For the final day of practice this week, we were able to see Northwestern in full pads for the first time in this year’s training camp. Naturally, this practice was visibly more intense than Wednesday’s and there were some big hits by players on both sides of the ball. There was plenty of action in the last practice before the team heads up to Kenosha this weekend.
Here’s what stood out:
- Watching practice were wide receiver Flynn Nagel, defensive lineman Fred Wyatt, running back Chad Hanaoka, wide receiver Steven Reese, defensive back Alonzo Mayo, safety Travis Whillock, defensive back Trae Williams, and wide receiver Solomon Vault. Williams is still recovering from achilles surgery and Vault is out for the year after undergoing a hip procedure. The rest of the injuries aren’t considered serious and almost all of the guys participated in non-contact drills.
- Jim Phillips stopped by again, as did Northwestern’s new provost Jonathan Holloway. Holloway graduated from Stanford University in 1989, where he was an outside linebacker on the football team. His brother, Brian Holloway, was a first round draft pick of New England and a three-time Pro Bowl offensive lineman.
- A handful of freshmen came into Evanston a bit banged up. Austin Hiller, Cameron Ruiz, Trevor Kent, and Peter McIntyre all participated in non-contact drills.
- Tommy Carnifax left practice early to participate in non-contact drills. Jango Glackin tweaked his shoulder and was sidelined the rest of practice. None of this should generate much concern.
- Absent from practice were kicker Alex Bousky, offensive lineman Jason Goosen, punter Cody Gronewold, wide receiver William Lansbury, defensive back Donovan Sermons, and long snapper Peter Snodgrass. NCAA rules only allow 105 players to attend training camp.
- Fitz showed a commitment to the fluidity of the offensive line group today. The first-team offensive line featured (from left to right): Jared Thomas, Blake Hance, Brad North, Tommy Doles, and Andrew Otterman. The surprise was seeing Hance at guard, but as Fitzgerald expands upon below, he doesn’t really care which position linemen play right now, as he remains focused on finding the 5 best guys. The second-team offensive line featured (from left to right): Rashawn Slater, Trey Klock, Nik Urban, J. B. Butler, and Gunnar Vogel. Near the end of practice, Vogel got some reps with the first team and Otterman went back down to the second team. Ben Oxley got some reps on the second team as well, rotating with Slater and Klock on the left side of the line.
- In terms of performance, Otterman had a nice day including a very good pull block near the end of practice. Meanwhile, Vogel struggled a bit, even being knocked to the ground by Tyler Lancaster on a stunt. The line’s interior was consistent, although Brad North got into a brief shouting match with some members of the defensive line after a particularly energized drill. Jared Thomas was solid once again.
- Flynn Nagel got another day off but Macan Wilson was in full pads and wore a red non-contact jersey. Wilson got first team reps in the slot with Jalen Brown and Ben Skowronek out wide. Riley Lees, Charlie Fessler and Jelani Roberts also ran with the ones. Fessler made a few terrific catches on the day, including one on a slightly underthrown 35-yard pass from TJ Green with JR Pace draped all over him. He showcased his athleticism with a leaping 25-yard reception down the sideline, beating corner Brian Bullock and safety Bryce Jackson on the play.
- Fessler may have stolen the show today, but Lees made a terrific one-handed catch on a seam route on a ball thrown behind him. In swing-pass drills focused on wide receiver blocking, Lees and Pace were tangled up well after the whistle and had to be separated. You have to love the intensity. In the two practices that we have seen, Roberts hasn’t dropped a ball yet, having seemingly taken steps to get over what has plagued him in previous seasons. Roberts and Lloyd Yates blocked especially well on the aforementioned swing pass drills. Ramaud Chiaokhiao-Bowman was in pads after participating in non-contact drills Wednesday, but the redshirt freshman took it easy today.
- We’d be remiss if we didn’t mention redshirt freshman Jack Tirmonia. In 11-on-11’s, he hauled in a crossing route and took it all the way down inside the five-yard line, and made a terrific one-handed catch while falling on the sideline.
- The freshman wideouts continued to impress. Kyric McGowan, Berkeley Holman and Jace James all made plays in 11-on-11’s. James made a nice driving catch in the middle of the field. We wouldn’t be surprised to see a redshirt burned between the three talented receivers.
- Aidan Smith saw some of the second-team reps along with Matt Alviti. Hopefully we won’t have to find out who the true backup to Clayton Thorson is, but at least Smith is pushing Alviti a little. At the end of practice, T.J. Green engineered a terrific touchdown drive capped off with a quick pass to Jeremy Larkin who took it in with ease.
- Depth at running back will not be an issue. Jackson was in non-contact purple again and looked good catching the ball out of the backfield. Moten IV saw reps, and so did Larkin, Jesse Brown, Auston Anderson and Corey Acker. The abundance of running backs is a good problem to have.
- We were asked to take a look at Cam Green, and while he got plenty of reps, he was mostly either split out wide or in more of a true tight end position. Meanwhile, Garrett Dickerson was once again solid, making 4 or 5 short-yardage catches and throwing a couple of big blocks.
- The starting defensive line once again featured Joe Gaziano and Trent Goens at end with Jordan Thompson and Tyler Lancaster at tackle. Earnest Brown, Tommy Carnifax, and Mark Gooden got the second-team reps at defensive end. Alex Miller, freshman walk-on Joe Spivak, and Jake Saunders saw time at tackle. Freshman Sam Miller - Alex’s brother - showcased his versatility at both defensive line positions.
- Thompson put together another terrific practice, blowing up a couple of running plays in 11-on-11’s, and Lancaster looked strong next to him, creating a strong surge up the middle on multiple plays as well. Both tackles stood out.
- Paddy Fisher was once again the first-team middle linebacker, and showcased his terrific sideline-to-sideline speed in the swing-pass drills and nearly intercepted a pass near the sideline in 11-on-11’s. No surprise here, but Fisher was complemented by SAM linebacker Nate Hall and WILL linebacker Brett Walsh. Hall had himself a nice day, including a sack in 11-on-11’s. The second-team featured Nathan Fox at MIKE with Jango Glackin at WILL and Warren Long at SAM. Fox did get a couple of first-team reps in the middle of practice. When Glackin’s day ended early, freshman Blake Gallagher took over at WILL. Chee Anyanwu is an exciting freshman learning to transition from safety to outside linebacker, but it appears Gallagher will see the field before him.
- Keith Watkins was a full participant in practice today after taking it easy on Wednesday, and he didn’t hold back. He came clean off the backside to block a field goal early in practice and then blew up Riley Lees on a short route in 11-on-11’s. Watkins handled first-team snaps at corner along with Montre Hartage. Roderick Campbell and Marcus McShephard ran with the second team with Brian Bullock seeing time as well.
- Godwin Igwebuike has emerged as a leader of this defense, getting the group pumped up before 11-on-11’s. His counterpart at safety, Kyle Queiro, had trouble getting loose at the beginning of practice but appeared to be completely fine. The versatile Jared McGee showed he can line up at nickel corner or safety. Freshman JR Pace easily intercepted an Aidan Smith overthrow while fellow freshman Bryce Jackson is being used as a safety, not a corner.
- The kickers struggled today. Charlie Kuhbander hit his first two kicks (20 and 28 yards, every kicker had the same distances), but pushed both his 38 and 48 yarders a couple of feet wide. Meanwhile, Mason Weissenhofer also hit his first two, but, as mentioned above, he had his 38 yarder blocked by Watkins. He went on to shank his 48 yarder. Makay Redd only kicked the two shorter field goals (which he made) while Drew Luckenbaugh only tried the longer ones, hitting from 38 but falling prey to a bad snap on his 48 yard attempt. We were told that the divvying up of the final four field goals was due to time constraints.
- Redshirt freshman Tyler Gillikin once again outperformed senior Trevor Stroebel at long snapper.
- Hunter Niswander got a couple of punts in, and each went around 35 yards. All had good hang time. Backup punter Daniel Kubiuk had one 50 yard punt, but also fell victim to some bad snaps.
- The freshman wideouts took turns fielding Niswander’s punts, with each of them getting a shot at a live return. We didn’t learn much about either that spot (with Nagel still out) or kick returner.
- During media availability, Fitzgerald was asked about Jared Thomas, who has seen a lot of time at first-string left tackle thus far: “He’s learning the position, he’s competing. By no stretch of the imagination is he our starting tackle right now. It’s a fluid, competitive deal, but he’s working his butt off and from that standpoint I’m really proud of where he’s at right now.”
- When asked if Thomas was officially a tackle: “I don’t really care what guys are at what positions right now. The o-line coach may, but I don’t care. I’m going to play the best 5.”
- On the O-Line as a whole: “I think they’re in much better condition, with more functional strength, than they were at this time last year. Our next-level guys weren’t strong enough a year ago and most of them were young...I think this group is much more competitive and much closer as a group than they were at this time last year.”
- Fitz on the competition between Paddy Fisher and Nathan Fox: “I don’t care if they separate, I hope they both play their butts off and both guys are going to play a ton of football for us. They’re both really good football players and both will play a ton. I reserve the right to play the best 11 players every play. When there’s a clear separation that happens, then maybe that guy starts, right? But if that doesn’t happen and both guys keep getting better and are busting their rear-ends like they are right now, we have a really good problem. Those two young men are outstanding football players. They have great instincts, high football IQ, two big dudes now. Both can run. I’m excited about that position. I’m really excited about those guys.”
- Fitz on carrying momentum from the Pinstripe Bowl: “You know it’s funny, we win 10 games two years ago and everybody is like the sky is falling because we got our butts handed to us in the bowl game. I think the whole talking season usually puts too much stock in bowl games. It’s one game and usually it comes down to who is more motivated and who makes some ridiculous plays. So that momentum would carry over to winter workouts and I think our experience as a team last year carried over more, from a standpoint of not starting the way we wanted to maybe as a motivator. But in bowl prep our guys really worked their butts off.”
- Jalen Brown on why he came to Northwestern: “It’s a great environment on the field, obviously a great group of guys who want to compete to the best of their abilities, and then off the field it’s a great education, and you just can’t beat that.”
- Brown on working with his new teammates: “We all just share little things, whether it’s techniques or releases or how to read the coverages.”
- Keith Watkins was in a good mood, jokingly asking a reporter how he thought the secondary looked (the response was, of course, that it looked good) and deadpanning “Injured? I ain’t injured.” when asked about his knee.
- When asked about Brown, Watkins had rave reviews: “He’s looked really good to me. He has really good hands, he’s very quick, very fast. He’s gonna be a great accessory for our offense.”
- Kyle Queiro on the underclassmen wide receivers, who have impressed thus far: “They’re definitely...much more of a challenge than I thought, to be honest. They’re bringing new things to the table. I think they really learned a lot from Austin Carr last year. A lot of the routes I’m having to cover, and different techniques, and twitches that they’re doing...they’re emulating him. They’re not as routine as I’m used to seeing, and they’re definitely bringing the edge.”
- Queiro also talked about how last year’s injuries affected the secondary: “We have depth, and we have a lot of people that have been in games...[The experience] helps the DB room.”
- Fitz joked, “Sorry about the weather.”