It began in the third Northwestern spring practice, when Lawrence made every type of catch imaginable. Fans already knew of his ability as acheck-down receiver. He worked especially well with Kain Colter last season, and caught a career-high six passes in the win against Michigan State.
With Demetrius Fields gone–one of the few key graduates–something changed for Lawrence. He's been featured in several spring sets, even next to more established options in Christian Jones and Tony Jones. Colter and Siemian also looked much improved as drills progressed, opening the opportunity for more vertical passing. Lawrence is polished and made the most of numerous opportunities, and that started from the get-go. Look for the steady Lawrence to further emerge in his senior season.
Traveon Henry, safety
One name to watch in early spring practices was Jimmy Hall. The nickelback/safety hybrid brought impressive energy, making "good football plays" in the process. Everyone waited for Henry, the talented sophomore, to excel. He eventually did, laying memorable hits on running backs.
Last year, Jared Carpenter set the model for successful safety play alongside Ibraheim Campbell. They helped to shore up the overall secondary, which went from porous in 2011 to passable in 2012. Now, the Henry-Campbell duo will undoubtedly inspire fear in opponents. They ably stop runs at the second level and bring the physicality needed to energize this defense. Henry will start, and he will succeed.
Kain Colter, quarterback
It can be difficult to judge performances based on spring ball. Rarely did the scrimmages hit full speed, and seven-on-seven drills are the quarterback's dream. But as March turned to April, Colter looked like a more complete quarterback. Tony Jones believed that was the case, and said he was "in awe" of the improvement from QB 1-a.
He became more of the "option quarterback" at times last season. Though they denied it, offensive coordinator and Mick McCall and coach Pat Fitzgerald seemed more comfortable airing it out with Trevor Siemian. With the offseason to prepare, they let Colter make the throws necessary to round out his game. In the final few practices, he succeeded. He was more precise and more confident, which leaves ample space for optimism heading into the 2013 season.
Cameron Dickerson, wide receiver
Yeah, the receiving corps looks very good. If Lawrence was the consensus MVP from the first half of spring practices, Dickerson might earn the second half honors. Featured on the outside, he demonstrated sure hands and rapport with both quarterbacks. With significant targets, he–among others–showed how important this group could be.
Dickerson, the first of many Wildcats from Bergen Catholic HS, broke onto the scene with his memorable touchdown catch in Ann Arbor. Now, he's bringing additional depth to his position room. Don't expect a 40-catch season from him, or any of the NU receivers. Their value is measured in ability to convert on opportunities. And in 2013, as with most of 2012, they are raring to do just that.
Stephen Buckley, running back
Five players are fighting for time at running back. Venric Mark and Mike Trumpy will earn the majority of carries, but others are jockeying for recognition. Buckley–who has been featured in the slot during several practices–showcased his excellent receiving instincts. In the Ryan Field "open practice," he hauled in an impressive touchdown catch from Zack Oliver. He turned heads with his footwork and solid fundamentals, and emerged as a clear "breakout candidate" for the 2013 season.
The coaching staff may wait one more season before awarding Buckley with significant playing time. Given the depth at running back, that's understandable. But in my opinion, he's more of the "complete package" compared to alternatives Malin Jones and Treyvon Green. With his athleticism and pass-catching skills, he could be an essential ingredient in next year's offense.