Commentary: Spring Summary for NU
by Jonathan Hodges

With spring practice beginning on April 1 for Northwestern, the 2008 season will begin (at least to some degree) and although the incoming recruits will not yet be on campus, the new offensive and defensive coordinators will step onto the NU practice field for the first time and set the tone for the coming year.  Coach Fitzgerald will be heading into his third season (although he's still been on the job for less than two full years) and will have new OC Mick McCall calling plays on offense and the well-traveled and experienced DC Mike Hankwitz formulating strategies on defense.  Also, there is a new DL coach and some other coaching responsibilities have been shuffled around.  But in terms of the overall picture, this is the year that Fitz has HIS coaches in place and will have his opportunity to shape the program as he sees fit.


As I have noted in earlier commentaries, specifically concerning the Wildcat assistant coaches, until now Fitz was basically running the team with Coach Walker's guys.  Not that it was a bad thing, since Fitz was a Walker guy, but in order to effectively run the program, one must have the opportunity to fully shape it - and that means hiring assistants in which one trusts and believes in fully.  I believe that is what Fitz did in this off season - installing coordinators in which he believes on both sides of the ball - but most particularly defense, where there have been glaring deficiencies for basically the last decade.  In Hankwitz, he gets a guy with a wealth of experience, who became a DC around the same time as Fitz would have started to play competitive football.  Oh, and include in his list of accolades fielding some of the top defenses over the past two decades at major BCS conference schools (Colorado, Arizona, Texas A&M, and Wisconsin), going to a ton of bowl games, and grabbing a piece of the national championship (alongside then-OC Gary Barnett).  To assist him with the DL will be Marty Long who comes in from the west coast and was most recently at Washington State and before that Nevada (and he had experience at Arizona around the same time as when Hankwitz was there), and many hope that his style will help invigorate NU's talented and experience-laden DL.  And, on the other side of the ball, OC McCall comes in from Bowling Green, who has been successful in the MAC in recent years - and he has been the man primarily responsible for the QB position (and last year running the whole offense).  He is expected to bring in a "run from the spread" mentality that NU successfully employed earlier this decade - and hopefully that philosophy will help invigorate the offense who has taken a studder-step the past couple years.  Most importantly, though, Fitz has "his" team of coaches in place - he picked them and he believes in them - which fully puts the entire organization in his hands.

Also, don't forget that Fitz will be managing his second full off-season this year and will be going into his second fully-prepared season.  He has had a lot of learning opportunities the past two seasons and no doubt he will have learned something from those moments and will bring that into this year.  He is still young, but now possesses valuable experience being a HC at this level.

In terms of players, NU returns a wealth of talent and experience for 2008.  First, the offense.


The offense will be loaded with skill players this season.  QB CJ Bacher will be a senior and carries in some impressive stats from the past year and a half and his arrow looks to be pointing up.  RB Tyrell Sutton looks to regain and possibly surpass the success of his freshman year after a season cut very short by injuries last year.  RB Omar Conteh filled in nicely last year for Sutton and showed his own talent, and hopefully will have a way to contribute this year.  And the WR corps isn't very shabby either, with accomplished WRs Ross Lane and Eric Peterman leading the way, along with QB convert and speedster Andrew Brewer (who was sidelined with a broken arm last season), and veterans Jeff Yarbrough and Rasheed Ward.  Also, throw in some promising young talent at the WR position with Frymire, Stewart, and Fisher looking to contribute.

The key to the offense, and possibly NU's season, will be the offensive line.  NU returns only two starters from last season, junior Kurt Mattes (RT), and senior Joel Belding (G).  There were only two others who have seen the field, Keegan Grant and Alex Rucks.  Other than that there is nobody on the roster with collegiate OL playing experience.  So, come August 30th, someone on that line will be out there for the first time.  Any football fan knows the success of the offense completely depends on the performance of the OL, and as 'Cats fans saw last year, a poor showing can lead to some major issues (i.e.last year's fourth quarter meltdown against Michigan that saw a handful of sacks, fumbles, and other miscues in the backfield).  All those skill players won't be able to do much if the OL isn't performing.

Fortunately, NU has a lot of young talent stockpiled at OL.  Here are some names you may very well begin hearing a lot of once the season rolls around: Al Netter (probably one of the biggest prospects - both literally and figuratively), Ramon Diaz, Tyler Compton, Tanner Highlen, Colin Armstrong, Doug Bartels, Mike Boyle, Ben Burkett, and Desmond Taylor.  Oh, and don't forget Keegan Kennedy who will be making the switch from DL to OL this off-season.  There are a lot of guys on that list who will have their chance to make the way into the starting lineup this off-season, and a few of those guys (including Diaz and Compton) may have very well been on the field already if not for season-ending injuries before last year even began.

Some may worry excessively about the OL, especially after seeing a veteran OL struggle last year, but the fact is that NU has had success with young OLs in the past - both 2000 and 2005 (the most successful years this decade) saw some young players step up on the OL.  The fact is that if the right combination can be found up front and those guys can coalesce then good things can most definitely happen.  This will be a key area to watch.


The defense will also be returning a lot of key players from last year.  In the secondary NU will have back CB Sherrick McManis, S Brendan Smith, and S Brad Phillips.  Add to the mix CB David Oredugba and CB Justan Vaughn who saw some PT last year, and NU has a good amount of experience to fall back upon.  And, possibly most exciting, some newcomers will add lots of speed and potential into the mix: S David Arnold and CB Justin Mabin, most notably.  The young guys will definitely have an opportunity to step up and make plays and will also have some more experienced guys to look to for assistance.  It will be interesting to watch Brendan Smith's health as he had shoulder surgery during last season and will hopefully be 100% once the season rolls around (last year he saw limited action and was most definitely not up to health).  For once, NU's secondary may be an advantage.

The LB corps will also have some question marks - most notably who will take over in the middle for departed LB Adam Kadela (of course last year the question was who will take over for Nick Roach, and the year before that it was who will take over for McGarigle).  Seniors Malcolm Arrington and Prince Kwateng have the most experience on the field and will most definitely see a lot of action.  But don't count out other older and experienced guys like Rejaie Johnson and Mike Dinard.  And then there are some younger players with some experience on the field like Quentin Davie, Nate Williams, and even Chris Jeske (who will hopefully be at full health).  There will undoubtedly be some healthy competition for playing time - especially with some younger guys waiting in the wings (Ben Johnson, Bryce McNaul, Kyle Petty, and Pat Pohlen).  Oh, and there may be some competition from the true freshmen in the fall, too.

Finally, the DL will have a lot of talent on board - most notably John Gill and Corey Wootton.  Other experienced guys will be Adam Hahn, Kevin Mims, along with Marshall Thomas and Corbin Bryant.  Also throw some young talent into the mix with Kevin Watt, Andrew Struckmeyer, Vince Browne, Niko Mafuli, and Jack DiNardo.  Here, again, there is a wealth of experience with Gill, Wootton, Hahn, and Mims PLUS a lot of young talent ready to get onto the field.  This unit has failed to meet high expectations the past couple of years (especially last season), so with a new DC and DL coach it is hoped that this unit will really excel.

The biggest question facing the defense is what formation will they employ?  NU has been running mostly a 4-3 base defense the past few years, although talk of switching to a 3-4 has been around for about the past 3 years.  Walker, then Fitz continued to talk about it and the question always was - is this the year?  Last year NU had a lot of solid players on the DL while the LB corps looked rather thin - so Fitz stuck with the guys he had and went with a 4-3 (most of the time).  The question is after graduation and shifting players around it looks like the numbers may be right to switch, but with a new DC and DL coach nobody knows for sure what they will do.  The chance of seeing some of these heralded young players on the field will really depend on what strategy is used by the defensive coaching staff.

Overall, though, the defense should improve significantly (well, there's nowhere to go but up, right) not only because of the wealth of talent available, but also because of the experienced coaches there to form the defensive unit.  As one of the top defenders of his playing time, Fitz undoubtedly couldn't stand to see NU's recent defensive failures and I hope to see him and his new hires lead the defense to greatness this year.

Special Teams

K/P Stefan Demos returns for his second year on the field and will hopefully be back to full health after a leg injury apparently forced him to stay off of kickoff duties and field rugby-style punts (which were surprisingly effective).  Kickoffs will be even more significant this year as teams will be even more damaged by a kick out of bounds (which will now go to the 40 yard line after moving the kickoff back to the 30 last year).  Amado Villarreal will also return to handle field goal kicking as he had a rather good season last year, and although he had his ups and downs he did hit 7 consecutive field goals to begin the year and had a 49 yarder under his belt as well.  The coverage units had a rather good year last year - allowing only one return for TD (a kickoff against Indiana) - and hopefully Fitz will continue emphasizing the importance of good coverage which was a weak point under Coach Walker.  It will be interesting to see how Demos and Villarreal split time between kickoffs and field goal kicking, and also to see how the punting duties are doled out.  Overall, though, these two players provide valuable experience as well as talent.


The schedule for NU is very favorable.  The 4 non-conference matchups, all at the beginning of the season, are against relatively weak competition.  Syracuse and Duke are from BCS conferences but have been bad the past few years and don't look to be rapidly improving.  Ohio may be on the upswing in the MAC, but haven't proven to be a consistent winner under Solich.  And Southern Illinois has been a presence at the FCS/I-AA level, but after losing their head coach and many starters from last year's team they may not be at the same level.  Also, NU misses Wisconsin and Penn State on the Big Ten slate this year - two teams expected to be near the top of the conference.  And the 'Cats don't get some of the most challenging opponents (Ohio State, Michigan, and Illinois) until the last 3 games of the season.  Therefore, Northwestern has a great chance to make a lot of noise early by racking up wins before getting to those tough games.  Of course, NU knows very well not to overlook anyone (UNH in 2006 and Duke last year) in the nonconference schedule, and every Big Ten game can be tough (remember NU need a 21 point comeback and 2 OTs to beat 1-11 Minnesota by 1 point last year) - and NU has to face Iowa (away), Indiana (away), and Purdue early on - all teams that can do some damage.

The fact is, though, the 'Cats should at the very least expect to go bowling in 2008.  7 wins would be a minimum, with 8 wins being rather likely.  And there may even be the chance of surpassing that if NU can get on a roll early and do some damage later in the year.  If NU can put things together early (meaning getting a solid OL on the field and finally putting together the pieces on defense) then a 9-0 record going into a home game against Ohio State is within the realm of possibilities.

There are a lot of reasons to be excited for the 2008 football season, and it all begins in a couple weeks once spring practice begins.

Go 'Cats!!!

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

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