With two practices under their belt, we were able to see Northwestern on the field for the first time in 2017 training camp. The team wore shoulder pads for the first time this summer; quarterbacks wore non-contact jerseys and the tackling at all positions was essentially wrapping up and hugging the ballcarriers. It’s easy to over-analyze but we were able to get a glimpse at what this team will look like come Sept. 1.
We’ll be back at Hutcheson Field for practice again on Friday, so if you have any questions about Wednesday’s practice or want us to pay particular attention to something on Friday, please comment.
Quick note, Northwestern will head up to Kenosha on Saturday and will be there for a week. The NCAA has banned two-a-days and allowed teams to start having practices earlier instead, but Pat Fitzgerald opted to let the players keep their week off to go home after summer school. That came at the expense of more time in Kenosha. None of the players were complaining about the schedule change.
Here’s what stood out:
- Watching practice were wide receiver Flynn Nagel, defensive lineman Fred Wyatt, running back Chad Hanaoka (#FreeChad), wide receiver Steven Reese, wide receiver Ramaud Chiaokhiao-Bowman, defensive back Alonzo Mayo, defensive back Trae Williams, safety Travis Whillock, 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 was in attendance. Northwestern’s Athletic Director opted for his classic white shirt, purple tie instead of pads.
- 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.
- A few players left practice early to participate in non-contact drills. Keith Watkins, Macan Wilson, Tommy Carnifax, and Earnest Brown all did so. None of this should generate much concern, as they should all be fine. More on the Watkins decision later.
- 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.
- Xavier Washington was not at camp, as he remains suspended indefinitely. Expect more news on him in the fall.
- The first-team offensive line featured (from left to right): Jared Thomas, J.B. Butler, Brad North, Tommy Doles, and Gunnar Vogel. After a tough season, Blake Hance was taking second team reps. The second-team offensive line featured (left to right) Hance, Ben Oxley, Nik Urban, Cameron Kolwich, and Andrew Otterman. Butler would likely shift over to center if North went down, with Oxley sliding into the starting rotation. Georgia Tech graduate transfer Trey Klock was primarily lining up at guard although it’s only his third day on campus so he has plenty of time to play his way up the depth chart. Fitz shed more light on the offensive line situation at the end of practice (and the end of this piece).
- With Flynn Nagel taking the day off, the first-team wide receivers for the first drive of 11-on-11 were Ben Skowronek, Jalen Brown, and Riley Lees. Skowronek and Brown were out wide with Lees in the slot. Charlie Fessler and Jelani Roberts also saw reps with the first-team, Lloyd Yates saw the field as well. Macan Wilson was participating in non-contact drills at the end of practice instead of 11-on-11’s.
- The freshmen wideouts are as good as advertised. Kyric McGowan and Berkeley Holman saw most of their time in the slot while Jace James showcased nice hands and good route running abilities out wide.
- In typical fashion, the quarterbacks were wearing purple while the rest of the offense had on white jerseys. The only non-signal caller with purple on was Justin Jackson. In 11-on-11’s a coach yelled “If it’s not 21 hit the running back.” Good call.
- Quarterback depth chart: Nothing unexpected here but Matt Alviti is the backup and Aidan Smith was taking third-string reps ahead of T.J. Green. Andrew Marty will be redshirted.
- Plenty of touches for redshirt freshman running back Jesse Brown. John Moten IV is obviously the backup behind Justin Jackson, but Brown and fellow redshirt freshman Jeremy Larkin should compete for the third-string carries. Larkin, who sat out last fall after undergoing offseason surgery, broke off a huge touchdown on a swing pass in 11-on-11’s.
- Garrett Dickerson told us that he was completely healthy, and he seems primed for a big year. His backup is Cam Green while both James Prather and true freshman Trey Pugh took superback reps. Eric Eshoo also saw the field.
- Redshirt sophomore Trent Goens was getting first team reps at defensive end across the line from Joe Gaziano. Mark Gooden and Earnest Brown saw plenty of action at end, before the latter went to work on non-contact drills. The same goes for Tommy Carnifax.
- No surprise here, Tyler Lancaster and Jordan Thompson will anchor the middle of the defensive line. In a condensed drill with the linemen, running back, and quarterback, Thompson blew up the offensive line to wrap up the running back (not Jackson, don’t worry) on consecutive plays. The Miller brothers - Alex and Sam - saw snaps and Jake Saunders was active when on the field.
- Paddy Fisher - not Nathan Fox - was the first-team middle linebacker. Fisher, the MIKE, was complemented by SAM linebacker Nate Hall and WILL linebacker Brett Walsh. Fox did make a couple of nice hits while rotating in, though, where he was accompanied at times by Warren Long. This is a group that lost Josh Roberts, Tommy Vitale and Cameron Quiero from last season so its depth will certainly be tested. We’ll have more on the linebacker situation Friday.
- With Keith Watkins easing his way back to full contact and Alonzo Mayo and Trae Williams participating in non-contact drills, Marcus McShephard handled first-team snaps at corner along with Montre Hartage. The versatile Jared McGee was in at nickel corner with Igwebuike and Quiero at safety, and Roderick Campbell and Brian Bullock ran with the second team.
- Safety is one of Northwestern’s deepest positions. Godwin Igwebuike fielded questions in front of a host of reporters and cameras after practice while his counterpart Kyle Quiero undercut a short Matt Alviti throw in 11-on-11’s and returned it for an easy touchdown. Parrker Westphal is fully healthy and stepped up to wrap up the ball carrier (no, not Justin Jackson) on multiple occasions.
- The place-kickers got work in to start the day, with Charlie Kuhbander kicking first followed by Drew Luckenbaugh, Makay Redd (a graduate transfer from Fordham University) and Mason Weissenhofer. Kuhbander looked the best, hitting from 20, 30, 35, and 45 in live drills while only missing from 40. He showed off his power as well, as his kick from 45 looked like it would have been good from at least 55. Luckenbaugh also only missed one, but it was a line drive that was blocked with ease. Redd and Weissenhofer struggled.
- According to Pat Fitzgerald, Luke Otto, a graduate transfer from Western Illinois who had 31 touchbacks last year, will compete as a kickoff specialist.
- We may have a long-snapper battle on our hands! Redshirt freshman Tyler Gillikin got some reps with the first team, while a couple of senior Trevor Stroebel’s snaps bounced to their target.
- Hunter Niswander doesn’t seem to have much competition at either punter or holder, and is expected to retain both jobs for 2017. Notably, former walk-on quarterback Daniel Kubiuk underwent a position change to holder/punter.
- With Nagel watching, Macan Wilson, Riley Lees, and Jelani Roberts fielded live punts. Kick returner remains a question and is something we’ll continue to monitor.
- Fitzgerald began his press conference by raving about the facilities: “Nobody else has this type of venue...it’s amazing. Can’t thank the Hutcheson family enough and the Martin family and all those that gave for us to have this opportunity. It’s a privilege to be up here and we’re very thankful for it.”
- On Lancaster: “Tyler has been working since day one. That’s the reason he’s wearing jersey number one. He embodies everything that we stand for as a program. He’s always been a great worker in the weight room and a great player and to see him kind of take it to the next level has been really spectacular.” “He’s not a guy that says a lot. He leads by his actions. He’s done that since he got here, and just to see the relentless nature with which he attacks every day has been very special.”
- Fitz also mentioned that they had more guys nominated for the #1 jersey this year than ever before.
- Nate Hall also lauded Lancaster’s work ethic: “That’s a hard-working guy. He comes in every day and works extremely hard...and he’s not extremely vocal, but he’s not afraid to be vocal. When it’s time to work, he’ll let you know about it.”
- For his part, Lancaster said he was focusing on teaching the young guys, who he said “know 10 times more things than I did as a freshman.”
- Back to Fitz, on the offensive line: “Those guys have been beaten down as the reasons why we take all these sacks. We had 4 ‘sacks’ today in practice...the 4 reasons why were the quarterback, the quarterback, the quarterback and the quarterback. When we went back and did our self-scout last year we saw a bunch of quarterback issues with us not getting the ball out. It’s an 11 man deal...it’s not all the o-line’s fault. But I love it that they’re ticked off. I think big guys mad is a good thing.”
- Brad North on last year’s struggles: “We need to do a better job of starting [the season]...our motto is that everything matters and there are no plays off, so we’re just working on taking advantage of every opportunity.”
- North on competition: “I don’t think anybody’s spot is safe. It doesn’t matter if you were a 20-game starter...everybody’s job is up for grabs. We’ve got young guys with a lot of talent, a lot of grit, they want to get in there and they want to play. I see it in the practices, you can see the kind of edge that they have...It’s good to have that competition because it drives everyone else too.”
- On leadership: “It’s an easy group to lead in my opinion, because everybody’s keeping themselves accountable...you can see the shift from last year to this year, guys are just working their tails off to make themselves better. It’s good to see.”
- Back to Fitz, on Jalen Brown: “To see both him and Trey graduate in three years and have two years of eligibility is absolutely spectacular...Just a terrific young man and I’m glad to have him as a part of it.”
- On the receivers: “I need to see that group become complete. They need to be better blocking, they need to be better with the ball in their hands. Something we’ve put a big emphasis on is making explosive plays an offense. The scheme will get you open, now you gotta go win your 1-on-1 and make some things happen. I think we’ve got some pretty good speed on the perimeter, and hopefully we’ll be able to make that happen this fall. We need to.”
- On Keith Watkins: “He’s limited by us. You’re coming off a major injury, we’re gonna make sure you’re coming back slowly...He’s a big time player.”
- On last year’s slow start: “I think that was indicative of our injuries and me taking my foot off the pedal. That won’t happen again. You know, we’ve won every other opener.”
- Fitzgerald refused to name front-runners in the kicking and offensive tackle competitions.
- On the running backs: “That whole group, if you were to ask our team who had the best offseason, they’d probably say the running backs. That starts with JJ’s leadership, and it permeates through the rest of the group. We have really good depth there.”
- Justin Jackson on Fitzgerald’s running back comments: “We go hard every single day, and that’s what we pride ourselves on. There’s a lot of competition in that room right now, guys trying to win reps, win carries...That’s why everybody’s got to come in day in, day out and work their tails off.”
- Nate Hall on the linebackers: “Me and Brett kind of lead the guys. Guys are stepping up: Paddy Fisher and Nate Fox competing for a spot. It’s been fun watching them. Just trying to lead guys through camp, show them the ropes a little bit.”