Big Ten: Brendan Mitchell
Posted by ESPN.com's Adam Rittenberg
Northwestern's post-spring depth chart is out, and there aren't too many revelations.
Senior Mike Kafka remains the top quarterback and junior Stephen Simmons the top running back. Sophomore Jeravin Matthews and redshirt freshman Alex Daniel are competing for the No. 2 running back spot, though I could see either player claiming the top job at some point.
The only significant change is senior wide receiver Zeke Markshausen moving into a starting job at inside receiver ahead of Charles Brown. Northwestern boasts good depth at superback (tight end/fullback), with Josh Rooks still the starter ahead of both Drake Dunsmore and Brendan Mitchell.
Position battles to watch include right tackle (Kurt Mattes or Desmond Taylor) and defensive tackle (Adam Hahn or Marshall Thomas or Jack DiNardo). The starting linebacker corps appears set, though Northwestern might want to take a look at Matthews as a kickoff return man alongside Simmons and Sherrick McManis.
Posted by ESPN.com's Adam Rittenberg
EVANSTON, Ill. -- The sun was shining, AC/DC had been cranked up and Northwestern players gathered for the always entertaining "board drill" just as I rolled up to the practice field.
What perfect timing.
For those who don't know, the board drill is the ultimate display of testosterone. It calls for a series of offensive and defensive players to line up across from each other, separated by a board. The object is pretty simple: push the other guy back.
Wildcats head coach Pat Fitzgerald, who absolutely loves this drill, determined the winners. Not surprisingly, the defense seemed to have the edge in Thursday's session. As "Thunderstuck" played in the background, cornerbacks Jordan Mabin and Mike Bolden, and defensive tackle Niko Mafuli won their board-drill matchups.
Other thoughts from Northwestern's hyped-up workout:
- Running back is the team's biggest question after the loss of four-year starter Tyrell Sutton, and junior Stephen Simmons took most of the reps with the first team. Simmons performed well during team drills, showcasing his skills as both a runner and a receiver, much like Sutton did. He caught several screen passes and had a 15-yard touchdown run during the red zone work.
- Redshirt freshman Alex Daniel is a bit banged up, so sophomore Jeravin Matthews got a lot of work at running back with the second-team offense. Matthews, one of only two true freshmen to see the field last fall, moves over from wide receiver and brings top-end speed to the backfield.
- Projected starting quarterback Mike Kafka looked good to me, firing several passes to senior Andrew Brewer, the starting slot receiver who might finally be ready to be a No. 1 target. I heard after the workout that Kafka wasn't thrilled with his performance, but I didn't see too many mistakes. He hit Brewer on a deep out route early in team drills and had a touchdown run late in the workout.
- Quarterback Dan Persa got a lot of work and looked very strong both on throws and as a runner. Persa made a nice throw to Zeke Markshausen on a post route and hit superback Brendan Mitchell for a touchdown during the red zone portion.
- It's no secret that the defense will be the strength of this team once again this fall. Though All-American candidate Corey Wootton watched from the sideline -- he's recovering from ACL surgery -- several players stood out. Senior safety Brendan Smith recovered a fumble against the second-team offense, and cornerbacks Mabin and Sherrick McManis both broke up passes.
- Northwestern will be deep in the secondary, and Brian Peters, who was very active Thursday, provides a third option at safety behind Smith and Brad Phillips. Ben Johnson also has generated some buzz at linebacker, as well as Jack DiNardo at defensive tackle.
- Athletic director Jim Phillips stopped by to chat about a variety of topics. He plans to meet Chicago Cubs chairman Crane Kenney and several architects in the next few weeks at Wrigley Field to determine whether the field is large enough to accommodate a college football game. If so, Phillips said Northwestern definitely will play a late-season game at the Friendly Confines, most likely in 2010 or 2011. He wants to have enough time to promote the game and ensure all the logistics are in place at a stadium that hasn't held a football game since 1970.
- Phillips also said a new contract/extension for Fitzgerald is "No. 1 on my to-do list." Conversations are under way and going well, so expect something to be finalized before preseason camp in August.
- Defensive tackle Adam Hahn hobbled onto the field on crutches with a large cast over his right foot. Hahn broke a bone in his foot the first week of spring ball and had surgery. D-line coach Marty Long doesn't expect him to be out long. Defensive tackle Corbin Bryant and Wootton both are making progress following knee injury, with Bryant already starting to jog a bit.
- The first-team offense: Mike Kafka at quarterback, Stephen Simmons at running back, Andrew Brewer at wide receiver, Sidney Stewart at wide receiver, Charles Brown at wide receiver, Kevin Frymire at wide receiver, Al Netter at left tackle, Doug Bartels at left guard, Ben Burkett at center, Keegan Grant at right guard and Kurt Mattes at right tackle. Desmond Taylor, a candidate to start at right tackle, is out for the spring with an injury. When Northwestern used superbacks, Brendan Mitchell and Josh Rooks got most of the work.
- The first-team defense (keep in mind several starters are injured): Vince Browne at defensive end, Kevin Watt at defensive end, Jack DiNardo at defensive tackle, Marshall Thomas at defensive tackle, Ben Johnson at linebacker, Nate Williams at linebacker, Chris Jeske at linebacker, Sherrick McManis at cornerback, Jordan Mabin at cornerback, Brendan Smith at safety, Brian Peters at safety.
- Jeske's work with the first-team defense is notable. He came to Northwestern as a blue-chip recruit but endured recurring back problems that have kept him on the field. Linebacker is the one thin position on the defense, so Jeske could provide a major boost.
- After a play finished a little too close to where we were standing on the sideline, Fitzgerald ordered all spectators to the bleachers overlooking the practice field. The coach then came over and singled me out, joking that he didn't want to pay ESPN's insurance bill if I went down. Thanks, Fitz.
Posted by ESPN.com's Adam Rittenberg
The Week 1 depth charts are gradually coming out around the Big Ten. Here's a look at two.
- As expected, no starting quarterback has been named for the Western Kentucky game. It will be Ben Chappell or incumbent Kellen Lewis.
- Redshirt freshman Chris Adkins has won the second starting cornerback spot opposite Chris Phillips. Donnell Jones and Richard Council are the second-stringers.
- Fifth-year senior Marcus Thigpen remains the starter at running back ahead of Bryan Payton and Demetrius McCray. Freshman Darius Willis isn't listed on the depth chart but coach Bill Lynch expects him to play this fall.
- Florida transfer Jerimy Finch, cleared to play this season, is listed behind Austin Thomas as the second-string strong safety.
- Sophomore Brad Martin is the starting tight end ahead of promising redshirt freshman Max Dedmond.
- I was a little surprised not to see freshman wideout DaMarlo Belcher on the two-deep. He was the most impressive player at last Wednesday's practice and should see the field this fall.
- The new-look starting offensive line reads as follows: left tackle Al Netter, left guard Keegan Kennedy, center Ben Burkett, right guard Joel Belding and right tackle Kurt Mattes. That means C.J. Bacher's blind side will be protected by a redshirt freshman (Netter) and a guy (Kennedy) who played the better part of three seasons at defensive tackle. It's a little scary, but Northwestern has been impressed with both players and especially Burkett at center.
- Reserve wide receiver Jeremy Ebert is the lone true freshman on the two-deep -- a telling sign about Northwestern's returning experience. Ebert also will start at kickoff returner with Stephen Simmons. The Wildcats will start Eric Peterman, Ross Lane, Andrew Brewer and Rasheed Ward at the wide receiver spots.
- Sophomore Josh Rooks has moved into the top spot at superback (tight end-fullback hybrid) after the season-ending knee injury to Drake Dunsmore. Junior Brendan Mitchell is behind Rooks.
- Sophomore Corbin Bryant will start the Syracuse game at defensive tackle in place of suspended star John Gill. Bryant had five tackles last season.
- Senior Kevin Mims holds a starting spot at defensive end ahead of hard-charging redshirt freshman Vince Browne.
- Peterman will open the season as the starting punt returner ahead of safety Brendan Smith.
Posted by ESPN.com's Adam Rittenberg
|AP Photo/Bebeto Matthews|
|Coach Pat Fitzgerald's offseason program includes competitions in academics, community service and other arenas.|
Expect a full Q&A with Northwestern coach Pat Fitzgerald on Monday, but I wanted to highlight a new feature of the team's offseason program.
When the squad reconvened in February following a disappointing 6-6 season, Fitzgerald had players split into 10 mini teams and kicked off a competition that would last until Aug. 4, the first day of preseason camp. The teams went through daily competitions in the weight room, winter conditioning and spring football practice as well as in academics, community service and other arenas. Points were accumulated and reported throughout the winter, spring and summer. The winning team will be excused from the vomit-inducing conditioning test Northwestern runs every year on the first day of camp.
"We wanted to create an environment of ownership, where our players took over ownership, completely, of the team," Fitzgerald said. "We're getting there. We're not there yet, to where players are working through their teams, not the coaching staffs, to set the goals for the year. I'm proud of where we're at right now."
The Wildcats voted on 10 leaders for the mini teams and held a draft before the competition. The leadership squad consisted of senior quarterback C.J. Bacher, senior wide receiver Eric Peterman, senior linebacker Prince Kwateng, senior guard Keegan Kennedy, junior safety Brad Phillips, redshirt freshman linebacker Bryce McNaul, junior cornerback Sherrick McManis, junior tight end Brendan Mitchell, freshman quarterback Dan Persa and senior defensive end Kevin Mims.
Fitzgerald allowed the leaders to draft who they wanted, but he wanted each team to include a cross-section of ages and positions. Bacher's team, for example, has a running back, a wide receiver, two offensive linemen, two linebackers and a defensive tackle.
"I wanted guys like C.J. to know more than just the quarterbacks, or more than just the guys on offense," Fitzgerald said. "That was the byproduct we were hoping to accomplish, and we did. The guys drafted that way."
As of Thursday afternoon, the Victorious Secret team led by Peterman, who is involved in every community service project known to man, held a sizable lead. But Bacher's squad might make a late run -- so that they don't run Aug. 4.
A lot of teams do similar things in the offseason, but this kind of competition speaks to Fitzgerald's personality as a coach, something he hasn't always put forth in his tenure. The 33-year-old is still finding his voice as a head coach, and this is a positive step.