Position battles as positives

Question marks are sliding out of the discussion in Northwestern training camp.

In a semi-controversial Lake the Posts interview earlier this week, I was prompted with the following statement: "I'm always interested in knowing how you can tell an NU player excelling versus another player underperforming."

My first answer was to mention the coaches' reactions—one of the odd but true indicators of how plays went down. But really, I first thought about how rare it is to witness sloppy and uninspired effort from Northwestern. That even applies to spring and to fall.

Players here earn their roles. No one backs into them. But how do we judge that?

During these battles for starting spots and enhanced playing time, you can tell that NU might be a more complete team than it was in recent seasons. From the softball field bleachers, media members watch and search for weaknesses and storylines. Maybe the defensive tackles could use some more depth. Maybe the quarterbacks could be more accurate. We're nitpicking.

From my vantage point, the unknowns define the success of fall drills. (By "unknowns," I mean guys whose potential impact has yet to be determined.) Any Wildcats fan knows that guys like Venric Mark and Ibraheim Campbell–barring injury–will show up to dominate on Saturdays. The most difficult challenge involves replacing starters, and making this team resemble last year's 10-win squad that did just about everything pretty well.

And those unknown values are standing out. It explains the generally optimistic reports from Evanston and from Kenosha. We're starting to discover some answers from the players who manage to excel.

I've gone on at length about the offensive line, but Chris Emma (former publisher and my wonderful Kenosha sick week fill-in) backed up the comments. This group–especially the projected starters–continues to back up Pat Fitzgerald's confidence. Ian Park and Geoff Mogus are promising young guards operating next to upperclassman leader Brandon Vitabile.

And in the case of injury or attrition, Adam Cushing and his unit appear to have seven or eight players capable of taking reps. Though it's somewhat early to judge, they've been able to fight back against defensive linemen and cast doubt on everyone else's doubts. No one should be worried here.

You look at the linebacking corps, which will have to cope without emotional leader David Nwabuisi. Thankfully for NU, Collin Ellis and Drew Smith appear locked in competition for the vacant starter's role. And it goes beyond that. Joseph Jones and first-year Leadership Council member Jaylen Prater are making an impact as they fight to crack the two-deep.

Then there are the guys that fans hope to be comfortable with, like presumed starting cornerback Daniel Jones. The redshirt junior is playing with almost unmatched confidence after his decent performance last season. We knew from last season that Nick VanHoose could play, but it's exciting to see the energy from Jones. Rather than letting flashy newcomer Dwight White enter the equation, he's keeping the competition at arm's length. How it should be.

There will be some things impossible to gauge until the season begins. For now, NU fans can be hopeful, knowing that the newer faces are prepared to step in.

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