Commentary: 2009 Spring Practice Guide
by Jonathan Hodges

Well, it's already spring (nevermind the fresh blanket of snow outside here in Evanston which came down the weekend of March 28th) and it's time for the Wildcats to begin preparations for the 2009 season with spring practice leading up to the spring game on April 25th.  That is, for those returning players who are not being held out due to injury, which brings us to the biggest concern heading into the 2009 season: health.


In 2008 the Wildcats showed extreme resiliency as they responded to injury after injury on their way to a historic 9-win season and a strong showing in the Alamo Bowl.  Through the first half of the season, NU looked to be sitting pretty from the injury standpoint, only to watch the bottom drop out as NU experienced significant injuries on both sides of the ball: NU lost its senior middle linebacker for half the year, its senior QB for 2 games, its senior record-setting RB for 4 games, its backup RB for 3 games, 2 key members of the DL late in the season, and the original starting CB early in the year.  Now that trend seems to be continuing into the offseason (acknowledging that most of the injuries were sustained last year).  Here's the injury list for the spring:

DE Corbin Bryant (knee); SB Drake Dunsmore (knee), WR Mark Ison (knee), QB Joe Mauro (shoulder), LB Bryce McNaul (shoulder), S Brad Phillips (shoulder), RB Jacob Schmidt (knee), OT Desmond Taylor (knee), DE Corey Wootton (knee), WR Jeremy Ebert (hip), and S David Arnold (knee).

The early report is that all of these guys will be ready for the 2009 season come September, and the biggest concern at this point is attempting to avoid additional injuries during the spring and summer camp sessions.  A handful of the injured players should have a starting spot wrapped up once the regular season rolls around: Wootton (NU's only first team all-conference player last season), Bryant, Dunsmore (depending on when/how the "superback" position is utilized), Phillips, and Ebert.  Although Taylor was the starter at RT for much of the season, the incoming redshirt freshman class will be looking to put heat on the relatively young OL as they try and secure their starting spots moving forward - so he could have benefited from some additional time on the field to shore up his spot.  McNaul is probably also the other one losing out on a chance to compete for a starting LB spot after getting some time on special teams last season (although one of the competitors, Quentin Williams, has shifted to DE).  As with most preseason workouts, though, many are being kept out due to precautionary reasons and hopefully it will give them a chance to heal for the real action in the fall.


Much of the focus will rightly be placed onto the QB position thanks to the graduation of CJ Bacher, which looks to be a competition between 5th year senior Mike Kafka (who has 6 starts under his belt with a 3-3 record) and redshirt sophomore Dan Persa (a heralded dual-threat recruit).  After Kafka's Big Ten QB rushing record 217 yard performance against Minnesota, he seems to have the upper hand in the competition for the quarterback spot as he looks to continue the line of success as NU's QB operating the spread (following names like Kustok, Basanez, and Bacher).  The question is, though, can he throw accurately and consistently to complement his running ability - and can he do it without an established threat at running back?

One upside of Bacher's graduation is that the two competing QBs' abilities fit in with McCall's spread scheme which utilizes the QB run more often than CJ preferred.  Kafka's running abilities have been showcased, and Persa is also known to be a solid running threat - so the offensive scheme looks to benefit from this additional threat in the backfield.  Both will likely get their chances in the spring and summer preseason camps and I wouldn't be surprised to see both of them get shots during nonconference play (as NU has what looks to be one of the easist nonconference schedules in the nation in 2009).

While Kafka and Persa haven't yet fully shown their ability to throw at the collegiate level, I expect whoever wins the competition to run the NU offense efficiently come fall especially due to their running abilities.  The question is if they can put up the kind of numbers and the performances that will continue a streak of great quarterback play at Northwestern.

Running Back

Question 1A is also obvious: who will replace Tyrell Sutton?  After starting as a true freshman, NU fans took it for granted that he would be in the backfield making things happen, but the time has finally come for someone new to take over full time.  And fans may have even longer to wait, with some promising true freshmen not arriving until summer camp.  In the meantime, it looks to be a competition between Stephan Simmons (who started a few games at the end of last season) and Alex Daniel (a redshirt freshman with a lot of promise).  Walk-on Jacob Schmidt, who proved himself in special teams last season, is sidelined with an injury.  Scott Concanon (redshirt sophomore) and converted true sophomore receiver Jeravin Matthews will try to spice things up in the backfield, but aren't considered front-runners in the RB race.  Many will be looking for RBs Arby Fields and Mike Trumpy to make some noise as true freshman once fall rolls around.

For the first time in a while it looks like the competition for starting RB is pretty open, and like QB, they will be fighting for a chance to continue a line of successful NU backs in the spread offense (Anderson, Wright, Herron, and Sutton).  Last season, the RB rushing results without Sutton were pretty dismal, falling under 3 yards/carry, although the dwindling performance of the young OL down the stretch contributed to those numbers.  Hopefully a dual threat QB coupled with a more experienced OL will give the running back in the starting role a chance to succeed.

Wide Receiver

Now to question 1B: who will replace the WR trio of Lane, Peterman, and Ward?  QB convert Brewer looked poised to have a break out year in 2008, but was sidelined with various leg injuries and never lived up to his big play potential (although NU did have the luxury of fielding the 3 senior WRs).  Other upperclassmen WRs include Brown, Coleman, Fisher, Frymire, Markshausen, Mitchell, and Stewart - who have had very limited stints on the field due to the aforementioned graduation seniors occupying much of the playing time.  In fact, the most proven WR is likely true sophomore Jeremy Ebert, who actually caught NU's first passing TD last season as a true freshman (although he is out for the spring).  All of these, along with some talented underclassmen like Barber, Bayless, and Fields, will be competing for those starting spots and playing time come fall.

If I were to take a guess today, the starting trio will lkely be Stewart, Brewer, and Ebert (slot), but the competition for playing time in the rotation is pretty open - Frymire was sidelined last season with a broken leg and could be a factor, Coleman garnered some special teams playing time last year and could also be in the fight, and Brown, Fisher, and Markshausen have all seen the field at some point and want to prove themselves.  That's not even counting the redshirt freshmen Barber, Bayless, and Fields who have the speed to be game-changers.  This will be an interesting battle to watch through the spring and into pre-season camp, and it may continue into the season until they get live playing time under their belts.

Offensive Line

After last year's youth movement on the OL, now is the time for the experienced guys to hold their positions as the upcoming talented redshirt freshmen vy for playing time.  LT Netter and C Burkett look to be the most solid, while guards Bartels and Boyle will look to hold off competition at their spots.  And at RT, it will be an interesting competition between Mattes and Taylor - both seniors who have seemingly come in and out of flavor during their NU careers.  The names to watch include tackles Deiters and Porcelli and guards Adamle and Mulroe.  Junior guard Keegan Grant also looks to respond after an injury to gain playing time.

After starting out strong for such a young OL last season, things wilted as the season went on, and NU will get a new breath from the coaching side as Cushing takes over for the departed Ingalls.  It will be interesting to see who settles in at the 3 starting roles with more competition and how that line performs, especially opening holes for the running game (a glaring issue last season).


The superback spot may continue to be an enigma: how and when will it be used?  And what to do with all of that talent built up over the past couple years for a position often neglected in the spread offense?  Senior "fullback" Woodsum, senior "tight end" Mitchell, junior "tight end" Rooks, and true sophomore "H-back" Dunsmore are all proven commodities with a good amount of playing time (Dunsmore's came as a true freshman in 2007 as he sustained a knee injury during pre-season camp last year), and redshirt freshman Brett Nagel is also thrown into the mix.

After a year at the helm, it will be intriguing to see how McCall utilizes these backs in his schemes - Woodsum and Mitchell have been almost exclusively blockers, while Rooks and Dunsmore have been receiving targets.  Last year we saw McCall use the "tight ends" in a blocking scheme to give Kafka holes to run through - so we'll see if that trend continues.


After a complete turnaround last season (thanks again DC Hankwitz), the NU defense returns many of its key players, including the entire secondary.  The biggest questions are how will NU fill in basically two holes: the DT spot occupied by likely NFLer Gill and the LB spot occupied by Kwateng.  Both will see a good amount of competition.

Fortunately, NU will have 3 rather experienced guys to be in the DT rotation: Bryant (once he returns from an injury), Thomas, and Hahn (a former starter).  Throw in some youth with DiNardo, Mafuli, Struckmeyer, and Luxenburg, and you've got some healthy competition for that starting rotation.  With the excellent performance of NU's DL last season look for more good things from this unit.

And as for that OLB spot freed up by Kwateng, it will be an interesting competition between Ben Johnson (who played rather well on special teams last year), McNaul (who is injured for the spring), and ND transfer Aaron Nagel (who is likely the front runner for the starting spot).

In terms of scheme it may also be interesting how often a nickel package with 2 LBs is used, with Phillips in the "rover" hybrid LB/S role - which the NU D used effectively against spread offenses last season (especially near the end of the season).  There is most definitely a logjam of talent in the defensive backfield, and the addtional speed can never hurt against teams using 4-5 WRs.

In terms of solid positions, look for Wootton and Browne to hold down the ends, Mabin and McManis to lock down the corners, and Phillips and Smith to take care of business at safety.  Backups to watch in the secondary include Bolden, Vaughn, Arnold, and Peters; and on the line Quentin Williams, TE-convert Joplin, and Watt will all get some time in the rotation.  Even if injuries hit (as they did last year), this unit has the depth to weather it and continue to succeed.

The D will be in a very interestng position in the fall as the most proven AND experienced unit for Northwestern, and with a defensive minded HC in Fitz and a proven DC in Hankwitz who successfully turned the unit around last year - very very good things may happen in '09.  In fact, don't be surprised to see the 'Cats' D end up near the top of the pile in both conference and national rankings come the end of the season.

Special Teams

Demos.  That's about all NU has to bank on right now after graduating their senior holder, long-snapper, and place kicker.  For the spring, Demos is listed as the starter for just about every specialist role, and NU will have to answer some questions - especially for the low-profile but vital long-snapper and holder positions.  Come pre-season camp, look for incoming true freshman Budzien to take over either punter or place kicker with Demos handling the other.  Hopefully the 'Cats can find a place-kicker as consistent as Villarreal was in 2008 and it iwll be interesting to see if NU will continue to heavily utilize the low hanging rugby-style punts and 3x3 formations.


Now is really the time that Fitz's upgraded recruiting is beginning to pay dividends: although NU has a good number of returning and expected starters with playing time under their belt, this spring will give the highly touted underclassmen a chance to compete and possibly win starting spots.  And the talent is there to help push Northwestern up a notch after conducting these practices, and even if the younger players don't win starting spots they will provide valuable depth that became apparent last year with injuries.  Hopefully the depth wll give NU the chance to equal or better last year's success.

Look for a lot of new faces on offense in the skill positions, but hopefully an offense scheme that continues to be successful.  Meanwhile, the defense looks to be one of the best units since the mid-90's and should give the Wildcats a chance to win numerous games this fall.

More from me later in the spring and, of course, once pre-season camp rolls around in August.

Go 'Cats!!!

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

Previous jhodges commentary

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