Commentary: Five Questions for Camp
by Jonathan Hodges

With Northwestern's 2009 preseason camp coming to a close, it's a perfect time to evaluate five burning questions that need to be answered and will likely be revealed either in the scrimmage on Saturday, August 22, when the depth chart is released leading up to the first game on September 5th, or when the starters trot onto the field for that first game.  Astute readers have probably picked these questions out of the unit previews, but I'll consolidate them here for easy reading.

5. Will Demos really do ALL the kicking?

On the post-spring/preseason depth chart, Demos is listed as the punter, placekicker, and handling kickoffs, which is quite a heavy load for a collegiate kicker at this level.  Of course, that is mostly due to the fact that NU doesn't have any returning kickers who have seen the field before.  In preseason interviews (including answering a twitter question by yours truly), Fitz has said Demos is the guy if he's up for it and nobody else is, but that is yet to be seen.

The concern here is that Demos has sustained multiple nagging injuries during his 3 years in the program (one as a redshirt), and although he's handled kickoff and punting duties for some of the past couple seasons, those injuries have forced him to abandon one of both of those positions late in the year.  Hopefully, he's at full health and can handle the load for the full year - he's proven that he can be very effective at all three kicking positions (albeit placekicking only in practice) and can be a boon to NU special teams.

Other options currently on the roster include touted kicking recruit Budzien (true freshman), Flaherty (redshirt freshman), and Brandon Williams (true freshman).  I would say that Budzien has the greatest chance of taking over some responsibility in the kicking game, given his pedigree, but it seems to be up in the air right now which of those kicking duties it will be.  Demos has mastered the rugby-style punt as NU was effective in limiting returns last season on punts, so one wouldn't want to mess that up.  Kickoffs are vital now with the kickoff spot at the 30 and a significant out of bounds penalty.  And, of course, placekicking gets a lot of attention, especially in those high-pressure situations late in games.

I suppose the answer will only come as the coaches see who has mastered which aspects of the game in camp and how tired Demos' leg gets.

4. Have key players successfully recovered from injuries?

Everyone knows about Wootton's knee injury sustained in the Alamo Bowl, and although he's cleared to play and ready to go, one only really knows once he gets into game situations and has to face a formidable OL - which may be a little while (fortunately, that will give him some time to warm up).  But, there were other key losses in the offseason as well.

Phillips is recovering from a shoulder injury sustained against Illinois (he played through it for the Alamo Bowl); he'll need to get that healed up to be as effective as he was last season, especially with some of those vicious hits.  Corbin Bryant looks to be a key piece of the puzzle on the DL, and he, too, is coming off of a knee injury (sustained during the Michigan game last year), and his health will be needed to ensure a solid starting lineup and add to the essential depth of the unit.  Also on defense, Vaughn is returning from a shoulder injury that saw him leave last season during the Duke game, not to return.  While Mabin did a great job taking over and securing that position as a starter, the backups are always "just a play away" from being in there (as Mabin learned), and Vaughn may have to return the favor at some point in the season.  McNaul also had a bit of a shoulder issue in the spring, but has already been mentioned by Fitz and is in competition for that weak side LB spot (more on that later).  Also on defense, backup safety Arnold has shown a lot of promise but was held out during the spring with a knee issue, and his successful return will be key to keeping the secondary both strong and deep.

On offense, Brewer will have a chance to come out healthy after fighting some nagging injuries over last season, Frymire will get a shot at playing time after an injury sustained in the 2008 spring game that kept him out for an entire year, and Ebert will come back after a hip injury dealt with over the offseason.  Their progress will be essential for giving Kafka reliable targets and keeping the WR rotation effective.  On the line, Taylor is one of two seniors (Mattes the other) and will be in competition for a spot either at guard or right tackle; he is returning from a knee injury and is needed to keep that experience and depth available on the OL; as Fitz has mentioned, the offensive line is looking to be a breakout unit on this 2009 Wildcat squad.  Finally, I won't forget to mention Dunsmore, held out all of last year after a knee injury (yes, another) sustained during last year's preseason camp - he looks to be a major contributor as a receiving threat out of the backfield (and has shown flashes in limited playing time as a true freshman in '07).

In football, recovery from injury is key (as they happen all the time), and hopefully NU can find itself fully healed and ready to go come September 5th and throughout the season as well.  Last year NU did a great job filling in for injured players, especially as the year went on and NU faced formidable Big Ten competition; this year, the Wildcats will be hoping for the stars to align and avoid major injury, giving them a chance to make a big impact in the conference race.

3. Who is taking over the weak side linebacker spot?

You don't know what you have until it's gone, and now that one of the leaders of last year's squad, Prince Kwateng, is gone NU is looking to fill in that spot.  Thankfully, the 'Cats have two LBs with experience under their belt at the other spots (Nate Williams and Quentin Davie), so it's just about finding that right guy to put on the weak side.  With Fitz at the helm, everyone knows that those LB positions will be taken very seriously, so look for a heated competition for the starting spot.

The leader after the spring looks to be Ben Johnson, a very quick guy who made his mark in 2008 on special teams, flying down the field on kickoffs and also getting a blocked punt (against Michigan).  But he'll be watching his back as there are a slew of other guys vying for the position.  ND transfer Aaron Nagel will become eligible and is listed as a co-backup on the weak side along with Stone Pinckney, who is coming on strong.  Although McNaul is listed on the other side as a backup, expect him to also be in the fight for this spot as he made an impact on special teams last year and has performed well in camp according to reports.  That makes 4 guys with a legitimate shot at one position, so it will be interesting to follow this one as camp progresses.  But, as Fitz says, a good competition for one spot is a good thing.

2. Can Kafka effectively lead the offense?

Now onto those pressing questions about the skill positions, and, first, everyone's favorite position: QB.  NU is fortunate to have a backup with some experience take over the starting spot, especially with the past two quarterback transitions going not-so-well (in 2006 when the Brewer/Kafka experiment went wrong before CJ Bacher got healthy, and in 2002 when Basanez took the reins after the failed Stauss experiment).  Kafka has 6 starts under his belt now, 4 as a redshirt freshman back in '06 (although he split time with Brewer in one of those games), and 2 games last year with Bacher out due to injury.  His record is 3-3, and he has respectable numbers passing (albeit a little INT-heavy) and wow-ing rushing numbers (including the infamous 217 against Minnesota last year).  The question is - can he effectively lead the offense over an entire season, especially that passing game.

We'll get a taste of this in the preseason, but the answer will only be fully answered come game time.  What Northwestern does have going in its favor, though, is the fact that Kafka's running ability fits very well with McCall's spread offense (that utilizes the QB run to maintain balance), and the fact that Kafka should have solid chemistry with this year's receivers, especially since many practiced with him on the 2nd team the past couple of seasons.  The bad (that everyone seems to be focusing on) is that Kafka has thrown 8 career INTs in only 6 starts and isn't known as the best passer.  He'll likely spend most, if not all, of the season dispelling that opinion, but he can start things off well by hooking up with his receivers, which he already did once with Brewer in the spring (for a 55 yard TD in the spring game).

He doesn't need to chuck bombs down the field every drive, but he does need to keep the offense moving, limit mistakes (turnovers) and make sure NU scores when in the red zone.  The 'Cats were rather effective inside the 20 last year, but that was with the help of Sutton and the other senior skill position players; Kafka will have to establish that effectiveness himself.  He is the unquestioned leader of the offense in 2009, and he'll be watched to produce on the field this year - I highly doubt we'll see Persa seriously push him for the starting spot, but if things don't go well (especially with such an easy starting schedule), the fans may get antsy if he doesn't produce.

1. Who will be the primary running back in 2009?

For about a decade now, NU has had a consistent line of running backs: Anderson, Wright, Herron, and Sutton, but there is a big question mark this season with one junior and multiple underclassemen vying for the RB position.  Of course, two of the RBs on that prestigious list (Wright and Sutton) weren't clear starters at the beginning of the year but eventually earned their starting spots with stellar openings to the year.  Here's hoping that the 'Cats see a repeat coming-out performance from one of the RBs this year to fill in a very important spot.

What makes this such a conundrum is that the most experienced returning RB is Simmons, who has 66 career carries for 175 yards and 2 TDs on the ground, and that's after starting the final 3 games of the regular season last year.  He hasn't impressed enough to lock up the starting spot, and the coaching staff has made it clear that this is at least a 3-horse race in camp.  In fact, redshirt freshman Alex Daniel was the first RB trotted out in the spring game (and had some promising numbers and runs), while speedster Matthews (a true freshman standout on special teams last year) seems to be a media favorite.  These 3 are the front runners for the spot, but there are others who will get shots at the position as well.

Underclassmen Concannon and Schmidt will also get shots at the position (their playing time has been relegated to special teams for the most part), and also added to the mix are true freshmen Arby Fields (who sports Sutton's old number) and Mike Trumpy.  Although it isn't as likely for one of these guys to take over the spot, they'll get their chances.

Don't be surprised to see this remain a question going into the year, and it may actually never be answered.  We could legitimately see NU split time between RBs (which is regularly done in the NFL and is done around college where there isn't a clear top RB), and given the smallish size of all of NU's RBs, that may not be a bad thing.  Although Sutton was indeed one of the best (probably 3rd best) RB in NU history, the thing that kept him from becoming the unquestioned #1 was injuries sustained over his final 2 seasons that held him out of at least 3/4 of a season - and many would attribute that to his relatively smaller stature.  Fortunately, NU has a lot of options here, and hopefully they will all be in-game options when the season rolls around.

The most likely option seems to have Daniel and Matthews splitting time with Simmons also getting a few snaps at RB.  Fitz has said that all 3 have come to play after a good summer, but we'll see what happens on the field.  All of the RBs could see their stock rise if the OL uses their trial by fire last year to seriously improve and live up to expectations - they need to run block much better than last season, and if they do it will make the RBs' jobs much easier.

All 'Cats fans will be looking out for the answers to these and more questions on August 22 for the spring game, especially with the season very quickly approaching.

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.