Commentary: Five Things to Look Out for at Camp Kenosha
by Jonathan Hodges

Since Camp Kenosha is right around the corner for the 'Cats (they're off to Wisconsin on Saturday), this is my second commentary posting this week to specifically address things to look out for at camp.  While it is only practice, the preseason camp builds a basis for the entire season - and as many people have claimed: your performance is only as good as your best practice.  Plus, there are many new faces in town plus old ones who have moved on, and it is time for the 2007 Northwestern football team to take shape and establish itself.

I don't expect to see any major revelations in Kenosha (e.g. complete shift in offense or defense strategies, battles for major skill positions), but there are a few general things to look out for which will hopefully be worked out before the season begins, which I will add to my "5 things" series which I have apparently (unintentionally) started:

1. Kicker/Punter: Who will punt?  Nobody on the 2007 Northwestern football squad has ever attempted a punt in collegiate play.  This could be bad (as you may expect), but it could also be a good change given the major deficiencies in the punting game that have been present basically since Brian Huffman was switched from a punter (his natural position, at which he was pretty solid) to kicker (which he struggled in - see the 2004 TCU game for an example).  Rumors have been circulating that Demos may step up and punt as well as kick, but that looks questionable.  Daley is listed on the post-spring 2-deep as the starting punter, but he is thus far untested in collegiate play.  Also, throw Ison (a walk-on) and Pines (a former NU soccer player) into the mix as possibilities.  There are a lot of options but no in-game differentiation thus far, but one would hope NU can find a better solution than last year when the 'Cats resorted to many directional punts to try and offset the lack of pure punting skills (Larscheid, the punter last year, was brought in as a place kicker and converted following an injury and Howells taking over the kicker role).  Who will kick?  Demos, one of the most highly touted recruits of his class and probably one of the highest rated kickers NU has recruited in recent years, will almost definitely take over place kicking duties.  During his redshirt year in 2006, fans routinely watched him boot 50+ yard field goals in warm-ups, and they expect nothing less in real life.  One does have to remember, though, is that he has no kicking experience at this level - in fact the only experienced kicker on the team is Villareal who made a couple of extra point kicks in the Sun Bowl after the notorious Howells collapse.  Only time will tell how good Demos really is, but it is reassuring that there is talent available at the kicking position.

2. OL 2-deep: I brought this up in a previous commentary as one of the question marks for this season.  Things should shake out in camp as to who will actually end up on the opening game 2-deep (primarily as backups), although there is a key offensive tackle position currently slated to Mattes that may be up for grabs.  This battle will tell a lot about the line before they face any real competition as everyone will get to see their level of conditioning and how they play as a unit.  Injuries played a factor in the OL performance last season but this year an injury to a key starter (especially Rees or Thiry) would be catastrophic given the inexperience of the squad, but a solid preseason performance would go a long way to ease the fears of NU fans.

3. LB 2-deep: Kadela and Simpson are the only proven starters, and beyond that there is a good amount of talent but little in the way of playing time.  Other names to look out for as potential starters/key backups are Dinard, Kwateng, Arrington, and Malleo.  Then there are the underclassmen: Davie, Williams, Jeske - all with lots of potential.  The performance in camp should shake things out between these players and give NU a good idea of who will be on the 2-deep at LB.  This is arguably the most worrisome spot on defense and a good showing would ease the fears of many.  Of course this position may become even more vital if NU changes to a 3-4 defensive scheme, which leads to #3A.

3A. Will NU go to the 4-3 on defense?  NU has been running a more traditional 4-3 (4 linemen, 3 linebacker) defense, although a couple of years back Coach Walker made the commitment to begin converting to a 3-4 (3 linemen, 4 linebacker) scheme which has become more popular as of late (to get better size matchups with receivers and keep more speed on the field, plus give more options in the way of blitzes).  At the time, this decision made a lot of sense - DL was not one of NU's strengths (despite players like Harris - who played DE for a time at NU, Castillo, and Cofield who all went to the next level of play) while LB was an NU strong point (with the likes of Bentley, Durr, McGarigle, and Roach passing through the position) due to recruiting and coaching.  This year, though, I would argue that the situation is almost completely reversed - there is a ton of talent and potential for great performances from the deep D-Line (Gill, Wooton, Hahn, Koehn as starters and Ngene, Mims, Kennedy, Thomas, and Bryant as backups), plus there is a lot of experience on the DL with most of those players getting held to the fire the past couple seasons.  In the LB squad, the concerns are listed above in #3.  If the LB squad steps up and eliminates those concerns and proves itself to be solid and deep, then this may be moot.  But right now, nobody really knows which direction NU will go - press ahead (IMHO foolishly) with the 3-4 right now, or keep the 4-3 in play for this season, at least.  There is always the option to go there later, but the best plan is to do what fits the talent that's in the program now.

4. Will the offense stick with the spread or will they (continue to) revert to a more traditional offense. In 2005 and even more in '06, the "superback" was utilized often primarily as a blocker.  The offense run in 2006 was a far cry from that seen back in 2000 when the spread was introduced to NU by Coach Walker (and not just in performance).  The FB/HB/TE "superback" spot was utilized as a blocker quite often (with Cobb filling that role last year), and while the offense got its numbers up with Bacher at the helm, it wasn't the throw-often then run free though the holes look of Kustok/Anderson back 7 years ago.  There is always the possibility that NU will convert its strategy to a more traditional offense with more blockers, which I believe would be foolish as well.  There are plenty of talented (albeit some unproven) receivers on the squad: Lane, Peterman, Brewer, Ward, Jones, Thompson, and youngsters Fisher, Frymire, and Stewart.  Meanwhile, there are some young recruits or older underutilized players at the superback position (Woodsum, Mitchell, Shanks).  It seems as though the talent level at WR combined with the abilities of Bacher and Sutton would mean that the spread gives the best option of success.  This is mostly a concern thanks to the low level of performance from last year's offense - and I am not sure how successful McGee will be with tweaking the offensive scheme after only one year as a coordinator and not much success to lean upon.  Kenosha should indicate if there will be shift in offensive strategy.

5. Comfort level/ability of coaches: It's been a year since the biggest transition in the Wildcat football program since Barnett left in 1999.  Of course the loss of Coach Walker was the biggest hit to the program - both emotionally and in terms of proven coaching ability.  McGee was new on the job and in a brand new role for him as the OC.  Fitz was a first time HC with little in the way of coaching experience, having not been at the coordinator level yet.  There were some new assistants brought in ( e.g. Bates as LB coach).  There was a new recruiting coordinator.  All this coupled with many new players on the field equaled a tough year.  Now everyone has had a year to mature and grow into the new positions, Fitz has had more than 6 weeks to prepare for his first game as head coach.  McGee, hopefully, has gained valuable experience running the offense.  And most importantly, hopefully these coaches have formed a unit and will be able to run the program effectively.  Many (fans, media, administration) I am sure gave them a honeymoon period last season, but now the expectations are growing.  Camp should give everyone idea as to how comfortable the coaches are in their positions a year later.

Things not to look for at Kenosha include: how effective the defense will be as a unit - it takes real live competition (probably not until week 2 against Nevada will we actually find out) to see how this unit will shore up.  If the offense will return to its old productive self - again, it takes real game situations to see how effectively this unit will operate and if it can get in sync and start producing yards and points.  While the potential is there for both of these units to improve over last season and possibly even excel, that is a complete unknown until the team gets on the playing field.

Go 'Cats!!!

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

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