Springing Forward

On day one of spring practice, Pat Fitzgerald emphasized that his Northwestern Wildcats had 15 chances to improve in the spring. The team limped into the spring after a rough end to the season that saw the team lose their last three games, and suffer some key injuries.

The spring season came to an end on Saturday afternoon with the conclusion of the annual spring scrimmage—the last practice of the spring. It was clear on Saturday that the Wildcats have taken positive steps in the right direction since they ended the 2010 season in Dallas.

The offense—which struggled without Dan Persa in the final three games of the season—made significant strides of improvement—even if Persa was still gone. On defense, the unit did their best to erase the memory of their atrocious late season, while playing with an attitude throughout the entire spring.

Most importantly, Pat Fitzgerald and the Northwestern coaching staff were able to learn about what kind of depth the team has. Part of that was planned—hence the seven players who were held out of the scrimmage today. But the factor which allowed NU to utilize their depth was that unpleasant surprises football can bring called injuries. The Wildcats had 17 players listed on the final injury report, meaning many different players were given the opportunity to shine in front of the coaches.

With spring football in the books, and the Boston College game 139 days away, let's break down each position.

QUARTERBACKS:

Arguably the biggest storyline for spring football was about a player who never even suited up for practice, Dan Persa. The First-Team All-Big Ten quarterback has been right on pace for a timely return to action, but it would've taken a miracle for Persa to be back for spring practice. Instead, Persa was on the sidelines watching his three backups fight for their own role in the offense.

When Persa went down against the Iowa Hawkeyes, Evan Watkins and Kain Colter stepped in. Since they each stepped into the limelight, both quarterbacks have made major improvements. Watkins is playing with confidence in his game, which clearly wasn't there when he was thrown into the fire late last season. While he still struggles with accuracy at times, Watkins has the potential to be a viable quarterback. His only problem is when will that chance come. Pat Fitzgerald wouldn't rule anything out, but Watkins doesn't appear to fit into the Wildcats' plans—at least not this season.

That is not the case for Kain Colter, who had a very strong spring. The sophomore quarterback made a major statement in the scrimmage with his 27-yard touchdown run, which showed off his impressive speed and agility. Colter displayed his talent during the TicketCity Bowl, and has only improved since then. His speed is still the same—fast, but his arm strength and accuracy has only improved. In addition, Colter admits that he feels his knowledge of the playbook has gotten stronger, and having Dan Persa around to assist during spring practice only helped.

The only challenge for Kain Colter will be finding a role in the offense, which is completely out of his hands. In the past, NU has had success in moving quarterbacks into a different role, for example: Andrew Brewer and Jeremy Ebert. Fitzgerald denied the idea of moving Colter to wide receiver, but when asked about being creative with the sophomore quarterback, Fitzgerald said, "I think when you look at past history, you can assume so."

Lastly, there's Trevor Siemian. As Evan Watkins and Kain Colter finished up their post-game media sessions, there was Siemian waiting patiently for his turn with the reporters. The redshirt freshman quarterback has played second fiddle to Watkins and Colter throughout the spring, but that's no discredit to Siemian. While Watkins and Colter stepped into the spotlight late in 2010, there was Siemian waiting for his opportunity with his redshirt.

This spring, the Florida native has again gone under the radar. What's gone unnoticed is that Siemian may have made the biggest improvement of any quarterback. As he grows accustomed to the college game, Siemian has gained confidence in his abilities, while gaining a greater knowledge of the playbook. In addition, he is a true student of the game—staying after practice to work on his accuracy, and spending extra time in the film room and studying the playbook.

Throughout the spring, Siemian has worked his tail off to be a better quarterback, knowing that—like his fellow quarterbacks—his day will eventually come.

As the quarterbacks enter the spring, only one thing is clear—Dan Persa will be the starter. Barring some unfortunate setback in his recovery, #7 will be back for Boston College. The question remains, who else will see some playing time? Fitzgerald did not name a backup, and doesn't plan on doing so till week one of the season. Incoming freshman Zack Oliver will join the mix at the start of the season, giving Fitzgerald many options to help the returning all-conference gunslinger.

RUNNING BACKS:

Just a few short months ago, it appeared that Northwestern was in major trouble at the running back position. The Wildcats lost four running backs at the end of the 2010 season, leaving Pat Fitzgerald in a bind. With one running back (Trevyon Green) signed, he received another verbal from Lodi, Calif. running back Jordan Perkins. But with spring practice approaching, Fitzgerald was looking for somebody to step up. He got what he wished for.

Returning running back Mike Trumpy has fully recovered from his wrist injury suffered against Illinois, and according to Fitzgerald, will likely be the running back on the field for the first offensive play against Boston College. Fortunately for the head coach—he's got options.

After Trumpy, the Wildcats feature a two-headed monster in the backfield. That duo the speedy Adonis Smith and the powerful Tyris Jones—a former walk-on who has likely become the Wildcats go-to third down option. A converted linebacker, Jones has never had a carry during his time in Evanston, but that is likely to change this season.

Jones will be a nice compliment for speedy sophomore Adonis Smith. The Oakland native was limited in the spring, and held out of the scrimmage, but will likely have a larger role in the offense this season.

The trio of returning starter Mike Trumpy along with Tyris Jones and Adonis Smith are likely to give offensive coordinator Mick McCall a plethora of options in the backfield. His options don't stop there. Tim Hanrahan and Jacob Schmidt—who's returning from an injury—will also be potential options for some carries. When you add Trevyon Green and Jordan Perkins to the mix, the Wildcats suddenly are looking at a deep backfield—something which was not the case just a few short months ago.

WIDE RECEIVERS/SUPERBACKS:

When Dan Persa returns to action, he will have a lot of solid options lining up on the outside. The Wildcats' strongest spot on the roster is at wide receiver and superback, where they have many talented options. Northwestern loses just one of their leading receivers from last season, Sidney Stewart. After that, they're loaded.

Leading receiver Jeremy Ebert (62 catches, 953 yards, eight touchdowns) will be back this season, and is likely going to be Persa's go-to option. The ‘Cats also return superback Drake Dunsmore, and wide receivers Demetrius Fields, Rashad Lawrence, Tony Jones, speedy sophomore Vernic Mark, and Charles Brown, who Pat Fitzgerald named MVP of the spring.

When you look at the most improved receivers in the spring, you have to start with Charles Brown. The senior has become a great possession receiver, is a productive runner after the catch. The Wildcats have many other options, with young up-and-comers Rashad Lawrence, Venric Mark, and Tony Jones.

Thanks to his impressive open-field speed, Venric Mark is likely to make an impact on special teams and occasionally in the passing game. Meanwhile, the sophomore Tony Jones was sidelined throughout the spring due to a leg injury, and wasn't able to build upon his impressive freshman season. Still, look for these two sophomores to be a factor in the passing game.

When you factor in incoming freshman Xavier Youngblood-Ary, Christian Jones, Cameron Dickerson, and Mark Szott, Northwestern is loaded at wide receiver and superback.

OFFENSIVE LINE:

This will seem like a fairly obvious statement to make, but it is absolutely vital for the Wildcat offensive line to protect the quarterback this season. The NU offensive line allowed Dan Persa to be planted into the ground far too many times in 2010. This season, the Wildcats return a veteran group of offensive lineman. Ben Burkett will be back at center, while Al Netter and Patrick Ward will anchor the tackle position, and Brian Mulroe will be returning as starting left guard. That leaves one spot open…for now.

An extremely productive spring has redshirt freshman Paul Jorgensen in line to become the next starter at right guard. The 6-6, 280-lb. guard is known for his incredible work ethic and willingness to learn the position. Both Brian Mulroe and Al Netter have raved about Jorgenson's progression, which has him likely to be the next starter at guard.

A couple other candidates to fight for playing time at the guard position are a pair of incoming freshmen—Geoff Mogus and Matt Frazier. Both have the size to make an immediate impact. However, Jorgensen currently has the leg up on the two incoming freshmen, thanks to the year under his belt.

Whoever ends up winning the starting job will help complete one of the strongest offensive lines in the Big Ten.

DEFENSIVE LINE:

Northwestern's success on the defensive line starts on the end, with GoDaddy.com Preseason First-Team All-American selection Vince Browne. The 6-5, 265-lb. defensive end has gone without much notoriety throughout his three seasons on the d-line. After a strong junior year with 58 tackles and seven sacks, opposing offenses will have to plan around Browne.

After Browne, the Wildcats' front four had a very productive spring. Junior defensive tackle Jack DiNardo and senior defensive end Kevin Watt can likely be penciled in to their old digs on the line, but after sitting out the entire spring, Northwestern got a look at their depth on the line. Sophomore Chance Carter bounced from defensive end to defensive tackle, and will likely see some reps at the open defensive tackle spot next to Jack DiNardo. Also, 310-lb. senior Niko Mafuli finished a very productive spring, and could be on track for a lot of playing time in the middle.

On the outside, Tyler Scott may have put together one of the strongest springs of any Northwestern defensive lineman. Scott came into the NU football program as a 230-lb. linebacker convert, but has fully dedicated himself to being a defensive lineman, and has added 25 pounds of muscle since entering the program last August. As a freshman, Scott finished the season with 12 total tackles. This season, he may be in line for many more.

Junior defensive end Quentin Williams is also a likely option for playing time on the end, as he will compliment starting defensive end Kevin Watt.

When you add in the Wildcats' two incoming freshman Deonte Gibson and C.J. Robbins, the Wildcats will have many different options in putting together a strong front four.

LINEBACKERS:

During their 15 spring practices, the Wildcats' biggest improvements came at the linebacker position. With middle linebacker Nate Williams and Quentin Davie graduating, NU has two open spots at linebacker. The coaches will have a tough duty in handing out playing time at linebacker, thanks to a strong spring for many linebackers.

Senior linebacker Bryce McNaul has recovered from his shoulder injury, and was able to take part in the team's scrimmage on Saturday. He'll be back in his role as starting "Will" linebacker. With an open spot and "Mike" and "Sam" linebacker, the competition became intense throughout the spring. In the middle, junior linebacker David Nwabuisi may have elevated himself into a starting role. "Boose" has worked to become a leader on the defense, and it has paid off during team drills. As a freshman, Nwabuisi worked in with the defense on passing downs. That will likely continue into next season. Fellow sophomore Damien Proby will also be in the fight for some playing time in the middle, and it is likely that both linebackers will platoon for significant playing time at the "Mike" position.

At the "Sam" linebacker position, the coaches will have to sort through a log jam of talent. Senior Ben Johnson has seen the most playing time at the position, but has battled through injuries throughout the spring. The heat is on at the strong-side position, as junior Roderick Goodlow and a pair of redshirt freshman, Chi Chi Ariguzo and Collin Ellis battle for playing time. Coach Fitzgerald and his defensive staff should be happy that they have 29 more practices ahead of them, because they will need those to figure out who will play at outside linebacker.

SECONDARY:

It's no secret—the Wildcats' secondary suffered through some major struggles in the 2010 season. Inconsistencies in the secondary are what killed the ‘Cats. Now, the defensive backs are looking to rebound after a horrific last three games. Throughout the spring, defensive backs coach Jerry Brown has spent a little extra time returning to the fundamentals with his backs, and it has paid off in team drills. During the spring, the safeties and cornerbacks have played to their potential, but most importantly, they're playing with an attitude.

Coach Fitzgerald has said it numerous times throughout the spring—last season is in the past. Now, it's time for the secondary to move on.

Jordan Mabin will be back as a starting cornerback. The senior led the team with 14 pass breakups in 2010, and became one of the best cover corners in the conference. Northwestern's leading tackler Brian Peters will be back to his role as starting safety. At the other safety position, the hope is that Hunter Bates' recovery from his broken leg goes as scheduled. If all goes as expected, the sophomore will be back in his role opposite of Brian Peters.

At the beginning of the spring, the open spot at the other cornerback position was a concern, but Jeravin Matthews is helping subside that concern. The converted running back put together one of the strongest springs of any Wildcat, and Pat Fitzgerald has taken notice. Fitzgerald said of Matthews, "If we play (Boston College) on Saturday, Jeravin is our starting corner. He's earned that and deserves it."

Fitzgerald is right. During the spring, Matthews has worked on fine-tuning his game, which has made him a tough matchup for any wide receiver. Look for Matthews to start, and make a major impact on defense.

One other name to look for in the secondary is Ibraheim Campbell, who has had the biggest development of any player since joining the program. The redshirt freshman sat out during his freshman year—something which Fitzgerald claims is one of his biggest regrets from last year. Now, Campbell is better than ever, and has one more extra year of eligibility up his sleeve. In hindsight, Fitzgerald is now happy to have Campbell around for an extra year.

After a very productive spring, the Wildcats' secondary appears to be set and ready to go. Now, the key is to carry their momentum forward into the regular season.

KICKERS:

During one post-practice media session, sophomore kicker Jeff Budzien described the battle to be the starting kicker as a cut-throat battle. While that may have been a bit of an exaggeration, the competition is intense. Budzien and junior Steve Flaherty are fighting for a role in the kicking game. Pat Fitzgerald has not made it clear whether he will use one as a place kicker and the other as a kickoff kicker.

Throughout the spring, Budzien was a more consistent distance kicker, but struggles with kicks of more than 50 yards. Flaherty has struggled with accuracy, but is a fairly consistent boot inside 35-yard field goal attempts.

Either one will provide the Wildcats with a solid and reliable boot.

Stay with PurpleWildcats.com for more post-spring coverage. Also, we will bring you recruiting updates from the many visitors on hand for Saturday's game. If you would like immediate updates, be sure to follow our official twitter account, @NUScout


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