The adjustments of Mick McCall

Mick McCall is focused on improving his already solid unit, making small adjustments that could lead to greater success.

Last year, this was the running joke:

On third-and-short, Mike Trumpy grabbed the handoff–usually from Trevor Siemian–and barged into the middle of a defense that knew what was coming.

This play, especially because of its low upside, rarely worked. It led to punts or stretches, never for the big gains that defined Northwestern's offense.

In recent weeks, offensive coordinator Mick McCall implemented his creative "diamond formation." From what I've seen, superbacks Malin Jones and Dan Vitale line up alongside either quarterback—with any one of the tailbacks trailing.

Kind of like this.

For an explosive offense with two arguably above-average quarterbacks and several options at tailback, this functions more as the short-yardage ideal.

The Wildcats can utilize M. Jones (likely on a one-year position change before freshman Jayme Taylor loses his redshirt) in the unique formation. This presents many more options than your usual third-and-short situation, and it's another challenge for opposing defenses to confront.

There's no adequate way to assess the many diamond options. We've seen some in practice, though we can't disclose playbook wrinkles. There were flashes of said formation on game weeks; it marked one indication of McCall's offseason adjustments.

Despite the occasional stalled drive and overthrown pass, McCall has taken similar personnel and partially reformed his offense—in more ways than one. He holds the keys.

Rediscovering midrange game

In the days of Mike Kafka and Dan Persa, Northwestern dominated using its mid-range passing attack. Without taking extensive risk, the Wildcats focused on relatively high percentage throws—with one dynamic receiver to complete the package. (It's one of many reasons that Persa finished his career with a 72.7 completion percentage, the best mark in NCAA history.)

Last year, they departed from that strategy. Kain Colter and Trevor Siemian are both generally considered weaker passers than Dan Persa. Still, defenses could prepare for the run game–accountable for five of every eight plays–with little respect for downfield wideouts.

In all four games this season, McCall attempted to recreate that balanced attack. Remember those difficult overthrows from Colter last Saturday? We rarely even watched those in 2012.

On Sept. 7, the quarterbacks posted an incredible 30-for-37, 375-yard and four-touchdown performance—superb numbers against any FBS secondary. Often prone to inconsistency, Colter discovered his accuracy in the opening drive and never relented.

That 48-27 win ushered in another development: Tony Jones became the primary receiver. That was on display again against Maine, when he caught six of the team's 10 receptions.

On the opening touchdown drive, he snagged a mid-range pass and scored after the catch. And like the preceding dominant receiver, Jeremy Ebert, he flashed some vertical ability against Cal.

So Rashad Lawrence has only three catches. Other receivers faded against an FCS opponent. Regardless of whether Venric Mark returns next Saturday, don't just expect McCall to keep defenses "honest." NU could throw balance into its multi-faceted rushing attack, a major component of the upset formula.

"Next man up"

Most valuable players of 2013: Dean Lowry and… Treyvon Green.

Here was the running back hierarchy in spring, from almost everyone's standpoint: Venric Mark, Mike Trumpy, Malin Jones, Stephen Buckley, Treyvon Green.

How did everything change?

It began in Kenosha, when Green showed flashes of his old form. The junior needed to prove his worth (again) and organically rise up the depth chart. When he returned home for the final week of training camp, McCall gave him significant first-team reps. It was a flexible, savvy decision from the offensive coordinator, prompted by the team's undisputed comeback player.

With Mark hobbled in the difficult season opener (an impressive win given the circumstances and not the opponent), Green adopted the "starter's role" and excelled. McCall catered to his strengths as a runner, refusing to let the Mark injury slow his gameplan.

Here's another thing to note: Could Kyle Prater be in line for more targets? While Rashad Lawrence posted an atrocious opening month stat line, the former USC transfer showed off some improved focus as he attempts to reach his lofty potential.

It's not all perfect. I'm confused as to why Siemian disappeared from the Maine game, one in which Colter struggled mightily. And, honestly, the offense stalled far too often against its most recent cupcake opponents.

Still, fans cried for adjustments heading into the 2013 season. McCall not only dealt with remaining issues, but also managed to lead a flourishing unit missing its best player.

Six points

1) Still love the mid-drive substitutions of Kain Colter and Trevor Siemian. I'd hate to be an opposing defender lining up against that. Rather than designating specific "Colter" and "Siemian" drives, McCall has drawn advantage from their differing styles of play.

2) The Trevor Siemian keeper worked perfectly last week. Do it again.

3) Mike Trumpy in the read option was middle-school-dance-awkward. Never again.

4) The Malin Jones superback experiment: weird but intriguing. Could be something to watch, even with Dan Vitale's continued strong play.

5) Smart to burn Warren Long's redshirt for two reasons: First, he's ready to compete at the college level. Second, they can use up eligibility given the depth arriving—especially in the three-pronged 2014 recruiting class featuring Justin Jackson.

6) I'm hoping McCall asserts the passing game early on against Ohio State. This game might require one of his finest passing efforts yet.


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