Weekly Wildcat Watch

This week Purple Reign rounds up news about Northwestern's football practices thus far, a look at how guys recovering from knee injuries may shape the Big Ten race, some NU hoops news -- including how the Wildcats are getting short-changed on national TV coverage -- and much more. Stories come from the Tribune, Daily Herald, ESPN and more.

Before moving onto what the media world at large had to say about Northwestern this week, a quick recap of the stories that you may have missed here at Purple Reign.

This one is unfortunate – about Chris Jeske's retirement from playing football. Jeske, a former Illinois High School Player of the Year, has battled serious injuries since he arrived at NU in 2005. His body simply wouldn't comply, and last week he officially declared that his playing days were done.

My interview with Jeske was over the phone, which isn't at all unusual. While they are annoying for various reasons – having to type furiously, the inability to be personable, etc. – phone interviews are a pretty big part of running Purple Reign. I can't talk with a recruit from Louisiana (like this) and break a story about a commitment from New Jersey (like this) without hitting kids up on the old telly. So it's nothing out of the usual that I caught up with Jeske via the phone.

But it was especially annoying to conduct that interview over the phone because I couldn't see Jeske. And if I didn't know better, I'd say he was getting choked up talking about quitting football. Actually, I don't know better, and I think he was getting choked up talking about quitting. I didn't mention that in the article itself because, again, I'm not totally sure. But there were certainly a few occasions where Jeske – who is particularly well-spoken and sharp – had to pause, seemingly to collect himself. There were some coughs, some breaks in his sentences, that just didn't seem to fit.

There is nothing wrong whatsoever if Jeske was indeed getting emotional; like he said, "Football has pretty much been my life since middle school, and I came to Northwestern with some very high personal goals." It was just frustrating to not be able to tell for sure, over the phone, exactly how much this was bugging Jeske. This topic hasn't gotten much play on the message boards, and truth be told, it won't have a discernable impact on the nuts and bolts of NU's defense, but nonetheless, it's…a shame.

In hoops news, this story is about four-star recruit Marshall Plumlee visiting Northwestern. The phone aspect of this gig again reared its ugly head – I haven't been able to get a hold of Plumlee to talk about how his visit went. But I can tell you that a source with the program said the visit went very well, that Plumlee "got to see just how special Northwestern is."

The Wildcats targeted and missed out on Plumlee's two older brothers, each of whom went to Duke, but Marhsall seems a legit prospect for the Cats. Once (if?) I get a hold of him, I'll try to figure out just how seriously he is taking NU.


***

Moving away from Purple Reign, the talk surrounding Wildcat football this week was largely about the team's skill position players. The exodus of NU's quarterback, running back and top receivers was discussed at Big Ten media days and in numerous other venues this off-season, so this isn't a new topic.

But now, after practices have begun and the Kamp Kenosha scrimmage is in the books, there is a little bit more to go on besides speculation and years-old stats – like quarterback Mike Kafka's freshman numbers (which weren't good) or Arby Fields' high school numbers (which were).

Based on reports coming out of Kenosha – like this one from ESPN's Adam Rittenberg – Fields is tearing it up. That sentiment was echoed in two releases from NU Sports, which you can find here and here. Fields ripped off a 55-yarder in a scrimmage mid-week, and then made a great catch the next day.

Playing time at running back is there for the taking. Sure, Stephen Simmons is the "incumbent," but his performance spelling Tyrell Sutton last season wasn't exactly All-World. So now Fields, a freshman, and sophomore Jevarin Matthews are vying with Stephens for carries. And after a week of preseason drills, it sounds like Fields is staking his claim better than anyone. So far, at least. (I will stick with my on-record statement that Matthews will emerge as a huge factor in the backfield, but everyone, myself included, would do well to not sleep on Fields.)

That ESPN article also discusses the quarterback situation, which is panning out just how some on the message boards thought it would: backup Dan Persa is looking good, and presumed starter Mike Kafka is struggling a bit – at least at times. From Rittenberg:

Starting quarterback Mike Kafka has looked impressive this preseason, but he didn't ease any concerns about his passing ability Saturday. His lone offensive series ended with an interception that linebacker Ben Johnson returned 62 yards for a touchdown. Kafka went 3-for-6 for 34 yards. It was only one series, but you would expect a little better, especially with six defensive starters sitting out.

Backup quarterback Dan Persa fared much better, completing 8 of 11 passes for 87 yards and two touchdowns. Persa led scoring drives of 74 and 59 yards and tossed a 38-yard touchdown to Kevin Frymire. Northwestern's coaches fully intend to play Persa at some point this season, so his play is encouraging.

I am a big believer that the spread offense, coupled with a savvy O-coordinator like NU's Mick McCall, is the best way to make up for a QB's deficiencies. Well-executed bubble screens and dumps and flares, which help define the spread, do indeed protect the quarterback.

But at some point the quarterback needs to make the throws. Now, there is no sense in writing off Kafka at this point; one bad pass out of six won't stop the earth from spinning. But if Kafka struggles early in the season, I will be curious to see how Wildcat fans and message board folks react. (Not to mention the coaches.) If NU loses one of its first three games, it won't be hard to hear people calling for a change.

On a lighter note, this is a story from the Chicago Tribune about how receiver Andrew Brewer and a few teammates took a trip to Canada this summer. It sounds a bit rustic:

After they passed International Falls, Minn., they still had 250 miles to reach their destination: Black Bear Lodge, near the town of Red Lake in Ontario, Canada.

What did the place offer? It's more about what it didn't: No phone calls. No texting. No Facebook. Oh, and no electricity in the cabins.

"It was refreshing," Brewer said.

Speaking of the receivers, here is yet another article from Rittenberg*, this one about how the receiving corps is content being somewhat of a no-name crew. NU of course lost last season's top pass-catchers, including Sutton, who ranked fourth on the team in receiving yards and catches.

*Rittenberg, by the way, went to Northwestern; he sometimes seems to pay extra attention to the Wildcats. Make no mistake: It's nice to have Rittenberg breaking down NU like so. It's just interesting because for a team people expect to finish eighth or ninth in the conference, Rittenberg covers NU a lot. Again, not complaining. He's good at what he does, and it's wonderful fodder for the WWW.

From Rittenberg:

Northwestern must replace three multiyear starters at wide receiver this season, and the next group in consists mainly of players unknown outside the team's football complex.

Brewer might be the most recognizable as a former starting quarterback for NU, and Stewart and sophomore Jeremy Ebert combined for 32 receptions and three touchdowns last season. But most preseason prognosticators, including yours truly, point to what Northwestern has lost at receiver. Eric Peterman, Ross Lane and Rasheed Ward combined for 1,903 receiving yards 170 receptions and 12 touchdowns.

And then there were a pair of Indiana Hoosiers writers offering their own analysis on NU. Here is a piece from the Herald Times in Bloomington that looks at NU, asserting:

The Wildcats have quietly emerged as one of the more consistent teams in the Big Ten. After a 9-4 season in 2009, coach Pat Fitzgerald was awarded a contract extension that gives him security and allows the young coach to continue building the program. Indiana surprised Northwestern a year ago at Memorial Stadium, with Ben Chappell engineering a 21-19 victory. Expect the Wildcats to be ready this time for what is coming. SI.com has Northwestern as the No. 42 team in college football, and predicts the Wildcats will end up in the Motor City Bowl. Indiana was No. 99 in the same ranking.

And here is one from the Sports Blog Nation site for Indiana, which postulates:

Northwestern is the only Big Ten team on the schedule that owes IU any revenge. Thanks to last year's carnage and our historical futility against Michigan and Ohio State, IU is on a losing streak against 9 of 10 conference opponents. Last season, IU provided one of the few disappointing moments in Northwestern's 9-win season by upsetting the Wildcats 21-19 in Bloomington. The 2008 game was the fifth consecutive IU-NU game decided by a touchdown or less, but the first of those five that IU managed to win.

ChicagoNow.com takes a look in this piece at how the Big Ten has some key players recovering from knee injuries this season. The lead for this story is good…

Each of us has at least one three-letter acronym we never want to hear. Something that immediately brings to mind a terrible fear, past horror, irreversible mistake, or worst nightmare.

RIP.
WMD.
HIV.
HGH.
MIA.
IRS.
OSU. (Sorry, Wolverine fans, couldn't resist.)

Football players have a most-feared-acronym as well: the dreaded three letters A-C-L.

The article goes on to say that Northwestern's Corey Wootton is the best of the group of recovering players, which is certainly true. (While he was held out of Saturday's scrimmage, all the rhetoric coming from the team is that Wootton is A-OK.)

This blog post from ESPN (not Rittenberg!!) looks at NU's Week 3 opponent, Syracuse. I have been pretty clear that I think Syracuse is a tricky game for the Cats. The Orange will have already played Minnesota and Penn State – compared to NU's opening-season scrimmages against Towson and Eastern Michigan. Plus it's in that dome. Plus they have a new coach. I don't know…I just don't like that game.

Anyhow, we can (and will) talk more about that as it nears. For now, I thought this best-case/worst-case blog post was interesting.

The Orange open by shocking Minnesota at home, and though they get shellacked at Penn State, they come back to upset Northwestern the following week….

Paulus is pretty good. As a basketball player. As a quarterback with no college experience, he is completely lost, and opponents can't wait to throw all sorts of blitzes at him. Bruised and battered, he doesn't make it through the first three games, all losses.

Sticking with Syracuse for a moment, this piece from Syracuse's local paper – well, the local paper's blog – discusses the tremendous turnover that has occurred since last season. Tremendous as in 18 players have quit the team since new coach Doug Marrone took over in January. The writer includes a roster – which he calls "a scorecard" – that gives a good visual of just how much attrition the Orange has experienced.

(Kind of irrelevant, but a great picture of a guy getting "blown up," as they say...)

Moving away from the Orange, here is a recap of the release of the AP Poll on Saturday, which of course is headed up by defending champion Florida. Two Big Ten teams – Ohio State and Penn State – cracked the Top 10 – they actually tied at No. 9 – while NU was in the "receiving votes" category.

My no-so-bold prediction is that NU could crack the Top 25 after Week 4, but no sooner. The Cats probably won't get in on the strength of wins over Towson (Week 1), nor Eastern Michigan (Week 2), nor Syracuse (Week 3). But if NU rolls through those teams and beats Minnesota at home in Week 4, well, 4-0 with a win over a 2008 bowl team would look pretty good. Last year, the Cats cracked the Top 25 after a Week 5 win at Iowa.

Finishing football news, this is a story – well, more speculation than story – about Pat Fitzgerald possibly leaving Northwestern. The Fitz-leaving idea is interesting: NU fans have to feel pretty comfortable that he's staying, and those outside the program probably see him as one of the next big hires (why, after all, would someone want to stay at Northwestern?!)

This is unique because Fitz's insistence that he wants to stay at NU rings genuine. Not what he says, necessarily: "It's no secret that I want to be the head football coach at Northwestern for many years to come." But rather the sincerity that he apparently has. Coaches talk about loyalty and dedication and all of that incessantly; Fitz, though, really seems to mean it. At the same time, a total outsider from, say, Texas or Florida or New York, might think it's loco to stay at Northwestern and deal with the academic restraints and perceived lack of prestige when Fitz could presumably someday bolt for some place else. I think he's staying; I think most NU fans think he's staying; I think most outsiders think he'll bolt if NU continues to win eight and nine games per season.

Now, a quick look at the hardwood. ESPN did a piece here about how Northwestern is on the rise in hoops.

"For the 2010 class, we've really been scouring the country," Hardy said. "We got some guys who we really like." Carmody said, "We're involved in some kids who we haven't gotten in the past, to speak frankly."

It's about time for Carmody. He thought he'd have Northwestern cracking the NCAA tournament field by his fourth or fifth year on campus. This season will be his 10th, and he has yet to reach that goal. For Wildcats fans, it's been an eternity of waiting for Northwestern's first NCAA tournament bid.

And here is a blog entry from the Daily Herald about how NU is getting shorted on televised games. Being on TV can be a serious factor in kids' decisions about where to go to school, so there is something to this beside the writer being a total homer – a point that he raises himself.

By my count, the Big Ten gets 27 regular-season conference games on ESPN/ESPN2 and eight more on CBS this year. That's a total of 70 open game-slots on these networks, which means each Big Ten team (on the average) should get 6.36 national opportunities.

Northwestern gets exactly one national game: The Feb. 25 trip to Iowa.

One way to get on TV is for NU to keep winning. I reckon ESPN or another network would make sure the Cats get their air-time if they are rolling when, for example, they go into East Lansing on Jan. 30 or if, on Feb. 21, they visit Wisconsin with both teams vying for tourney bids. We'll see...

That about wraps it up. If you have any comments, questions, grievances, etc., please write to me at northwestern.scout@gmail.com.



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