Without Nick VanHoose, last season might have been unpleasant. The then-redshirt freshman provided rare stability at cornerback, beginning with his excellent outing against Syracuse and continuing throughout most of the season. Two years ago, even with some talent, opponents rocked the secondary. And last year, there was still some lingering concern.
There are 20 defensive backs on the current roster. Given the Jerry Brown "loyalty," we can expect Daniel Jones to line up opposite VanHoose as the other starting corner. The questions don't there. Could C.J. Bryant take the next step in Kenosha? Will Dwight White put more "good reps" together? This unit might need one freshman (looking at you, Keith Watkins) to shut down a talented crew of conference quarterbacks.
Venric Mark said at Big Ten Media Days that he anticipates the offensive line surprising people in 2013. They did last year, so why not? He praised the incoming freshman, who arrived on campus at the right weight and with the right "mindset." Looking across the field during the Spring Game, you realized that this new-look front is truly loaded with some special talent.
But who steps up? There are several candidates who can fill the spaces around Jack Konopka and Brandon Vitabile. That requires some players to prove their worth, just as Konopka did out of nowhere in 2012. I'm hearing strong support of Ian Park in particular, and some others may have furthered their cause with good springs, but we'll wait and see.
This may be difficult to judge during summer ball, though I did speak with Kain Colter about the quarterback adjustments during the memorable Gator Bowl victory. In that game, he and Trevor Siemian switched in and out between some plays—not just between drives.
Colter's not yet aware exactly what wrenches offensive coordinator Mick McCall will throw into the equation. Still, he said there was no added difficulty or complexity to the Mississippi State approach. To me, the experiment looked fairly successful. That could be a quiet but pivotal change for next year's team.
Last year, there weren't many passes to go around to this talented receiving corps. In spring, with Colter throwing it better than ever, several players made strides. After emerging as the possession receiver, Rashad Lawrence did everything that he possibly could to stand out. Cameron Dickerson may be the frontrunner for offensive breakout candidate.
This should be the most competitive position group in summer. Some seniors could fall by the wayside. Others hope to establish crucial rapport with the two quarterbacks. I'm betting the passing game improves tremendously in the second edition of the Colter-Siemian combo. Their overall production could be the difference between championship aspirations and relative mediocrity.
Stay tuned to PurpleWildcats.com as we begin coverage of Northwestern football summer practice in just more than one week.