NU looks like a team after 4 days of practice. They make a lot of mistakes, and you see a lot of kids stepping up to try for positons, but right now, all of the position switches seem to be working out.Offense
Yes, there are only 4 running backs - Jason Wright and Noah Herron are the main 2 - Terrell Jordan and Giles Lezi are getting reps, and making the most of them.Defense
Randy Walker told us that there are 3 other guys who could jump in and take over tailback if needed, including Jeff Backes. His comment was that they haven't changed the running game that much and that tailback is one of the easier positions to pick up in the NU Spread offense if they had to move someone around. It is funny to hear a former running back talk about how easy the RB job is - Herron and Wright sure look like they've had a workout when they come off the field.
For the time being, its Zach Strief and Rick McDole at tackles for the 'Cats. Joe Wohlsheid is also working out at left tackle, backing up McDole. Jim Devine seems to be the odds on favorite right now at Center, but Vince Clark appears to be also handling the job well too. O-Line Coach Jim Patton is confident that they'll have the front 5 situation well in hand by Kenosha [as long as there are no injuries].
Former defensive lineman Ray Bogenrief is impressive at tight end. He's going across the middle, catching passes, going downfield in the middle, catching passes. He seemed to be averaging about 20 yards a play Friday and Saturday and I'd call the change positive. Soph Sean Mansfield also had some nice grabs over the middle.
All of the Wide Receivers seem to be picking up where they left off last Fall. Mark Philmore seems to be adjusting to the X slot well and has some nifty moves after he catches the ball. Kuntle Patrick is also running some reverses, and both Brett Basanez and Alexander Webb ran a couple of option plays with good pitches to both Wright and Herron - The coaches have been visiting teams that run the Spread Option to pick up some fine points.
Right now the clear leader in the QB derby is Brett Basanez. Webb is right behind, then Derell Jenkins. Walker would love to make use of both backup's speed [sub 4.5] along with Basanez somehow. QB Joe Ferguson apparently was more seriously injured in his preseason car accident that anyone knew - he is still wearing an orange jersey.
In one post practice interview, Jason Wright made the comment that the team is very much committed to this season - many more players have been in watching films - trying to improve their play during the off season. He said it was the most commitment he's seen in 2 years.
NU's defense this year will be much more complex than last years. Randy Walker talks about having "training wheels on the bike" last year, which led to some very simple schemes. This year the training wheels are off and the defense does a lot of moving around, shifting, stunting, and attacking the ball.Special Teams:
Several of the defensive coaches told me to expect even more attacking by the defenders, more "going forward." They're going to run different sets in and out, using Luis Castillo and Colby Clark together and as a nose tackle on a 3-4 and 3-3 defensive set.
The Loren Howard - Zach Streif matchup across the line of scrimmage is worth watching any time they go 11 on 11. Streif is huge, and Howard is agressive and they battle. Colby Clark is even more agressive, but likes to mix it up with the O-line after plays - Walker is trying to control some of that but he talks about controlling Clark with a twinkle in his eye.
This year, you're going to see an extra safety in the backfield with a 3-3 front playing almost to the line. He was picking up the Tight End on coverage, and sneaking in on sweeps to cut off the strong side. Dominique Price seemed to really enjoy playing that way
You're going to see more tackles behind the line because that's what they're trying to do.
Its early, but both returning corners [Marquice Cole and Herschel Henderson] had picks during the 11 on 11 drills, and Jeff Backes should have had one on a long play Saturday.
Coach Jerry Brown told us that he always wanted Backes to play d-back, but he didn't want to try to talk Walker into the switch. However, the move "was Walk's idea," this year. Brown's initial evaluation is that Backes right now Backes is improving at a pace that will enable him to become the top right corner, remembering that its a long time to Kenosha. [Larry Watts should have a story about the change this week.]
For what its worth, all of Coach Brown's players are on the Spring 2 deep - its why there are 3 backs listed at each position. He also told us that he has 4 of the fastest 6 guys on the team playing back there - the strategy for the d-backs is clear in that they do tend to cluster around the ball after its caught.
I accused LB Coach Pat Fitzgerald of having too much fun during practice. He smiled and said "that's my job."
His linebacker situation is interesting, since 3 of the really experienced guys are sitting out recovering from injuries. Pat Durr is very close to coming back, he's wearing a brace and is still having some pain when he runs, but based on what AF did to his knee, its a wonder he's playing at all. Its hard to tell how they are doing, because under the new schemes, LBs are flying all over the place - they pass defend, close the run, blitz the center.
I know its early, and trying to read this is hard but despite what you see on the Spring 2 Deep, all of the kicking jobs seem to be wide open.
Our place kicking defense is very fast - not sure if they're actually working on blocking kicks yet, but they're going to get a couple this year if they keep playing the way they looked Saturday.
As far as the position changes: Jeff Backes is a good running back, but he's not going to beat out Wright and Herron for the starting job this year - he does appear to have a good presence at CB and is working hard at learning the little tricks.
Ray Bogenreif's play at Tight End makes you wonder why he hasn't been there all 4 of his years. He was highly rated there out of HS, but NU needed D-linemen. I liked what I saw over on the Offense.
About Carl Matejka and Trai Essex: Matejka is going to be missed early in the season both because of his size and experience, but he apparently feels that the football part of his life is over and its time to move on. Walker says there's no hard feelings, and he wishes Carl continued success as he moves away from football.
Trai Essex is possibly changing colleges at NU, and needs to concentrate solely on academics for the Spring Quarter. No, he is not academically ineligible to play, but both Trai and Randy feel that he needs the quarter away from playing Spring Ball to get ready to finish NU on time and play his last 2 seasons.
Thats it so far - NU Sports is doing a pretty good job wrapping up the practices and we'll be linking their stories in the Sports News Digest. They do have a reporter covering the practices.
I do plan to be back in Evanston for the Spring Game...and we'll pass on any more info as we work towards April 26th.
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