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Wednesday, May 5, 2010
Northwestern spring wrap

By ESPN.com staff
ESPN.com

2009 overall record: 8-5

2009 conference record: 5-3 (T-4th)

Returning starters

Offense: 8, defense: 5, kicker/punter: 1 (Stefan Demos handled both duties in 2009)

Top returners

TE Drake Dunsmore, LT Al Netter, C Ben Burkett, LB Quentin Davie, LB Nate Williams, DT Corbin Bryant, DE Vince Browne, S Brian Peters, K/P Stefan Demos

Key losses

QB Mike Kafka, WR Zeke Markshausen, WR Andrew Brewer, DE Corey Wootton, CB Sherrick McManis, S Brad Phillips, DT Adam Hahn

2009 statistical leaders (*-returners)

Rushing: Arby Fields* (302 yards)

Passing: Mike Kafka (3,430 yards)

Receiving: Andrew Brewer (925 yards)

Tackles: Quentin Davie* (90)

Sacks: Quentin Davie* and Vince Browne* (5)

Interceptions: Sherrick McManis (5)

Spring answers

1. Persa ready to lead at QB: There's no quarterback controversy in Evanston as junior Dan Persa has established himself as the undisputed leader of the offense despite his limited game experience. Persa still must prove himself this fall, but he has done all the right things to prepare to succeed All-Big Ten selection Mike Kafka.

2. Ebert back to top form: Jeremy Ebert never fully recovered from hip surgery last season, but the junior looked like a No. 1 wide receiver this spring. Ebert should fit into the Eric Peterman-Zeke Markshausen mold as a reliable possession receiver, though he can also stretch the field at times. He finished spring ball with a solid performance (4 receptions, 49 yards) in the spring game.

3. Depth at linebacker and defensive tackle: Coaches often stress the importance of up-the-middle defense, and Northwestern looks strong at two of the three spots. Head coach Pat Fitzgerald says the team's linebacker depth is the best it has been in recent memory, as Quetin Davie leads a strong group. Niko Mafuli turned in a strong spring at defensive tackle and should form a solid rotation with projected starters Corbin Bryant and Jack DiNardo. The safety spot is the only remaining question mark.

Fall questions

1. Running back: Northwestern can't expect to run the ball as poorly as it did last fall and win eight or more games again in 2010. Persa is still inexperienced and will need some help from the running backs. Arby Fields comes out of the spring as the No. 1 back, even though he didn't participate in any scrimmages because of his baseball responsibilities. The Wildcats need Fields or another candidate to create some clear separation in preseason camp.

2. Safety depth: The team loses two multiyear starters at safety in Brad Phillips and Brendan Smith, putting the position very much in the spotlight. Northwestern feels good about playmaking junior Brian Peters, who essentially served as a third starter in 2008 and 2009. But other than Peters, there are question marks. Jared Carpenter emerged from spring ball as the No. 2 starter, but converted linebacker David Arnold and Hunter Bates will compete for playing time.

3. Special teams: The kicking game must remain a top priority for Northwestern, which has lost or nearly lost quite a few games because of special teams. Stefan Demos is an All-Big Ten kicker, but he would really benefit if Brandon Williams could step up and become the starting punter. Northwestern also must improve its return and coverage teams. Stephen Simmons should help on kickoff returns if he can stay healthy.