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Opening camp: Northwestern

8/9/2010

Schedule: Pat Fitzgerald and the Wildcats hold their first practice at 5 p.m. ET today in Evanston. The team moves training camp to Kenosha, Wis., from Aug. 15-22, and holds a scrimmage there Aug. 21.

What's new: Fitzgerald made no staff changes, but Northwestern has another new starting quarterback, as Dan Persa takes over for All-Big Ten standout Mike Kafka. The Wildcats also have a new-look secondary after losing three starters, including star cornerback Sherrick McManis. Defensive line coach Marty Long is on the field after missing the Outback Bowl because of an illness.

Sidelined: All five players who missed spring practice, including superback Drake Dunsmore and guards Doug Bartels and Keenan Grant, are expected to be ready for camp. Star linebacker Quentin Davie missed most of the spring with a foot injury, but is 100 percent for practice.

Key battle: Northwestern needs a starting running back after its ground game was grounded in 2009, and the competition resumes today. Sophomore Arby Fields is the frontrunner to win the job, but he'll continue to be pushed by Stephen Simmons, Scott Concannon and others. Northwestern is pretty set at two secondary spots with safety Brian Peters and cornerback Jordan Mabin, but the other two positions need to be settled in camp.

New on the scene: The Wildcats lose two starting receivers and might look to freshmen Rashad Lawrence, Tony Jones and Jimmy Hall to step up. Adonis Smith could be a factor at running back if Fields can't lock down the top job. Several freshmen should see time right away on special teams, including return specialist Venric Mark.

Time to step up: All five starters return along the offensive line, and Northwestern should have its most depth in recent memory after some strong recruiting. There's simply no excuse for the team to struggle in the run game any longer. Northwestern annually produced 1,000-yard rushers under the late Randy Walker, who went out of his way to challenge the offensive line and its coach in practice. Fitzgerald needs to demand the same accountability from a group that should not only protect Persa, but create rushing lanes.

Quotable: "We have 17 wins over the last few years. And that foundation of success, I think, has provided us with motivation to take the next step. And what is that next step? First and foremost, it's going to be to go to a bowl game for three straight years, something that never happened in our program before. It all happens because we believe we've got great players." -- head coach Pat Fitzgerald