Commentary: Preseason Commentary: Five Questions for Camp Kenosha
by Jonathan Hodges
With Northwestern practicing in Kenosha this week, here are five questions that
need to be answered during this vital stretch of preparation before the season
kicks off on September 4 at Vanderbilt.
How will the Wildcats
amass rushing yards?
This is a question that essentially went
unanswered last season, with QB Mike Kafka leading Northwestern in rushing yards
(taking out yardage lost due to sacks) with 519 gross rushing yards and 8
rushing touchdowns. Otherwise, it was running back by committee where the top
four running backs all had more than 50 carries (a little less than 4 per game),
although none eclipsed 90 on the season (a little less than 7 per
My preview of the offense goes through all of the details, but to
condense that let's just say that true sophomore Arby Fields, who led all NU
RB's last year with 82 carries, 302 net rushing yards, and 5 rushing TDs, will
likely be the starter and most promising back. Jacob Schmidt, Scott Concannon,
and Stephen Simmons will still be there to pick up carries, particularly in
specific situations (e.g. third down, where one is more likely to see Schmidt),
but all signs are pointing to Fields to be the guy in 2010.
Dan Persa is
also a solid runner and will get plenty of chances to carry the pill himself,
averaging 3.4 yards per carry in limited action last year (and that is with sack
numbers included) and he also tied for the longest run of the season, 25 yards.
Persa lends himself to the type of dual-threat offensive attacks Offensive
Coordinator Mick McCall seems to like, at least the type that made QBs Josh
Harris and Omar Jacobs very successful at Bowling Green under
Added to that, the offensive line is anticipated to be much
improved in 2010 thanks to the coming of age of the young talent that have been
gaining experience within the program. LT Al Netter and C Ben Burkett are among
the best in the conference at their respective positions, and the remainder of
the spots will likely be stocked with underclassmen who received a trial by fire
during last season and should be ready to settle in and play a full slate this
In terms of offensive balance and the running game, hopefully we
will see something between last year's Towson game, where NU ran the ball 54
times (71% of snaps), and the Outback Bowl, where NU passed the ball 78 times
(69% of snaps).
Expect the Northwestern running game to rebound in 2010
and for Fields and Persa to lead the way on the ground, but that 'Cats must
still establish the foundation for that to occur in Kenosha.
will step up in the secondary?
Often overlooked on defense last year,
senior Sherrick McManis plain took care of business, amassing 5 interceptions
and 7 additional pass break-ups, and that despite missing two complete games
with injury (one, notably, was the disappointing loss to Syracuse which featured
multiple redshirt freshmen being forced into service on the defensive side of
the ball). The 'Cats also lose key performers Brendan Smith and Brad Phillips
at the safety position, both of whom garnered all-Big Ten honors at some point
in their career.
The Wildcats do return four players in the defensive
backfield with significant playing time under their belts, though. They are led
by junior CB Jordan Mabin, who is looking to build on almost two full years of
starting experience. Yes, he's taken his lumps, but he has the talent and, now,
experience to take it to the next level. He's joined by junior S Brian Peters,
who actually ranked 5th on the 'Cats last season in tackles and should be able
to step in nicely.
The other two spots are less solid, but at least
Northwestern has some viable options at both. Senior CB Justan Vaughn was the
starter going into the 2008 season but suffered a season-ending injury that gave
Mabin an opportunity to step in. Vaughn has been plagued with injury but
finally has a chance to step in and contribute as a senior
Finally, at the other S spot is sophomore Jared Carpenter, who
saw limited action last year and is regarded highly going into 2010.
this unit will have a hard time replicating the success of the 2008-09 units,
but they have the talent and enough experience to make a good run at it. The
thing they will have to do, though, is avoid injury, something the 2009
secondary had a difficult time doing. There is virtually no experience after
the starters thanks to the loss of S David Arnold to a foot injury, which will
cause him to miss at least the first game of the season (and, likely,
At cornerback, Ricky Weina made a huge impact against Indiana last
season, but it is still doubtful that he could hold down the position through
multiple games of the Big Ten slate. Demetrius Dugar got a baptism by fire
against Syracuse and was burned time and time again by talented WR Mike Williams
en route to a disappointing NU road loss. Finally, Evanston native Mike Bolden
has the speed but has rarely seen the field, and then only on special teams
At safety, sophomore Hunter Bates is the best backup option, and,
like Bolden, he has skills but has only seen the field on special teams duty.
After him, the only options are redshirt freshman Davion Fleming and senior
Scott Lilja (the walk-on son of NU conditioning coach Larry Lilja who has never
Camp will go a long way in being able to tell if the
starters are up to snuff and if the backups are really even a legitimate backup
Will the offensive line gel?
Last year, injuries
and competition hampered the coaching staff's ability to name and stick with a
starting lineup at offensive line. Thankfully, the aforementioned Netter and
Burkett, who were the only regulars at their respective positions a year ago,
will be back to anchor the line.
Touted true sophomore Patrick Ward is in
the heat of competition with sophomore Neal Deiters for the right tackle spot;
both of them are large and got enough playing time last year to be able to
contribute at that spot.
The battle for both guard spots seems to be a
three-man race between senior Keegan Grant, junior Doug Bartels, and sophomore
Brian Mulroe. All garnered a good amount of playing time last season, and
Bartels and Grant have started games over multiple seasons. So, NU should be in
solid shape there.
The best thing that can happen during camp is for five
starters to emerge and begin to gel as a unit, something that never really
happened during all of last season for the Wildcats. In 2009, the offensive
line didn't really do a great job protecting Kafka (they ranked 92nd nationally
in sacks allowed) and didn't always open holes for the running game (NU averaged
just 3.0 yards per rush).
Expect this line to come together better than
last year mostly thanks to increased competition and more experience under their
collective belt, and for both run and pass blocking to improve a good amount
this season. Hopefully once August 30 rolls around and the initial depth chart
is released, there are five clear starters on the OL who have had a chance to
work together for multiple weeks before the season
Will the punting game improve?
kicker Stefan Demos was unfairly saddled with all phases of the kicking game,
and, needless to say, his punting game suffered severely. He ranked 98th
nationally in punting with 35.0 yards per punt (for comparison, the first place
punter averaged over 48 yards per punt). NU's punt coverage wasn't all that
great, either, ranking 72nd nationally at just a hair under 10 yards per punt
All signs in the preseason point to the emergence of
redshirt freshman Brandon Williams as the punter this season, which was
seemingly welcomed by Demos and Fitz.
And, as mentioned in my look
at the special teams, the increase in depth across the roster should help
the Wildcats field a talented coverage unit that should be able to shave some
yardage off of those return yard allowed numbers.
Look for positive
differences in the punting game numbers this season with a dedicated punter and
more talent in the coverage teams. This should help give the defense a good
starting point, which wasn't always the case a season ago.
Wildcats avoid further injury?
Just before leaving Evanston, NU
announced four significant injures that will keep those players out of at least
the first game of the regular season, and likely more. The defense took a hit
with Arnold, backup LB Roderick Goodlow, and reserve LB Tim Riley all suffering
injuries. Riley reportedly already underwent surgery, Goodlow suffered what
appears to be a season-ending injury, and Arnold's injury doesn't look
promising. Also, promising true freshman WR Tony Jones was injured as
The very best thing that can happen in the rest of the preseason is
for Northwestern to make it up to September 4 without further significant
injury. The 'Cats have done a good job of navigating through injuries to
starters in every season since Fitz took the helm (Malcolm Arrington in 2006,
Andrew Brewer prior to the 2007 season, CJ Bacher and Tyrell Sutton in 2008, and
Mike Kafka, Stephen Simmons, Sherrick McManis and others last year), but it is
hard to sustain a high level of play while losing key components of the team
year in and year out.
Keep an eye here and on my Twitter feed
throughout this week and up until kickoff of the regular season to see how
answers to these questions emerge.
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