These players will enter the program knowing each individual player has a chance of making an early impact on the field. Let's take a look at where each player fits in to the depth chart once summer camp rolls around.
Catholic High School (LA) QB Zack Oliver (6-3, 214) is the lone quarterback signee for the 2011 class, and likely knows not to expect a starting role as he enters the program. That belongs to Dan Persa. However, Oliver has a lot of potential to be the starter down the road.
Oliver's greatest strength is his extremely accurate arm. When Persa graduates, Oliver will emerge as a strong candidate to take the job. While he lacks the speed of Dan Persa, Oliver does feature an arm like Persa.
It's unlikely that Oliver will see the field in 2011—likely making him a candidate to redshirt this season. Given time, he could see a major role in the future.
Running back became a major need late in the recruiting period, as four Wildcat backs left the program. With that, Pat Fitzgerald added Lodi, CA. RB Jordan Perkins and St. Paris, OH RB Nick VanHoose as the second and third running backs for the class, joining Trevyon Green.
Vanhoose will be experimented with at both running back and in the secondary once he enters the program, and his 4.3 speed makes him a strong candidate for each spot.
The Wildcats' spring saw walk-ons Tyris Jones and Tim Hanrahan take on increased roles in the backfield, standing behind Mike Trumpy and Adonis Smith for reps. Playing time is far from being settled, so many eyes will be on the two newcomers in the backfield.
In February, Dennis Springer joined the mix as Northwestern's new wide receivers coach, replacing Kevin Johns. Springer was welcomed to the program with the nice luxury of depth—lots of it.
The depth chart at receiver is a bit messy as the team enters the summer. The Wildcats feature a group of upper-classmen, as well as some returning sophomores. With that, it will be tough for Northwestern's three new receivers, Christian Jones (6-3, 200), Cameron Dickerson (6-2, 200) and Xavier Youngblood-Ary (6-3, 175) to make an immediate impact.
Look for Jones, Dickerson, and Youngblood-Ary to step into bigger roles once upper-classmen like Jeremy Ebert, Charles Brown, and Demetrius Fields have departed. However, as last season showed, these new freshmen very well could enter the picture immediately.
This past recruiting class brought one superback to the picture—Waubonsie Valley High School (IL) TE Mark Szott. In high school, the Szott (6-4, 225) was a two-sport athlete, starring in both football and basketball. However, his versatility could really be shown as a freshman, where he may see some early playing time.
Szott has college-ready size, and the coaches raved about him on Signing Day. There's a strong possibility that Szott could enter the field early into his collegiate career.
The Wildcats will welcome four new offensive linemen to the picture this season, but it just so happens that the o-line offers little depth. The post-spring depth chart featured four of the five spots up front in bold writing, leaving just right guard as an open position.
There are two tackles—Shane Mertz (6-8, 280) and Jack Konopka (6-5, 260)—as well as two guards—Matt Frazier (6-3, 281) and Geoff Mogus (6-5, 280). Mertz will likely stay at the tackle position, and will be forced to wait behind senior Al Netter and junior Brian Mulroe. But Konopka has the versatility to play inside at guard if needed, although depth issues will likely keep him at the tackle position.
On the inside, Frazier and Mogus each bring college-ready abilities to the Adam Cushing's offensive line, making them each a contender to start at right guard. They will have to tussle with Doug Bartels and Neal Deiters for the job, but it is wide open for the taking.
The Wildcats will welcome in three new additions to the defensive line, and each of them project out to be defensive ends. Max Chapman (6-3, 230), C.J. Robbins (6-5, 240), and Deonte Gibson (6-3, 235) will each fight for playing time at the one available spot at defensive end.
In Watt's absence, Tyler Scott spent the spring fighting for a starting role, but each of the incoming freshmen hope to have a say in that battle. Deonte Gibson likely has the best shot at some early playing time—given his quickness off the ball. C.J. Robbins would be a nice replacement for Browne or Watt—thanks to his large frame. Gibson along with Max Chapman will need to add some size to add to their speed.
Fortunately, these three freshmen can take some time to learn the system, while watching Preseason All-American candidate Vince Browne.
It was better late than never for Northwestern at linebacker, as they received their lone linebacker commit in late January, coming in the form of Andrew Smith.
At 6-1, 205-lbs., Smith will need to add some size to become a candidate for early playing time in the Wildcats' crowded linebacker depth. The ‘Cats have one open linebacker spot, but a list of players have already thrown their hat in the ring, likely leaving Smith on the outside looking in as a freshman. Still, the Cincinnati native has a lot of potential to make an impact once the depth chart thins out.
Smith has added 20 pounds of muscle since the start of his senior season, and has the work ethic to be a starter down the road. He will need to add some size first.
The Wildcats covered most of their needs in the secondary with the 2010 recruiting class, so they brought in just one signee in 2011—Richards High School (IL) cornerback Jarrell Williams. He was one of the few players who Pat Fitzgerald singled out on Signing Day, and rightfully so.
Williams features 4.4 speed, making him a very versatile weapon in the NU secondary. Jeravin Matthews appears to have locked up the starting corner spot opposite of Jordan Mabin, but look for Williams to earn a role early into his collegiate career.