Big Ten: Davion Fleming

EVANSTON, Ill. -- My Big Ten spring practice tour continues today at Northwestern, where I'm spending the day after making the short drive up Ridge Road. I watched most of Northwestern's morning practice -- the team's first full-pads workout since spring break -- and visited with head coach Pat Fitzgerald, defensive coordinator Mike Hankwitz and several players afterward.

The big moment in practice came when wide receiver Kyle Prater, Northwestern's coveted transfer from USC, caught a pass from Kain Colter before absorbing a massive hit from safety Jimmy Hall. Prater held onto the ball but spent several moments on the ground. Fortunately for the Wildcats, he only had the wind knocked out of him -- and some vomit -- but returned moments later and caught several more passes. Fitzgerald noted that Thursday marked just Prater's third practice with Northwestern and his first in full pads for quite some time, as injuries slowed him down during his two years at USC.

As Prater walked back to the huddle, Fitzgerald high-fived him and yelled, "Welcome back!"

"Kyle got welcomed to the Big Ten today," Wildcats linebacker David Nwabuisi said.

Should Prater become eligible for the 2012 season -- Northwestern has applied for an NCAA waiver -- he'll add to what might be the Big Ten's best receiving corps. The Wildcats are loaded at receiver with holdovers like Christian Jones, Demetrius Fields and Rashad Lawrence, along with the return of speedster Tony Jones and redshirt freshman Cameron Dickerson, who made several impressive catches Thursday.

The depth at receiver should help Colter, who split time between quarterback and receiver in 2011 but is practicing exclusively at quarterback this spring. Fitzgerald told me Colter would be his starter if the season began now, and he has been pleased with the junior's development. Colter, who has put on a bit of weight and checks in at 195 pounds, told me he worked on shoulder strengthening throughout the winter to improve his arm strength. Running back Treyvon Green has stood out for the offense and made some nice moves Thursday in practice.

There are more question marks on a young defense that struggled mightily in 2011. The unit had a few breakdowns Thursday, but there were some nice plays in the secondary, including an interception by redshirt freshman cornerback Nick VanHoose, who is right in the mix for a starting job. VanHoose also had a pass breakup during team drills, and safety Davion Fleming had a nice hit on Lawrence. Hankwitz said the mix of youth and older players on defense reminds him a bit of the 2008 team, which had the best defense during Fitzgerald's tenure.

I'll have more on the Wildcats later today and Friday, so stay tuned.

Big shoes to fill: Northwestern

March, 5, 2012
3/05/12
2:30
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We're nearing the conclusion of our series looking at two departing stars players from each Big Ten team whose shoes need to be filled this spring. Today we focus the lens on Northwestern, which started spring drills over the weekend. We already know that Kain Colter is the top choice to replace the large void left by quarterback Dan Persa, so we'll take a look at two other spots.

[+] EnlargeJeremy Ebert
AP Photo/Charles Rex ArbogastJeremy Ebert accounted for 137 receptions and 2,013 receiving yards for Northwestern over the past two seasons.
BIG SHOES TO FILL: Jeremy Ebert, WR

Why: Ebert was the Wildcats' leading receiver and one of the best in the Big Ten each of the past two seasons. He caught 75 passes for 1,060 yards and 11 touchdowns in 2011.

Replacement candidates: Christian Jones (6-3, 225, Soph.); Demetrius Fields (6-0, 210, Sr.); Tony Jones (6-0, 185, Soph); Rashad Lawrence (6-2, 185, Jr.); Kyle Prater (6-5, 215, Soph-Tr).

The skinny: The big X-factor here is Prater, the USC transfer who is hoping to gain immediate eligibility for this season. He will enroll March 26 and will have to wait for an NCAA ruling this summer. Christian Jones played in all 13 games last year as a true freshman, catching 16 passes for 195 yards. He's got the physical tools to be a No. 1 receiver. Fields had a career-best seven catches in the Meineke Car Care Bowl of Texas, perhaps signaling he's ready to take off. Tony Jones sat out last year because of injury but has a lot of speed. Northwestern has a lot of depth here, but can anyone produce at a consistently high level like Ebert?

BIG SHOES TO FILL: Brian Peters, S

Why: Peters was one of the leaders of the Wildcats' defense, a three-year starter who had 92 tackles and five interceptions last season. He was a first-team All-Big Ten selection by the media.

Replacement candidates: Hunter Bates (5-10, 180, Sr.); Jared Carpenter (6-0, 205, Sr.); Davion Fleming (5-10, 200, Jr.); Matt Carpenter (6-2, 200, R-Fr.); Jimmy Hall (6-2, 205, Soph.); Terrance Brown, (6-1, 195, incoming freshman); Traveon Henry (6-1, 200, incoming freshman); Joseph Jones (6-1, 200, incoming freshman).

The skinny: Bates has learned as Peters' backup and should be ready to challenge for a starting spot this spring, though he struggled at times in 2011. Jared Carpenter served as the backup at the other safety spot, which will be manned by sophomore Ibraheim Campbell, but Carpenter is injured and won't go through spring drills. Fleming and Hall are promising athletes who just need more experience. Defensive back in general is a concern for the Wildcats this spring after a subpar 2011 on pass defense and the loss of both Peters and top cornerback Jordan Mabin. Several young players could earn playing time with strong performances in practice.
We're in the home stretch of the spring game recaps, and up next is Northwestern, which wrapped up spring ball Saturday at Ryan Field.

Wildcats head coach Pat Fitzgerald told me Friday that the spring game wouldn't go longer than 80 plays or so and his main goal was to keep the team healthy. Injuries really hurt the Wildcats during the first half of the 2009 season and led to inconsistent play. Northwestern went through its healthiest spring in recent memory and survived any major injuries in the spring game, so mission accomplished.

As expected, the game was a bit watered down, but it provided a few clues about the 2010 team.

The defense led the way, allowing only 253 yards on 85 plays (2.9 ypp) and only 92 rushing yards on 47 carries. Northwestern's continued inability to spark the ground game is a concern after the 2009 season, when it finished an uncharacteristic 95th nationally in rushing average (117.5 ypg). Jacob Schmidt and Scott Concannon couldn't get going, and backup quarterback Evan Watkins (7 carries, 36 yards) actually had the best day on the ground.

It's important to note that Arby Fields, the team's leading rusher last fall and the frontrunner to win the job for 2010, didn't participate in the spring game -- or any spring scrimmages for that matter -- because he was playing baseball for Northwestern. The Wildcats also have a couple of starting offensive linemen banged up, but they simply need to improve the run or it could be a long season in 2010.

Starting quarterback Dan Persa was efficient, completing 7 of 11 passes for 83 yards, but he also got picked off in the end zone by cornerback Mike Bolden. Watkins threw an interception on his first drive but rebounded to pass for 78 yards and a touchdown.

A few Wildcats nuggets:
  • Defensive tackle should be a strength for Northwestern this fall. Fifth-year senior Corbin Bryant has extensive experience, and Jack DiNardo and Niko Mafuli combined for four tackles for loss and a sack in Saturday's spring game.
  • A healthy Jeremy Ebert makes a big difference, and the junior should be the team's No. 1 wide receiver this fall. Ebert recorded four receptions for a game-high 49 yards on Saturday, including a 21-yard gain.
  • Linebacker Quentin Davie missed most of the spring with a foot injury, but he participated in the scrimmage and recorded three tackles.
  • Northwestern's secondary took a good step Saturday as it looks to replace three multiyear starters from 2009. Bolden and safety David Arnold both recorded interceptions and cornerback Justan Vaughn had a sack, while safety Davion Fleming and cornerbacks Jeravin Matthews and Ricky Weina each recorded a pass breakup.
  • Kickers Stefan Demos and Jeff Budzien both connected on 3 of 4 field-goal attempts, with their only misses coming from 51 yards (Demos) and 48 yards (Budzien). Steve Flaherty went 2-for-4 on the day, while Budzien had a game-long 46-yard conversion.
  • Rather than have coordinators Mick McCall and Mike Hankwitz call plays, Fitzgerald gave the duties over to his position coaches, calling it an opportunity for them to professionally grow.

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