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 game).

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 McCall.

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 year.

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.

Who 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 starter.

Finally, at the other S spot is sophomore Jared Carpenter, who saw limited action last year and is regarded highly going into 2010.

Yes, 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, more).

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 duty.

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 seen action).

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 plan.

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 lid-lifter.

Will the punting game improve?

Last year, 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 return allowed.

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.

Can the 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 well.

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.

Go 'Cats!!!

e-mail: j-hodges@alumni.northwestern.edu

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jhodges is the primary content provider of HailToPurple.com.  His commentary and game analyses appear regularly during the season and occasionally in the offseason.