What's Up With the Wildcats?

What's the skinny on Northwestern's two-quarterback system? How does the running back depth behind Venric Mark shape up? Why do the Wildcats think that their secondary can hang with the Bear Raid? Find out that and more as we go in-depth with our Northwestern insider.

As the California football team prepares for the season opener against No. 22 Northwestern, we caught up with PurpleWildcats.com publisher and insider extraordinaire Nicholas Medline to break down the Wildcats in our game week Q&A feature.

BEARTERRITORY: The Northwestern two-quarterback system isn't like others we've seen before. The starter -- Kain Colter -- isn't the big-arm passer, but he is the superior runner and playmaker. Instead of being the change-of-pace guy that many second QBs are in a dual set, the second QB – or the ‘1A' as you put it -- Trevor Siemian -- has the bigger arm of the two, and has a little magic. How do you think the Wildcats divvy up the reps when they come to Berkeley?

Nicholas Medline: It's a unique two-quarterback system here in Evanston, mainly because it works. Colter will likely start the game and run an offense centered on the zone read, which highlights his ability and star running back Venric Mark. Though Colter excels with screen passes and has some life in his arm, the Wildcats could go entire drives without needing to make big-time throws.

Then, for other drives, Siemian enters and serves as the standard pocket passer. He's not an excellent quarterback by any means, but showed off his clutch play with a game-winning touchdown last season at Syracuse. At times, he struggled being the only option, but does provide the "change of pace" by spreading the football.

One thing I'd take note of: In the Gator Bowl victory against Mississippi State, NU mixed it up. Rather than leaving either Colter or Siemian in for entire drives, offensive coordinator Mick McCall shuffled his quarterback every few plays. That has the potential to be a nightmare for unfocused defenses. Cal will have to be ready for everything, and fans in attendance can expect an entertaining display for the ‘Cats offense.

BT: The biggest question, it seems, for the Wildcats will be how they defend the Bear Raid offense, which has worked wonders at Louisiana Tech, but now has the benefit of Pac-12 level athletes. What has Northwestern done differently this fall to prepare for the opener?

NM: Pat Fitzgerald knows how to prepare. A rising star in the college coaching ranks, Fitzgerald has never lost an opener. NU takes the threat of Cal seriously, something apparent on the field and in press conferences.

There are two notable changes in terms of scheduling. First, Fitzgerald canceled two-a-day practices in hopes of avoiding injuries. Then, he made the interesting decision to hold his practices very late at night. The ‘Cats are worried about the late start in Berkeley and want to get an edge in preparation. I expect a focused NU team that knows it'll be challenged from the opening whistle. I'm interested to see how practice runs this week. The scout team boasts Zack Oliver, an excellent third-string quarterback who figures to mimic the Bear Raid. NU returns both of its cornerback starters -- Nick VanHoose and Daniel Jones -- but could use some contributions and strong play from redshirt freshman Dwight White and redshirt junior C.J. Bryant. NU wants to overcome the difficult start time and on-field challenges posed by Sonny Dykes' scheme.

BT: Venric Mark seems to be as sure a thing as Northwestern has on the offense, thanks to his 1,366 rushing yards last season. As the Bears started prep for the Wildcats, the weakest part of the defense seemed to be interior run control, which was surprising, given the talent in the middle. Aside from Mark, what can we expect out of Malin Jones, Stephen Buckley and Mike Trumpy?

NM: You're right, as this does seem to be one of the most overlooked qualities of NU football. Fitzgerald and his staff emphasize building a "stable" of running backs, with tons of depth at the position. After Mark, the ‘Cats have a steady power back in Trumpy, who averages an impressive 4.7 yards per carry during his career. Last year, the senior iced an early-season victory against Boston College when Mark went down with an injury.

The most important development from NU camp came from Treyvon Green, once considered a fading backfield option. Green returned with a vengeance in fall, earning some first-team reps and eventually landing the second-string role with Trumpy. It's a loaded backfield at this point.

Though I think Jones might ease into action during his redshirt freshman campaign, Buckley might make an immediate impact. McCall can use Buckley as an effective slot receiver. It'll be interesting to see how the team plans to attack Cal with the running game, but expect more than one guy to make significant plays.

BT: Defensive end Tyler Scott -- last season's team defensive MVP – led the team with 9.0 sacks (second in the Big 10), but the defensive tackles haven't had a great camp, with the loss of Brian Arnfelt being keenly felt. What can we expect to see out of the defensive line as a whole, particularly when faced with a trio of talented backs in Brendan Bigelow, Daniel Lasco and true freshman Khalfani Muhammad?

NM: To me, this is the lingering question. I've read your analysis of Cal's running game and wonder if Dykes can exploit some of NU's uncertainty at defensive tackle. Chance Carter deserved the starter's role, and officially earned it when the team released its depth chart on Monday morning. I think that Sean McEvilly -- who started 10 games last year -- can help to fill the void left by Arnfelt. I also believe the process might take time. It's one potential area for weakness, though we'll see how the unit adjusts.

If the Golden Bears want to surprise NU, maybe the best option is to mix in running plays. I'm interested to know how Jared Goff will fare in his debut, but some punch on the ground would benefit Cal.

BT: The Wildcats boasted the No. 3 rushing defense in the Big 10 last season, but were No. 8 in the league in total defense, thanks to allowing a conference-worst 250.5 yards per game through the air. Beyond Nick VanHoose, who else will step up in the secondary when Cal goes four-wide?

NM: I'd call this the most pleasant surprise from camp. Daniel Jones -- who starts opposite VanHoose -- looked like one of the team's most valuable players. He was remembered most for allowing a 53-yard pass in the waning seconds that let Michigan tie NU—and eventually win. Other than that, he fared well in the starter's role late last season. After Jones, many analysts (including Adam Rittenberg of ESPN) predict that young corner Dwight White could have his breakout season. After an inconsistent spring, he appeared more comfortable in defensive coordinator Mike Hankwitz's system this fall.

Also, I need to mention the safety tandem -- which may be the team's greatest strength. There's Ibraheim Campbell, a three-year starter who ranks among NU's top three players. Everyone also loves sophomore Traveon Henry, who carried his excellent spring play over to fall. I think the secondary is more prepared than ever to take on pass-heavy offenses.
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