense:

  • The offensive line looked about as you’d expect with Blake Hance, Tommy Doles, Brad North and J.B. Butler all getting first team reps. Interesting, though, was redshirt freshman Gunnar Vogel running with the starters at RT for much of the scrimmages. This will be a position to look out for, especially when graduate-transfer Trey Klock reports. “We’re getting better but we’ve got a long way to go,” Fitzgerald said of the offensive line’s progress.
  • Clayton Thorson looked sharp in basic drills, but didn’t see much action other than tossing bubble screens when scrimmages broke out. Backup Matt Alviti had some impressive zip on his throws. Aidan Smith and TJ Green, who are battling for the third QB spot, both looked solid.
  • There wasn’t much Justin Jackson, who will obviously be handled with care this offseason, and John Moten IV didn’t practice due to injury, but shifty redshirt freshman Jeremy Larkin looked good coming out of the backfield as a receiver and running downhill.
  • Flynn Nagel appears to be the heir-apparent to Austin Carr’s No. 1 receiver position and he played like it today, catching virtually everything thrown his way, including a couple highlight-reel grabs. He also continues to field punts with first team special-teamers. “It’s not too tough handling both of them,” Nagel said of balancing punt-return and receiver duties. “But stepping up into a bigger receiver role is one I’m more focused on.”
  • Corey Acker had a 60-yard touchdown run in one of the 11-on-11 drills. Jared McGee was not thrilled.
  • Macan Wilson hauled in a twisting touchdown catch in the corner of the endzone from Smith to cap off a nice sequence for the offense.
  • In a one-on-one drill early in practice, Jackson made a falling, shoe-string catch in the back corner of the end zone. As he rose back to his feet, ball in hand, Keith Watkins yelled, “What can’t he do?”
  • SECRET WEAPON POTENTIAL: The offense ran a lot of decoy end-around action for Jelani Roberts in scrimmages. The operative word there would be decoy.

Defense:

  • We learned today that Trae Williams will be out until at least October with a torn achilles.
  • Warren Long is earning high praise from coaches and teammates alike after making the switch to linebacker for this season. “He’s learning every day, he’s embraced the role, he’s got some instincts and can fly around,” Fitzgerald said. “He was making plays... Great athlete, intelligent dude,” Godwin Igwebuike said.
  • Igwebuike, who didn’t practice, also said he thinks a lot of the concerns swirling around the linebacker position will be resolved by the end of spring.
  • Nate Hall, Joe Gaziano and Xavier Washington, among others, also didn’t make appearances at practice today.
  • Watkins II was limited and sporting a brace on his knee. Fitzgerald said they won’t rush him back and that “baby steps” are being made for a guy he called “an all-Big Ten player.””
  • McGee played with great energy and was all over the field today, laying two noticeably jarring hits in 11-on-11s. “I think Jared has really developed,” Fitzgerald said.
  • Montre Hartage defended well in one-on-ones, looking especially physical in breaking up a pass to Solomon Vault in the back of the endzone during one drill. He needs to become more consistent this year.

Special teams:

  • The Jack Mitchell era is over and that means we’re in for some spring competition at the kicker position. Mason Weissenhofer and Drew Luckenbaugh will be competing until true-freshman Charlie Kuhbander arrives.

Kellogg-gate?:

  • When asked jokingly if the new Kellogg School of Management building looming over the practice field was a cause for concern because of the threat of ‘spies’ from other teams infiltrating practice, Fitz simply responded, “Still gotta block us. Still gotta tackle us.”

Other quotes from availability:

  • Fitz on what they were able to accomplish today: “Game-like situations...any time you can put guys in situational football, it gives you an opportunity to teach a ton, and that’s what we’ll have an opportunity to do on Monday.”
  • Fitz on Nagel returning punts even as one of the top receivers: “Sure. Absolutely. I just watched Christian McCaffrey go do it for a number of years, so I have no problem with our best players being on the field every play. If we started today, Flynn would be our punt returner and Solo(mon Vault) would be our kick returner.”
  • Fitz: “Are roles clearly defined? Absolutely not. Spring ball, we try to...make it hard on them mentally so they can learn.”
  • Fitz on the mood of the team: “I think the guys are pretty salty with the way we played early in the year (last season), and it always comes back to the way you prepare. We’ve got great momentum. We carried the momentum from the bowl win over into winter workouts, into recruiting...pretty cool to see the basketball team, that’s athletic department and university momentum.”
  • Fitz: “We’re maturing, we’re growing, we’ve got some redshirt freshmen that are totally different guys today than they were week one of spring ball. We’re gaining on it, but this next stage after spring ball is so critically important for that. That little taste of the field for some guys is a hell of a motivator.”
  • DT Tyler Lancaster on the team’s sense of urgency: “Coming off a 10-win season, I felt like we were sorta okay with that, and then we were gliding through thinking ‘oh, we’re good, we’re a 10-win team,’ and obviously showing up in the next season, that’s not the case. Everything matters. Now we’re pushing it like we’re 0-0 and we wanna go undefeated, and we’ve been working our butts off accordingly.”