Northwestern is counting on its freshmen and sophomores to step into key roles. A youth movement is underway. Thus far, the results have been positive.
"(Coach Randy Walker) used to say all the time, if they're puppies and they can bite, they've got a chance," said head coach Pat Fitzgerald. "We've got some young pups that are out here biting. That's encouraging."
The most significant difference for Northwestern is under center. Dan Persa, the Wildcats' captain and record-breaking quarterback, has moved on. The torch has been passed down to junior-to-be Kain Colter.
"Dan (Persa), Drake (Dunsmore), Jeremy (Ebert), all those (seniors) are gone," Colter said. "It's time for me to step up in that leadership role and start leading these young guys and take the team over."
NU entered the 2011 season with 136 combined starts on the offensive line, good for second most in the nation. Four-year starters Alex Netter and Ben Burkett have departed, leaving openings at tackle and guard.
Sophomore-to-be Paul Jorgensen appears to be the current front-runner at guard, but redshirt freshmen Geoff Mogus and Matt Frazier are pushing for the starting job. One spot over, Chuck Porcelli is battling with sophomore Jack Konopka and redshirt freshman Shane Mertz, nicknamed "The U.S.S. Mertz" by his head coach.
Fitzgerald has been so impressed with the unit, he suggested that a rotation may be possible this season.P> For what the Wildcats' youthful offensive line lacks in experience, it makes up in work ethic.
"They're all in the film room, doing extra stuff in the weight room," senior-to-be Brian Mulroe said of the underclassmen. "The sky is the limit for those young guys."
Mulroe, a two-year starter, is ready to carry an extra burden, too. He has assumed the role as leader of the line. He is carrying the example of Netter and Burkett.
"It is weird being the senior, but I've got to pick up the flag now and lead this group," said Mulroe. "So far, it's going really well. We're all willing to help each other. That's why it's a fun group."
On the other side of the ball, Northwestern loses 10 players with starting experience from 2011. On the defensive line, redshirt sophomores Chance Carter and Sean McEvilly, plus junior Will Hampton are fighting for starting spots on the defensive line.
The Wildcat defense struggled mightily last season -- especially on the defensive line, which compiled just 17 sacks in 13 games. Led by an impressive youthful cast, Northwestern looks to make improvements this season.
"They're looking good," junior defensive end Tyler Scott said of the young linemen. "They've improved, they're getting after it, and flying around."
Often reluctant to offer his freshmen praise, Fitzgerald admitted he has been very impressed by the Wildcats' underclassmen. But will he name names?
"Absolutely not, nope!" Fitzgerald said with a smirk. "Not till (the strong play) shows up in Ryan Field. It's just practice. There's ebb and flow."
Fitzgerald sees many similarities between this year's Northwestern squad and the 2009 team, which won eight games en route to an Outback Bowl berth.
The '09 Wildcats also had a new quarterback -- Mike Kafka, now of the Philadelphia Eagles -- take over as the starter, plus a rebuilding defense looking to make a name for itself. Namely, he was referring to the team's close bond and strong chemistry.
"You think about some of those guys on that defense who were dynamic personalities," said Fitzgerald. "The Woottens, that whole group, and I'm starting to see that here. Then on offense, we have guys who can make some plays. I'm starting to see that."
Northwestern kicks off the season against Syracuse in 147 days, still well in the distance. The youth movement is already in effect, however. But Fitzgerald is hoping to see results on the field.
"Talk is cheap," Fitzgerald said. "We've got a lot of work to do."