The Final Questions

Continuing the #27ToCal series, PW's Steven Goldstein examines the final question that each units needs to resolve in camp.

Training camp will give the Wildcats a chance to build upon their progress but also resolve a few lingering issues. No position is without its question marks, and as the team resumes practice Monday, here are a few things to look out for.

Quarterbacks: Colter's pocket progression

Just how much has Kain Colter improved as a standard passer? The dual-quarterback system has pigeonholed Colter as "the runner" and Trevor Siemian as "the passer" for strategic purposes, but Colter's ability to air it out under center will be vital to the Wildcats reprising or improving their 31.7 points per game from a year ago. The rising senior looked good throwing in spring 7-on-7s, and we'll need to keep a close eye on how he does in camp. Defenses can't crowd the box or stack the edge too often if they're forced to respect Colter's arm as much as his legs.

Running backs: Trumpy's involvement

As great as Venric Mark was last year, he only took 59.5 percent of the carries given to Northwestern running backs. Mark figures to be heavily involved in the offense this fall, but Pat Fitzgerald and Mick McCall won't throw him into the backfield on every play. How are the remaining touches going to be divided? Malin Jones and Stephen Buckley were great in spring practice, but the second-string spot is Mike Trumpy's to lose. Another year removed from that ACL tear, Trumpy figures to be the best change of pace for Mark with his size and uphill running style. Buckley and Jones provide more flexibility though, and Trumpy only saw 84 total touches in 2012. Will the staff try to phase him out and deploy him only as a plug for Mark, or is there still a role in the offense for him?

Wide receivers: Dickerson's involvement

Northwestern's just about set at wideout for opening night, with Rashad Lawrence and Tony and Christian Jones manning the starting spots. The problem, however, is that none of those three have much upside as a deep threat. Christian Jones' 70 percent catch rate in 2012 hints at him being the first read from the H, and his 8+ yards per target, though best on the team, isn't special by any means. Perhaps the Cats' best vertical option lies with Cameron Dickerson, who's taller than both Lawrence and Tony Jones. Dickerson burned corners in 7s and 11-on-11s at spring sessions, and Fitz has spoken highly of his hustle this offseason. He likely won't be starting in Berkeley, but just how much Dickerson can develop is vital to a unit that couldn't field a receiver with even 500 yards last year. At 6-3, he's my pick to surprise people in the passing game.

Offensive line: Finding the right tackle

Replacing one starter along the offensive line is tough. Replacing three could be a nightmare. Patrick Ward, Brian Mulroe and Neal Deiters are all gone, leaving a concerning gap along the left side of the line and at right guard. As Jack Konopka switches to left tackle to defend the blind side, the Wildcats will need to secure a serviceable right tackle to buoy the running game again. Paul Jorgensen is a good candidate with experience, but Shane Mertz has the size to win the job in camp. Regardless of who emerges here, the Cats and their edge-heavy offense will need a strong replacement. The battles for both guard spots, while still important, aren't as make-or-break for the run game.

Defensive line: Odenigbo's involvement

Ifeadi Odenigbo is freakishly athletic. We've known that for more than a year now. What we don't know is how he'll be used in Northwestern's rotating defensive line. Odenigbo lacked the size and maturity to be an every-down end last year, but has added 30 pounds since last summer and was my favorite player to watch in spring ball. If Odenigbo can't surpass Dean Lowry or Deonte Gibson for the starting spot alongside Tyler Scott, Northwestern still has to find a way to get him involved early and often. Will Odenigbo ever see a rep at linebacker? Is he only good for passing downs? Watching Odenigbo's progress in run defense will be key in the coming weeks. If he can make himself useful on every down, that Wildcat defensive line will be one of the deepest in the Big Ten.

Linebacker: Finding the SAM

Northwestern had one of the top linebacking units in the conference last year, and despite the loss of David Nwabuisi, I expect that again in 2013. Obviously the most pressing issue for the defense at camp is finding the strongside starter, be it Collin Ellis, Drew Smith, Joseph Jones or whoever. That third starter won't be asked to do all that much--Chi Chi Ariguzo is Northwestern's best blitzer and Damien Proby racks up tackles with ease--but should be proficient in pass defense.

Secondary: Henry's maturity

Traveon Henry is one of the team's purest talents in a unit where talent is welcomed with open arms. Henry is going to be tested a lot this fall, and no matter who earns the second corner start, he's likely going to require some adjustment. Though it may be unfair, Henry will be charged with preventing those dagger long passes, and in his first career starts he'll have to lock down center field coverage. He and Ibraheim Campbell have the potential to save this secondary, but we'll have to hope that he's ready for big responsibility. I'm willing to bet he is.

Special teams: Finding a kickoff specialist

Will the Wildcats burn a redshirt on Hunter Niswander? Northwestern ranked just 97th in average kickoff length and Jeff Budzien likely isn't the guy here. The Cats will need to find someone in camp to handle kickoff duties now that Steve Flaherty is gone.


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