Spring Storylines: What to watch for

It seems as if the Gator Bowl just wrapped up, but Northwestern opens its spring practice just next Wednesday. With that comes competition and intriguing position battles. PurpleWildcats offers a look at five important spring storylines to follow.

1.) How to divide reps at quarterback, running back.

Northwestern finds itself in a beautiful spot this spring, with its quarterback and running back position comfortable filled by two of the Big Ten's top talents in Kain Colter and Venric Mark. The offense, to no surprise, will remain centered around them. Neither will catch anyone by surprise after breakout first seasons as starters. So how should their reps be handled during the spring?

Surely, the spring offers the opportunity to begin building the offense, while in a limited-contact setting. Would offensive coordinator Mick McCall by wise to mix in backup quarterbacks Trevor Siemian and Zack Oliver? At the running back position, Northwestern must establish its depth behind Mark, who proved to be rather fragile in his first full season as the starter. Key returners such as Mike Trumpy and Treyvon Green could greatly benefit from additional reps during the spring.

How—and why—these important reps are divided must be decided before the Wildcats set sail on their 15 spring workouts.

2.) Who mans the blindside?

Departing the program is Patrick Ward, a mainstay on the offensive line who started in 51 games, including all 13 at left tackle during his senior season. Now, Northwestern must decide who fills the role of protecting Kain Colter's blindside, and the spring gives the coaching staff its first chance to begin those evaluations.

There are several candidates to consider for the position. Starting right tackle Jack Konopka is an option, moving from the right side to the left as Ward did. However, Konopka has been bounced around throughout his young career, so another shift could be an issue. Big sophomore Shane Mertz—nicknamed the U.S.S Mertz by Pat Fitzgerald—is another contender. However, he has been hampered by injuries throughout his career.

Other options at the left tackle position include Paul Jorgensen, Matt Frazier, and Eric Olson. The competition should be heated, and will start up next week.

3.) Depth on the defensive line.

Northwestern has some talent on the defensive line, but is lacking the depth it would like to have. The Wildcats return just three defensive linemen with starting experience, while lacking in experience behind the starters.

The spring will be extremely important for defensive ends Deonte Gibson and Ifeadi Odenigbo, who each battled injuries last season—Odenigbo being shut down for the season after having shoulder surgery. Both have the potential to be impact players at defensive end, but must prove themselves worthy while competing against each other. Also, sophomore defensive end C.J. Robbins has the potential to earn a role, but must have a strong spring.

In the middle, Chance Carter, Will Hampton and Sean McEvilly return to the defensive tackle position with prior experience under their belts. Behind them on the depth chart, Northwestern can hope to see Greg Kuhar emerge into a role. The group does return senior defensive end Tyler Scott, who could be poised for an All-Big Ten season.

4.) Suring up the secondary.

Northwestern can boast the return of safety Ibraheim Campbell and cornerback Nick VanHoose, who have emerged into elite Big Ten defensive backs. Now, Northwestern must figure out who works next to the two.

The leading contender to start at safety next to Campbell is sophomore Traveon Henry, a standout on the scout team who won over a role in special teams after a strong preseason. Henry is physical and has a knack for the position. He'd be a great compliment to Campbell. Another name to keep an eye on is that of redshirt freshman Terrance Brown.

The cornerbacks to watch for are Dwight White and Jarrell Williams, each who have impressed during their time on the scout team. However, several freshmen will look to make an impact when arriving on campus in the summer, so White and Williams will need to take advantage of their head start.

5.) Who is flying under the radar?

This, like each spring, is the burning question the coaches wonder. Who will catch everyone by surprise? Last year, it was Venric Mark, moved to running back to fill depth. He would emerge as an All-Big Ten running back.

There's no way of telling who the spring surprise will be. It takes commitment to the offseason conditioning program and dedication to improve. The beauty of the 15 spring workouts is that reps are readily available.

Chris Emma has covered recruiting, college athletics and professional baseball for FOX Sports Next since 2009. Emma covered the Nebraska Cornhuskers for Big Red Report, and currently covers the Northwestern Wildcats. He resides on Chicago's north side.
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