Northwestern football wrapped up the spring season with an open practice at Ryan Field Saturday. Fans, recruits and media looked on as the team did individual drills, 11-on-11s and seven-on-seven scrimmages on what was a breezy, sunny morning. Here are our observations:
— Andrew Otterman and Gunnar Vogel split time at right tackle with the first team, but it seems like Vogel has an edge in that battle. It’s tough to project who will be the starter come the season opener, though, because Georgia Tech graduate transfer Trey Klock hasn’t yet reported. Once Klock arrives and gets into the swing of things, the battle for the fifth starter on the offensive line will become clearer.
“We’ve got enough guys, we’ll see how this next phase progresses,” head coach Pat Fitzgerald said of the unit. “A lot of those guys, especially those redshirt freshman, got their first opportunity to get their feet wet, and and they’ll be much better the next time they play football. You can’t simulate somebody punching you back...[Last year] that was the biggest issue we had. Are we where we need to be right now? Absolutely not no, not even close. We’re gonna go where that group takes us.”
— Wide receiver Macan Wilson — who had 22 catches for 306 yards last season — looked good in the slot, as did Flynn Nagel. While it’s unlikely that either of them can match Austin Carr’s slot production from last season, the aggregate of their numbers might.
Said Fitzgerald of Wilson: “You go from a guy that was kind of finding his way to a guy now that I just think is just poised, he’s got a confidence, he’s got a great work ethic. It’s just so fun for me to watch. It’s gonna be year 12, it’s crazy, but just to watch the maturation of guys. You grow up in this whole process of college. For Mac that’s what I’ve seen. Really, really proud of him, I expect big things from him this year.”
— Solomon Vault also turned in a good day of practice, showing the ability to beat his defender and get behind the defense on several occasions.
— Jelani Roberts showed off his dizzying speed, but also had a couple of drops. When the ball is in his hands he can be special, but, because of diminutive stature, he’s susceptible to taking big hits, which would make durability a concern if he were featured consistently in the offense.
— A lot of wide receivers had good days, but none better than Riley Lees. The freshman showed off his explosiveness when he bolted down the sideline for a long touchdown during 11-on-11 play after getting a pass from T.J. Green. He could be a real wildcard for the offense and may have earned himself some playing time for next season this spring. Clayton Thorson mentioned Lees as a potential contributor after practice.
— With Justin Jackson limited for obvious reasons and John Moten IV out with a shoulder injury, the two running backs we’ve gotten to see the past two Saturdays are redshirt freshmen Jeremy Larkin and Jesse Brown. Both looked very solid in this practice. Although they weren’t able to bust any huge runs, they consistently found positive yardage against a tough front seven. Larkin appears to have the edge for the third-string role at the moment.
“They’re looking great,” Jackson said. “They’re putting a lot of work in, they’re hungry, which I think is really important. They’re paying attention to detail, they’re getting the playbook down. I’ve been proud of them this spring and looking forward to seeing how they’re gonna work come summer.”
— Clayton Thorson looked sharp, although the majority of his throws were of the short-to-intermediate variety. Matt Alviti was shaky at times but still, the senior has a pretty firm grip on the backup job. The real battle is between TJ Green and Aidan Smith for the third-string role. It’s tough to tell who’s ahead right now; Green has had more time with the playbook but Smith looks slightly more talented.
“First and foremost, leadership,” Thorson said when asked what he’s worked on individually this spring. “Just continuing to be the quarterback for this team, be a leader of this team. Pocket presence was something I really wanted to improve on and I think I did that much better this spring.”
— Linebacker Nate Hall sat out of practice once again with a cast on his hand. According to Fitzgerald, the injury isn't serious. “His leadership has been great, he just got dinged up a few weeks ago but he’ll be fine. If it was in-season he’d be playing right now.”
— Nathan Fox, a candidate to replace Anthony Walker Jr. at middle linebacker, left practice early with a shoulder injury. Paddy Fisher filled in for Fox with the first team, and looked really good, making a number of impressive plays including a strip on the goal line. He has great size at 6-foot-3 and 235 pounds, which allows him to shed blocks and get find backs on running plays. He also has good range, though, so he can hold his own in the passing game. Fox is still probably the favorite the start in the middle, but both should see time, Fitzgerald said.
“It’s gonna be a hell of a battle, it’s gonna probably be ongoing. I reserve the right to play the best 11 players on every play, so if those guys play well enough, they might both be on the field. In the spring you make a reservation for a starting job, that doesn’t mean you’re going to get it. I’m really looking forward to watching that continue to unfold. I think both are gonna play a ton of football for us.”
— With regards to the linebacker position as a whole, Fitz is optimistic despite losing Walker Jr., Jaylen Prater and Joe Jones, especially with Warren Long now in the mix. “I feel good about that group. I think they’re pretty damn athletic. They’re big, they can run, they like contact. As a former linebacker, those are pretty good qualities to have.”
— Alonzo Mayo had a couple of crushing hits during practice. With Trae Williams out with a torn achilles, Mayo will be key in Northwestern’s defensive sub packages.
— As for the rest of the secondary, the unit looked strong yet again. Kyle Queiro had a nice INT and Jared McGee was all over the place again as Godwin Igwebuike rested. Montre Hartage was his usual lockdown self and Keith Watkins II was close to full-go as he continues to recover from the knee injury that sidelined him for all of last season.
“I’m feeling good,” Watkins II said. “Getting back into it, knee’s almost at 100 percent healthy. I’m probably at about 93 percent.”
— Defensive tackle Fred Wyatt played in 11-on-11s, recording sacks on back-to-back plays with the second unit and finishing the second one off with an outstanding sack dance.
— Jordan Thompson picked off a Matt Alviti pass that Xaiver Washington tipped at the line of scrimmage and ran it back about 15 yards while carrying tacklers in the process. Future Piesman?
— The team ended practice with a dizzy bat relay race that included eating a hot dog at the end. It was entertaining, to say the least:
Northwestern ended its Spring Football Showcase with a dizzy bat relay, and it was lit pic.twitter.com/WTug2hpcTU— Zach Wingrove (@ZachWingrove) April 8, 2017
Update: Joe Gaziano finishes by eating a hot dog at the finish line for the win pic.twitter.com/6XlTeJoWgZ— Zach Wingrove (@ZachWingrove) April 8, 2017
— Pat Fitzgerald let his assistant coaches call plays during the scrimmage sessions, which is a spring tradition of his. “It’s been fun the last two weekends,” he said. “Like I always do in Spring, when we go to team periods, I let Mick and Hank step aside and let my assistant coaches call the plays. It’s good for me to evaluate them and it’s good for them from a professional development standpoint.”
— For the first time this spring there were refs on the field throwing flags during drills. Fitz said it didn’t have a major impact on anything, but it’s nice to simulate a game setting in any way.
“I think anytime you get out of the comfort zone of a normal practice it’s a good learning experience,” Fitzgerald said. “I’m sure the officials got more out of it than maybe we did, per se, because it’s not quite a game, but we appreciate what they do. It’s a great interaction, and a lot of teachable moments for us.”
— Quote/Metaphor of the Day, from running back-turned-linebacker Warren Long: “(Offense and defense are) a different mindset. I’d compare it to this, because I’m a music guy myself. Classic music is all about technique; you’re supposed to go here, you’re supposed to go here. I would say that’s offense. Defense is like jazz. They’re gonna put you in a position but it’s up to your interpretation, it’s improv.”
Long said the toughest part about the switch has been the extra stamina linebacker requires compared to running back, because on defense you “have to run to the ball every single play.” He added that it creates a lot more bumps and bruises.
You can’t take a ton away from spring practices, but some new faces did get valuable experience in larger roles and, in some cases, new roles. The team has a lot of talent returning on both sides of the ball, which begs the question: Can Northwestern compete for a Big Ten West title?
The answer to that question hinges on a lot of unknowns, particularly on the offensive and defensive lines, but it seems like the Wildcats have the personnel to do it if they can put it all together and consistently execute.
Pat Fitzgerald didn’t seem too high or too low about his team at the conclusion of the spring season, but he knows his team is far from where they need to be come September 2nd against Nevada.
“Pretty solid spring all in all,” he said. “As you can see, we’re a work in progress, we’ve got a lot of parts practicing together that may or may not play together in the fall. Now we’ll finish up the foundational phases here over the next x amount of weeks in the spring quarter and into summer school.”