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Spring football review: What are Northwestern’s three deepest and three most concerning positions?

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There’s a lot to like about this Northwestern team as we exit spring ball, but also some areas of concern.

NCAA Football: Pinstripe Bowl-Northwestern vs Pittsburgh William Hauser-USA TODAY Sports

Northwestern is returning key players at a multitude of positions in 2017. This team will look much the same offensively, save for the loss Austin Carr. Defensively, some familiar faces remain, but the losses of Anthony Walker and Ifeadi Odenigbo are a serious blow to Northwestern’s depth in the front seven. Injuries have been known to plague this team (especially in 2016) and there are plenty of young yet unproven potential contributors up and down Pat Fitzgerald’s roster.

But consistent roster overhaul is a part of college sports. Looking ahead to the 2017 seasons, which positions are deepest for Northwestern, and where is there most cause for concern?

Let’s take a look.

Where is Northwestern the deepest?

Defensive line

The losses of Odenigbo and C.J. Robbins are obviously difficult to absorb, but, interestingly enough, Northwestern exits spring ball with a wealth of talent along the d-line. Joe Gaziano still has to prove himself as an every-down end, but he showed flashes last season behind Odenigbo. Junior Jordan Thompson slides into Robbins’ slot alongside Tyler Lancaster in the front seven. Xavier Washington is coming off a career year at starting end opposite Gaziano. Behind all of them, Trent Goens, Alex Miller, Fred Wyatt and Tommy Carnifax will rotate in and out. There’s a lot of competitive depth here, without mentioning true freshman Earnest Brown IV, who has a chance to be the most impactful Northwestern defensive lineman of this century.

Defensive line shouldn’t be an area of concern for this team. The starters are stout and behind them lies a host of fresh, young and talented faces. We’ll talk about the linebackers in a bit, but expect the run defense to be stingy as ever because of the d-line, even if the LB group doesn’t shake out quite how Fitzgerald might envision. Whether or not they can consistently put pressure on opposing quarterbacks remains to be seen.

Wide receiver

Surprisingly, wide receiver appears to be deep and experienced, even with Austin Carr gone. Flynn Nagel slides into the X-receiver spot, leaving room for Solomon Vault and Bennett Skowronek to step into bigger roles. We’ve been waiting on a Vault breakout campaign and this might be it, but even if it isn’t, grad transfer and proven playmaker Jalen Brown will have a shot behind him. Brown, though, has yet to arrive on campus, leaving Vault the odds on favorite for reps at the Y position thus far.

Macan Wilson should see more opportunities in the slot after a productive 2016 season and a great spring. It gets a little murky from there, with guys like Jelani Roberts, Charlie Fessler, Riley Lees and Lloyd Yates scrapping for reps, but with five proven, quality guys leading the depth chart at this position, the team appears to be in much better shape at receiver than a year ago this time.

Running back

Northwestern has moved Warren Long to linebacker, but, as is the case with the defensive line and wide receiver corps, Northwestern has the means to absorb the blow (a.k.a. Justin Jackson). Long leaves behind a productive backup in John Moten IV to ease Justin Jackson’s workload when necessary. It isn’t worth spending too much time on Jackson; he’s Northwestern’s best player, will touch the ball 25-30 times a game and is a workhorse.

Jeremy Larkin, a redshirt freshman who has turned a lot of heads this spring, could play a role. Larkin is short, shifty, makes plays in the receiving game and runs unbelievably hard. He’s shown the potential this spring to eventually step into the starting spot upon Jackson’s departure after this season. He might not get a ton of looks this year with Moten a more proven option in front of him, but keep an eye out for the heir apparent to “The Ball Carrier”.

Where is the most cause for concern?

Linebacker

This is the obvious answer. Outside of Nathan Fox, Nate Hall and Brett Walsh (the presumed starters at this point), Fitzgerald is left with Warren Long and a bunch of freshmen in the second and third-team ranks. I don’t mean to discredit guys like Paddy Fisher and Jango Glackin, they’re certainly expected to be contributors, but they are unknowns. Fisher could start by the end of the season. Long has flashed unteachable instinct and quickness all spring, but game action could prove to be a different story. Above all, it wouldn’t take many injuries to this group for things to start getting really dicey. Fitzgerald is expecting more help in the form of walk-ons, but I’d be wary of this unit. They could make or break Northwestern’s defensive success this year.

Right tackle

Right tackle is the only starting position along the offensive line that isn’t set. We could mark the entire offensive line as cause for concern heading into 2017 given their performance over the past three years, but another year of experience for a unit returning four of five starters is cause for optimism. We predicted Gunnar Vogel the starter at this spot in our roster projection last week given the amount of reps he’s seen this spring, but even in those reps the redshirt freshman has looked quite mortal fairly often. When grad transfer Trey Klock arrives on campus, he’ll likely compete with Vogel and Andrew Otterman, but it’s not ridiculous to say Klock may be better suited at guard. Concern might not be the right word here, it just simply remains to be seen if Vogel can keep up on a week-to-week basis.

Cornerback

Maybe I’m still suffering from PTSD given the amount of guys who went down at this position last year, but the cornerback corps could be cause for concern for this season, despite Northwestern’s secondary being fairly deep overall coming into 2017. Keith Watkins III is slowly but surely returning from injury and Montre Hartage is coming off a breakout campaign. Trae Williams is already done for the season, though, leaving Northwestern one injury away from treading into very uncertain waters on the outside.

For now, take solace in the fact that Watkins and Hartage are the guys and Alonzo Mayo and Marcus McShepard should be able to hold down the fort as backups. Perhaps it’s pointless to be this concerned about potential injuries this early, but we’ve all seen what injuries can do to this unit. If Northwestern wants to have any shot at reconstructing the “Sky Team” from two years ago, they’re either going to have to stay healthy in the secondary or have some lesser-known players step up in a big way.