Commentary: Spring Questions and Answers
by Jonathan Hodges

With spring all but gone, we're now moving into the slow months before pre-season camp starts in August leading to kickoff of the 2012 season on Saturday, September 1 at Syracuse. But before we get into that quiet summer, let's take one last look back at Northwestern's 2012 spring practices and scrimmage.

NU's spring started just before the end of the winter academic quarter on March 3 and extended until the spring game on April 14, with NU Sports conveniently providing links to recaps from throughout the spring. Although the spring game was less a game than a situational scrimmage, it was a great opportunity for the relatively young Wildcats to get some live action under their collective belt, and, thankfully, NU avoided significant injuries during the process.

Big Stories?

The biggest stories were USC transfer WR Kyle Prater obtaining practice clearance at the beginning of the spring academic quarter and finally joining the team, along with QB Kain Colter effectively taking over as the leader of the team.

NU also sought to replace two four-year starters on the offensive line (including the all-important left tackle position, left vacant by Al Netter, who is graduating and signed a free agent contract with the San Francisco 49ers), a couple of spots on the defensive line rotation (with experienced players DE Vince Browne and DT Niko Mafuli graduating), and many spots in the defensive backfield (with only rising redshirt sophomore Ibraheim Campbell returning).

On the injury front, a handful of players sat out of practice, including QB-turned-TE Evan Watkins, DE Quentin Williams, and, most notably, RB Mike Trumpy who is reportedly on track to return close to the start of the season from his torn ACL suffered early last season against Illinois.

What's the story on offense?

First off, at QB, Colter is being given every opportunity to take the reins as a full-time QB starter after Dan Persa's graduation (who reportedly played at a maximum of 50-60% last season after some injury setbacks). He is still adjusting to the passing game, though, as evidenced by is 7-of-12, 56 yd, 0 TD, 5 sack performance during the spring game itself (although the game had a number of caveats, including limits on his running ability given that the QBs were not allowed to be tackled, and all play calling was delegated to position coaches instead of the coordinators). Colter is taking more of a vocal leadership role and is committed to improving his passing game (note that only about two years removed from an injury to his throwing arm that initially limited his arm development) while Fitz and the staff have made it clear that he is number one at QB. But, even so, he'll likely have Trevor Siemian breathing down his neck to start the season, as he had slightly better spring game numbers (8-of 12, 119 yd, 2 TDs, 0 sacks) playing with (and against) the second team. Siemian showed off his arm in limited action last season, with a 61.5% completion rate, 256 yd, 3 TDs, and 1 INT, and showed off a more accurate deep ball during the spring game. Third string redshirt freshman Zack Oliver will likely be the emergency quarterback and may only see action in garbage time this season, though he will likely be groomed for a starting role a few years down the line.

At running back, it was a revolving door of guys who have seen limited playing time with Trumpy out due to injury. Treyvon Green, who played some last season as a true freshman, was the primary option, but others including return man Venric Mark, redshirt freshman Jordan Perkins, and senior former walk-on Tyris Jones all got looks. Expect to see all of those named above, plus Trumpy and potentially incoming freshman Malin Jones (note that NU has played a true freshman at RB for three years running) as Fitz continues to seek NU's first go-to runner since Tyrell Sutton graduated following the 2008 season. With Jacob Schmidt graduated and Adonis Smith transferred out of the program, there will be room for some carries to be split amongst this group.

At wide receiver, NU has serious depth, even after losing WR Jeremy Ebert (graduated and drafted by the New England Patriots) and SB Drake Dunsmore (graduated and drafted by the Tampa Bay Buccaneers). In fact, the top returning NU receiver is Colter, who will likely see far less time at WR (possibly very little at all) now that he's the true starting QB. But the 'Cats have a slew of highly regarded recruits now moving up the food chain to take over. Senior Demetrius Fields has the most experience and looks to be this year's go-to guy, while Rashad Lawrence and Christian Jones saw a good amount of action last year and will likely be in the rotation this season. NU is still awaiting an NCAA response on Prater's waiver request to play this season (otherwise, he must sit out a full year before playing), but even without him NU has plenty of other options. Most impressive during the spring game was Cameron Dickerson, followed by Pierre Youngblood-Ary, who both had nice catches despite good goverage. Also, speedy Tony Jones will be back in action after missing last season due to injury, and he will certainly be in the mix. And that's without mentioning some even younger guys including the likes of Drew Moulton, who has seen some action recently as well.

Finally, the offensive line, who lost a couple of key cogs but does have rising senior and highly touted Patrick Ward, now at left tackle, Brian Mulroe, who received some all-conference nods, at left guard, and Brandon Vitabile returning at center. The newcomers (at least to starting roles) will likely be junior Chuck Porcelli at right guard and senior Neal Deiters at right tackle. It will be interesting to see if some of the highly regarded recruits on the OL finally begin to come into their own or if the downward trend after the departure of OL coach Bret Ingalls continues.

As a whole, there will be more youth on offense, but potentially more talent in almost every area. It will be interesting to see if production can live up to standards set with Persa at the helm, though, and if the running game can finally return to set up a real dual-threat offense.

How about defense?

There were lots of questions on offense and there are even more on the other side of the ball. First, the defensive line, where NU lost the aforementioned Browne and Mafuli to graduation. The starting DL looks to be Williams and Tyler Scott at the DE spots, and Brian Arnfelt returning at DT along with Chance Carter or Will Hampton, who both got some playing time last year due to injury. The biggest revelation of the spring was likely Deonte Gibson, who had two sacks in the spring game and will push for significant playing time this fall. This group will have a difficult task this fall trying to put more pressure on opposing QBs, but there is some potential there.

The linebacking corps has more competition, with the starters likely to be David Nwabuisi, Damien Proby, and Colin Ellis, all of whom started at some point last season. Chi Chi Ariguzo will push for playing time after garnering some in 2011, and Roderick Goodlow finally made it back to the field in the spring after losing most of two seasons to a knee injury. While this group must continue to improve, particularly against the run, they have a good mix of talent and experience despite losing senior Bryce McNaul and Ben Johnson, another key contributor.

Finally, the secondary, which was burned early and often last year and now must replace three-fourths of its starters. Gone are reliable Brian Peters and long-time starter Jordan Mabin. Campbell, who led NU in tackles last season, is the only returning starter, at safety, and he'll likely be joined by one of the following: Jared Carpenter, Hunter Bates, Jimmy Hall, or Davion Fleming (likelihood in that order, with the first two having the most playing experience). During the spring, it was Hall who had the first notable hit on Prater, which prompted the latter to lose his breakfast. At cornerback, NU will be looking for two new guys, and Demetrius Dugar is the only guy with significant playing time under his belt and will likely have one of the spots. The other looks to be currently held by redshirt freshman Nick VanHoose, who had a nice spring, but that could be in flux come fall with Daniel Jones also in the mix, having played some last year after Mabin's injury.Others, including CJ Bryant, will also likely get a look in a position that is a giant question mark even after a generally sub-par year in 2011.

Overall, the linebackers are the strength of this unit, but on defense what matters is the entire 11-man operation, and there will be a lot of youth on the field for NU this fall. They will be tested and we will ahve to wait and see if NU can mold that youth into a unit that can improve from last season's 27.7 points per game allowed and 91st ranked pass efficiency defense.

Special Teams?

Special teams typically do not get much work in the spring, and NU will be bringing back all of its specialists: punter Brandon Williams, placekicker Jeff Budzien, kickoff man Steve Flaherty, and long-snapper Pat Hickey. It will be interesting to see if Venric Mark continues to return both punts and kickoffs if he will indeed be getting more playing time at RB on the offense. Overall, these positions look to be locked down and the key for this fall will be if they can all perform consistently throughout the season, something that was in question in 2011 with inconsistent punting from Williams and really not enough field goal chances for Budzien to get a read on him.


Overall, it's always tough to get a real taste of how good the team will be in the spring as many are still getting comfortable with new roles, the freshmen have not yet arrived, some are held out due to injury, and the rules have been modified to avoid injury. Also, there isn't much in the way of strategy as that is still in development and the coaches don't want to give too much away.

A few guys stepping up from the shadows included Dickerson, VanHoose, and Gibson, and we'll see if any or all of them can secure significant playing time this fall. All eyes will be on Colter as he takes over the reins of the offense, but he'll have a slew of talented WR targets. Defense has a lot of holes to fill, but there are guys stepping up.

Northwestern has a tough road, and this is just a start, but NU got off on the right foot and already has one big positive: no significant injuries.

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.