Big Ten: Jared Carpenter

EVANSTON, Ill. -- Northwestern coach Pat Fitzgerald knows football fans in Chicago spend their Sundays watching a defense fixated on takeaways. As a Chicago Bears fan, he's one of those people.

[+] EnlargeIbraheim Campbell
AP Photo/Ben MargotIbraheim Campbell is leading Northwestern's charge for more turnovers having picked off passes in five straight games.
Fitzgerald hopes the same folks see the same thing on Saturdays as they tune in for Wildcats' games. So far this season, "Chicago's Big Ten team" has embraced the takeaway trend trademarked by Chicago's NFL team.

After topping the Big Ten takeaways chart last season with 29, Northwestern is tied with Michigan State for the league lead with eight through the first three games (tied for sixth nationally). All eight Wildcats takeaways have been interceptions, which leads the FBS, and they've converted them into 45 points.

Northwestern has 17 interceptions in its last six games, stretching back to last season, and junior safety Ibrahaim Campbell has picked off passes in each of the past five contests, a new team record. Linebacker Collin Ellis recorded two interceptions Aug. 31 in the season opener at, returning both for touchdowns and claiming national defensive player of the week honors.

"I don't know, maybe it's just a Chicago thing," Fitzgerald said following Tuesday's practice. "We're definitely inspired by [the Bears'] defense and really, we’ve pulled a lot of their plays off and given them as examples to the players."

The Bears led the NFL with 44 takeaways last season and were among the league leaders for much of former coach Lovie Smith's tenure. Even though Smith is gone, the Bears already have six takeaways in their first two games, tied for the second-most in the NFL.

Football coaches are known to go far and wide to find effective teaching tools for their players. Northwestern's staff simply looked "down the road," defensive coordinator Mike Hankwitz said, at what the Bears have been doing for years.

Last season, Northwestern defensive backs coach Jerry Brown had players watch video of Bears cornerback Charles "Peanut" Tillman forcing fumbles with his "Peanut punch" move. Tillman led the NFL with 10 forced fumbles last season and boasts 39 for his career.

"We took some highlights off TV and showed how they’re always punching at the ball," Hankwitz said. "And we did cause some fumbles. [Former safety Jared Carpenter] caused one, punching the ball out. Ibraheim caused two, punching the ball.

"Now that they see that it works, we're starting to build a little more of a takeaway culture."

Northwestern had at least one forced fumble in nine games last season, jarring the ball loose three times in wins against Vanderbilt and Minnesota. Campbell and three defensive linemen -- Tyler Scott, Quentin Williams and Brian Arnfelt -- all recorded multiple forced fumbles.

Hankwitz also started to mix coverages more as the season went along. The different looks, combined with increased pressure from the line, led to a surge of interceptions, including four in the Gator Bowl victory over Mississippi State.

"Like anything in life, you achieve what you emphasize," Fitzgerald said. "I don't want these high school coaches to think we're doing some magical turnover circuit or rubbing on the ball with some magic stick and all of a sudden it comes to us. It's just emphasizing it and making our guys aware up front to the quick game of, 'If you're not necessarily going to get home, get your hands up,' being aware of route progressions and where a quarterback may go."

Hankwitz credits Northwestern's linemen for getting their arms in passing lanes, noting that three interceptions this season stemmed from deflections, including both of Ellis' pick-sixes against Cal. Scott and fellow linemen Dean Lowry and Chance Carter already have combined for eight pass deflections.

The 5-foot-11, 205-pound Campbell has been the face of the team's takeaway surge. Although Hankwitz has coordinated defenses since 1982, he can't remember another one of his players recording interceptions in five straight games.

Campbell attributes the streak to simply maximizing his playmaking opportunities.

"With the time I’ve been playing, the game has slowed down tremendously," said the junior, in his third year as a starter. "I know what to look for more, and it's paid off a lot."

[+] EnlargeCharles Tillman
Jeff Hanisch/USA TODAY SportsThe "Peanut Punch," a favorite weapon of the Bears' Charles Tillman has caught on at Northwestern.
Northwestern has become a more opportunistic defense in recent games, but it remains vulnerable in certain areas, surrendering 442.3 yards per game, including 319.3 pass yards, second most in the Big Ten. Hankwitz notes that most of the yards stem from a few big plays. Several have come against redshirt freshman cornerback Dwight White, who stepped in for injured starter Daniel Jones against Cal and quickly became a target for opposing quarterbacks.

There's no doubt that takeaways can cover up yards allowed -- turnover margin is the game's most important metric -- but Campbell wants to tighten things up before Big Ten play begins Oct. 5 against Ohio State.

"If we have explosion plays going against us, a takeaway isn't going to make that go away," he said. "Those are still things we need to fix, but it obviously helps because you can’t have an explosion play if you don't have the ball."

Fitzgerald's goal is to have a defense built on "the complete and total commitment to taking the ball away." The Wildcats aren't there yet. Although takeaways for points seemed to rescue Northwestern at Cal, Fitzgerald was disappointed that the Wildcats couldn't corral three Cal fumbles. Western Michigan coughed up the ball last Saturday at Ryan Field, but Northwestern couldn't recover it.

Wildcats players will continue to think turnover, just like the Bears do.

"They’re great tacklers and everything like that, but they're excellent at taking the ball away," Campbell said. "That's something we're trying to create here.

"We’re right down the street from Chicago, so it would be a great thing to establish in the city."

The Big Ten's All-Bowl team

January, 10, 2013
1/10/13
11:00
AM ET
The Big Ten won only two bowl games this season, but several players stood out around the league.

Let's take a look at ESPN.com's Big Ten All-Bowl squad ...

OFFENSE

QB: Devin Gardner, Michigan -- There weren't many good choices around the league, but Gardner fired three touchdown passes and racked up 214 pass yards. He has accounted for at least two touchdowns in all five of his starts at quarterback for the Wolverines.

RB: Le'Veon Bell, Michigan State -- The nation's ultimate workhorse running back did his thing in his final game as a Spartan. Bell had 32 carries for 145 yards and a touchdown, recording his eighth 100-yard rushing performance of the season. He also threw a 29-yard pass on a pivotal third-down play.

RB: Rex Burkhead, Nebraska -- Another back who stood out in his final collegiate game, Burkhead racked up 140 rush yards and a touchdown on 24 carries, and added four receptions for 39 yards. It's really too bad we didn't get to see what Burkhead could have done all season when healthy.

[+] EnlargeJeremy Gallon
Kim Klement/USA TODAY SportsJeremy Gallon celebrates one of his two touchdown catches against South Carolina.
WR: Jeremy Gallon, Michigan -- Gallon recorded career highs in receptions (9) and receiving yards (145), and scored two touchdowns against a strong South Carolina defense in the Outback Bowl. It was his third 100-yard receiving performance of the season.

WR: Derrick Engel, Minnesota -- Along with quarterback Philip Nelson, Engel provided some hope for Minnesota's future on offense with 108 receiving yards on four receptions in the Meineke Car Care Bowl of Texas. His 42-yard reception marked the third longest of Minnesota's season.

TE: Dan Vitale, Northwestern -- The freshman provided offensive balance Northwestern needed against a Mississippi State team that focused on taking away Venric Mark and the run game. Vitale recorded team highs in both receptions (7) and receiving yards (82) as Northwestern ended the nation's longest bowl losing streak in the TaxSlayer.com Gator Bowl.

OL: Taylor Lewan, Michigan -- Everyone remembers Jadeveon Clowney's near decapitation of Michigan's Vincent Smith in the Outback Bowl -- which resulted from a miscommunication between Lewan and tight end Mike Kwiatkowski -- but the Wolverines' left tackle did a good job overall against college football's most dominant defensive lineman. Lewan anchored a line that helped Michigan put up decent numbers against an elite defense.

OL: Zac Epping, Minnesota -- Minnesota's offensive line showed flashes of the dominance it displayed for much of the Glen Mason era against Texas Tech. The Gophers racked up 222 rush yards and two touchdowns on 54 carries, as Epping and his linemates opened up holes for Donnell Kirkwood, Rodrick Williams and MarQueis Gray.

OL: Brian Mulroe, Northwestern -- Mulroe made his 40th career start and helped Northwestern finally get over the hump in a bowl game. The Wildcats had a balanced offensive attack, avoided the penalty flag and didn't allow a sack against Mississippi State.

OL: Cole Pensick, Nebraska -- Stepping in for the injured Justin Jackson at center, Pensick helped the Huskers find success running the ball against Georgia, especially up the middle. Nebraska had 239 rushing yards in the Capital One Bowl.

OL: Travis Frederick, Wisconsin: The Badgers rushed for 218 yards against Stanford, which came into the Rose Bowl with the nation's No. 3 rush defense. They also gave up only one sack to a defense which led the FBS in that category. Frederick played very well at center and announced he would skip his junior year to enter the NFL draft a few days later.

DEFENSE

DL: Quentin Williams, Northwestern -- Williams set the tone for Northwestern's win with an interception returned for a touchdown on the third play from scrimmage. He also recorded two tackles for loss, including a sack, in the victory.

DL: William Gholston, Michigan State -- Another player who stood out in his final collegiate game, Gholston tied for the team lead with nine tackles, including a sack, and had a pass breakup in the Buffalo Wild Wings Bowl win against TCU. The freakishly athletic defensive end stepped up in a bowl game for the second straight season.

DL: Tyler Scott, Northwestern -- Scott and his fellow linemates made life tough for turnover-prone Mississippi State quarterback Tyler Russell in the Gator Bowl. The Wildcats junior defensive end recorded three tackles for loss, including two sacks, and added a quarterback hurry in the win.

DL: Ra'Shede Hageman, Minnesota -- The big man in the center of Minnesota's defensive line stood out against Texas Tech, recording six tackles, including a sack, and a pass breakup. Gophers fans should be fired up to have Hageman back in the fold for the 2013 season.

LB: Max Bullough, Michigan State -- Bullough once again triggered a strong defensive performance by Michigan State, which held TCU to just three points in the final two and a half quarters of the Wings bowl. The junior middle linebacker tied with Gholston for the team tackles lead (9) and assisted on a tackle for loss.

LB: Chris Borland, Wisconsin -- The Badgers' defense clamped down against Stanford after a slow start, and Borland once again stood out with his play at middle linebacker. The standout junior led Wisconsin with nine tackles as the defense kept the Badgers within striking distance in Pasadena.

LB: Jake Ryan, Michigan -- Ryan capped a breakout season with another strong performance in the bowl game, recording 1.5 tackles for loss, a fumble recovery and half a sack. He'll enter 2013 as a top candidate for Big Ten Defensive Player of the Year honors.

CB: Michael Carter, Minnesota -- Carter finished off a strong senior year with two interceptions, a pass breakup and seven tackles in the 34-31 loss to Texas Tech.

CB: Nick VanHoose, Northwestern: The redshirt freshman picked off a Mississippi State pass and returned it 39 yard to set up the game-clinching touchdown in the fourth quarter.

S: Jared Carpenter, Northwestern: The senior was named MVP of the Gator Bowl win with a game-high 10 tackles and a near interception late in the game.

S: Ibraheim Campbell, Northwestern: The Wildcats dominate our all-bowl team secondary for good reason. Campbell had an interception and a pass breakup against the Bulldogs.

Specialists

P: Mike Sadler, Michigan State -- The punters took center stage in Tempe as both offenses struggled, and Sadler provided MSU with a huge lift in the field-position game. He set Spartans bowl records for punts (11) and punting yards (481), averaging 43.7 yards per punt with three inside the 20-yard line. His booming punt inside the TCU 5 helped lead to a game-turning fumble by the Horned Frogs' Skye Dawson.

K: Brendan Gibbons and Matt Wile, Michigan -- Both kickers share the honors after combining to go 3-for-3 on field-goal attempts in the Outback Bowl. Gibbons, the hero of last year's Sugar Bowl, connected from 39 yards and 40 yards in the first half. Wile hit a career-long 52-yard attempt in the third quarter, setting an Outback Bowl record.

Returner: Troy Stoudermire, Minnesota -- It took a bit longer than expected, but Stoudermire finally set the NCAA record for career kick return yards with a 26-yard runback on the opening kickoff against Texas Tech. The senior cornerback finished the game with 111 return yards, including a 37-yard runback, on four attempts.

Big Ten bowl helmet stickers

January, 2, 2013
1/02/13
9:00
AM ET
Recognizing the top individual performances by Big Ten players in the postseason:
  • Minnesota CB Michael Carter: The Gophers senior had two interceptions, a pass break up and seven tackles in Minnesota's 34-31 loss to Texas Tech in the Meineke Car Care Bowl of Texas.
  • Michigan State RB Le'Veon Bell: Playing in perhaps his final collegiate game, the Spartans junior once again carried the offense in a 17-16 win over TCU in the Buffalo Wild Wings Bowl. Bell carried 32 times for 145 yards and a touchdown and also threw a pass for 29 yards. He accounted for all but 53 of Michigan State's total yardage.
  • Nebraska RB Rex Burkhead: The Huskers' defense struggled, but Burkhead was in beast mode in the 45-31 Capital One Bowl loss to Georgia. Fully healthy for the first time since the opener, Burkhead ran 24 times for 140 yards and a score, and he also had four catches for 39 yards and a touchdown. We can only imagine what kind of numbers he would have put up as a senior had he not dealt with a knee problem all year.
  • Michigan WR Jeremy Gallon: The redshirt junior turned in a strong season-ending performance, catching nine passes for 145 yards and two touchdowns in the Wolverines' 33-28 loss to South Carolina in the Outback Bowl. He accounted for nearly 70 percent of Devin Gardner's passing yards.
  • Northwestern's secondary: After some shaky moments in the regular season, the Wildcats' pass defense came up large in the 34-20 win over Mississippi State in the Taxslayer.com Gator Bowl. The Bulldogs threw for only 106 yards and were intercepted four times. Safety Jared Carpenter, who had 10 tackles, was named the game's MVP. Safety Ibraheim Campbell and cornerback Nick VanHoose also had picks. Add in defensive lineman's Quentin Williams' pick six and another interception by linebacker Chi Chi Ariguzo, and you have the recipe for Northwestern's first bowl victory since 1949.

Big shoes to fill: Northwestern

March, 5, 2012
3/05/12
2:30
PM ET
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.
Northwestern is one of two Big Ten teams kicking off spring practice Saturday, and the team has issued its official injury report for the upcoming sessions.

Four players are out for spring ball.
Proby started at middle linebacker in 2011 and recorded 60 tackles. Trumpy tore his ACL in the Big Ten opener at Illinois but will compete for the starting running back job in fall camp. Carpenter started seven games in the 2010 season before being used in a limited role last fall, but he should compete to fill Brian Peters' spot at safety. Watkins moved to tight end in bowl practices after falling down the depth chart at quarterback.

Northwestern concludes spring practice April 14 with its spring exhibition.

Northwestern injury report

October, 7, 2010
10/07/10
2:28
PM ET
Northwestern has issued its official injury report for Saturday night's home game against Purdue.

OUT
  • LB Roderick Goodlow, knee (out for season)
  • OL Evan Luxenburg, knee
  • CB Jeravin Matthews, leg

The only new name here is Matthews, who has appeared in all five games as a reserve, mostly on special teams, and recorded nine tackles. Northwestern has no new injuries in the secondary and got safeties Jared Carpenter and David Arnold back on the field last week. Another good sign is no Drake Dunsmore, as the team's starting superback should be fine after an MRI on his hyperextended knee showed no damage. The Wildcats have to be pleased to see only three names on the report through the first five games.

Northwestern injury report

September, 30, 2010
9/30/10
12:27
PM ET
Northwestern has issued its official injury report for Saturday's Big Ten opener at Minnesota.

OUT

Any injury report that includes only two names after four games is very encouraging. Northwestern has to be thrilled to see safeties David Arnold and Jared Carpenter off the injury report. Both men returned to practice this week and should see some action at TCF Bank Stadium.

Northwestern's pass defense hasn't been great, and Arnold, a projected starter entering preseason camp, should provide a nice boost. Arnold, who has played linebacker and safety, will make his season debut after suffering a foot injury in camp. Carpenter, who replaced Arnold in the starting lineup, had been dealing with a back issue.
Don't believe everything you read on Facebook.

After being suspended last week for conduct detrimental to the team, Minnesota receiver/return man Troy Stoudermire channeled his inner LeBron and posted on his Facebook page that he was "ready to take my talent to a top d-1 school where I will be appreciated and respected as a player!" The message was soon removed, and less than a week later, Stoudermire has been reinstated with the Golden Gophers.

Asked at his weekly news conference to elaborate on Stoudermire's situation, Minnesota coach Tim Brewster joked, "He said he's got a message for you on Facebook."
"Troy has come back and he understands his situation last week was self inflicted," Brewster continued. "He's been very remorseful about the situation and how he handled it, and he's expressed it properly to me and to our football team. And so with that, we allow him to come back and be part of our football team and most importantly be a good teammate."

Stoudermire certainly can help the Gophers, who are in desperate need of a win Saturday against Northwestern. The junior remains one of the Big Ten's top kickoff return men, and while MarQueis Gray is emerging as Minnesota's No. 1 receiver, Stoudermire brings experience as a pass-catcher.

Minnesota could stress its passing game Saturday against a Northwestern secondary likely still missing two safeties (Jared Carpenter and David Arnold) because of injury.

Northwestern injury report

September, 23, 2010
9/23/10
5:44
PM ET
Northwestern has issued its official injury report for Saturday's game against Central Michigan.

OUT
  • S David Arnold, foot
  • LB Roderick Goodlow, knee (ACL, out for season)
  • OL Evan Luxenburg, knee
DOUBTFUL
  • S Jared Carpenter, back

Although there are fewer names on this week's injury report, the inclusion of Carpenter is cause for concern. Northwestern already is down a projected starter at safety in Arnold, and Carpenter's loss would create a depth problem. Sophomore Hunter Bates, who had an interception last week at Rice and boasts six tackles this season, would start if Carpenter can't play. Central Michigan ranks 25th nationally in pass offense (270.7 ypg), so NU's secondary will be tested. Freshman receiver Tony Jones (shoulder) is off the injury report.

The best news here for the Wildcats is the absence of defensive tackle Niko Mafuli, who missed the past two games with a knee injury. Mafuli is expected to play Saturday and adds depth at the defensive tackle spot.
I've had the chance to check out the Big Ten Network's preview of Northwestern. The crew of Dave Revsine, Gerry DiNardo and Howard Griffith stopped by Wildcats practice in Kenosha, Wis.

Here are a few notes and observations:
  • DiNardo pointed out that this Northwestern team is built differently from ones in the past, with the major strengths up front on both sides of the ball. Despite a lot of experience on the lines, DiNardo didn't sound too convinced that Northwestern would reach a school-record third consecutive bowl game, and he pointed out that the schedule might be tougher than it appears because several Big Ten teams Northwestern beat last year will be improved. Not sure I buy the schedule argument. Looks pretty manageable to me.
  • We didn't get a full read on the all-important running back situation because sophomore Arby Fields, who most believe will end up as the starter, sat out practice with an injury. Junior Jacob Schmidt, who provided a nice boost in short-yardage situations last year, had a very good day, including a big burst up the middle during team drills. Northwestern typically uses smaller backs in the spread offense, but both Schmidt and true freshman Adonis Smith bring good size to the mix. Smith is listed at only 5-10, 185 but looks a lot bigger. "Smith is to me the guy who has an opportunity to come and be special as a freshman," Griffith said.
  • The running game is clearly the focus of camp, as quarterback Dan Persa and superback Drake Dunsmore both mentioned it during interviews with the BTN crew. "We take it personal that we didn't run the ball very well last year," Persa said.
  • Persa looked good during the practice, making different types of throws and showing good accuracy. He displayed nice touch on a deep fade to Jeremy Ebert in individual drills and made a nice throw to Lee Coleman into tight coverage during team drills. The receivers looked good as well, as Ebert and Sidney Stewart ran some nice routes and freshman Venric Mark left the BTN feeling he can play right away this fall. Dunsmore said he tweaked a hamstring early in camp but should be fine for the season.
  • Backup quarterback Evan Watkins had a nifty rollout and pass to Ebert for a touchdown during team drills. "Nice job of running the seam route there," Griffith said. Head coach Pat Fitzgerald is pleased with all the quarterbacks in camp, saying the team "hit grand slams" by adding freshmen Trevor Siemian and Kain Colter.
  • DiNardo likes Northwestern's starting linebacking corps but is unsure about the depth. Bryce McNaul certainly looks like the third starter alongside mainstays Quentin Davie and Nate Williams. Davie told the BTN crew that forcing turnovers is the defense's top priority after it tied for second in the league in takeaways with 30 last fall.
  • An experienced offensive line left a good impression in this practice. DiNardo and Griffith singled out guard Brian Mulroe and tackle Patrick Ward for their play, and DiNardo said, "This is the best offensive line we've seen at Northwestern for a while." Fitzgerald noted the athleticism on the left side of the line with Mulroe and veteran tackle Al Netter.
  • Aside from Schmidt's long run, the defensive line did a good job of filling gaps in team drills. The BTN crew likes the depth at both end and tackle, and Griffith lists tackle Jack DiNardo as his under-the-radar player. Niko Mafuli showed some good power in team drills, especially after Fitzgerald, mic'd up for part of the practice, called him out for being slow. Fitzgerald calls senior tackle Corbin Bryant an "All-Big Ten-level player."
  • Not much stood out about the secondary in this practice, although the BTN crew praised the play of safeties Jared Carpenter and Hunter Bates, who are competing to start alongside Brian Peters. "He's key for that young secondary," DiNardo said of Carpenter.
EVANSTON, Ill. -- Head coach Pat Fitzgerald and the Northwestern Wildcats held their preseason media day Wednesday, and I was on hand for it. I'll have some blog posts and video interviews in the coming days, but first, some notes.
  • Fitzgerald confirmed that the team will practice Aug. 23 at Naval Station Great Lakes, the U.S. Navy's headquarters for training. Details are coming, but check out my post earlier this summer for more about the event. Great Lakes used to be a powerhouse in college football, and there are a ton of football connections there. The team will leave its off-site training camp in Kenosha, Wis., and practice at Great Lakes before returning to Evanston the night of the 23rd. "Hopefully, a great tradition is going to be started," Fitzgerald said.
  • I'll have more on All-Big Ten kicker Stefan Demos in the coming days, but his workload will be lighter this fall as Brandon Williams has emerged as a solid option at punter. Demos, who has battled hip problems, handled field goals, kickoffs and punting last season and also punted in 2007 and 2008. Although his rugby style worked at times, all involved are pleased to see Williams emerge. "Nobody wants me out there punting any more, that's for sure," Demos said. "Including me. ... I'm sure [Fitzgerald] is tired of being called the worst special-teams coach ever because he doesn't have a punter."
  • Speaking of special teams, true freshman Venric Mark already is marking his mark on punt returns. Although safety Hunter Bates, cornerback Jordan Mabin, wide receiver Charles Brown and another freshman, receiver Tony Jones, are also in the mix, I'd be surprised if Mark wasn't the starter. Stephen Simmons and Jacob Schmidt will continue to handle kickoff returns, Fitzgerald said.
  • Northwestern is much healthier now than it was a year ago and has been able to practice at a good clip. The team's slow start to 2009 could be attributed in part to being limited in preseason camp. "This will be my fifth year [as head coach], and this is the best-conditioned team we've had," Fitzgerald said. "We've pushed the tempo. We go six-minute periods, and we went in such a quick tempo, we finished with two and a half minutes left in our second set of team [drills]. That's going at it, especially with where the weather was at. ... It puts us in a position maybe to be a little more accelerated than we've been in the past." Fitzgerald added that the team's speed has been upgraded through recruiting.
  • The secondary loses three multiyear starters but has two spots locked up with cornerback Jordan Mabin and safety Brian Peters. Justan Vaughn, Demetrius Dugar and Mike Bolden will compete at the other corner spot, while Jared Carpenter and David Arnold are the candidates to line up next to Peters. Other position battles include outside linebacker (Bryce McNaul and Ben Johnson), right tackle (Patrick Ward and Neal Deiters) and offensive guard, where Doug Bartels, Keenan Grant and Brian Mulroe are competing for two starting spots.
  • The recent heat and humidity in northern Illinois is helping Northwestern prepare for nonconference road games in balmy Nashville (at Vanderbilt) and Houston (at Rice). Fitzgerald also said the team uses a service for potential hot-weather games that allows players to "plug in" to an air-conditioning unit on the sideline that provides cool air underneath their shoulder pads. Northwestern used the service for its game inside the Carrier Dome at Syracuse last September and at the Outback Bowl in Tampa on Jan. 1.

Northwestern spring wrap

May, 5, 2010
5/05/10
8:00
AM ET
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.
Northwestern didn't unveil a defined depth chart entering spring practice, but now that the spring session is complete, head coach Pat Fitzgerald has issued an updated two-deep. As expected, junior Dan Persa is listed as the team's starting quarterback, with redshirt freshman Evan Watkins as his backup.

A few nuggets of note:

  • Sophomore Arby Fields is listed as the starting running back ahead of junior Jacob Schmidt. Fields, the team's leading rusher last year, had a good spring but missed all the spring scrimmages because he was playing baseball. I'd be somewhat surprised if he doesn't start the opener Sept. 4 at Vanderbilt.
  • The Wildcats lose their top two wideouts from 2009, and they list Jeremy Ebert, Sidney Stewart and Demetrius Fields as the projected starters coming out of the spring. Ebert figures to be the No. 1 target, though NU needs to develop more depth.
  • All five starters return on the offensive line, but sophomore Patrick Ward, who didn't start last year, is listed as the top right tackle. Also, Brian Mulroe appears as the starting left guard ahead of Keenan Grant, while Doug Bartels and Neal Dieters are listed as co-starters at right guard. Translation: there will be ongoing competition at both guard spots.
  • Linebackers Quentin Davie and Nate Williams are set as starters, and Ben Johnson and Bryce McNaul are listed as co-starters in the third spot. McNaul had a nice spring and Johnson started early last season and brings some good athleticism, so this will be an interesting position battle to watch.
  • Northwestern moved starting linebacker David Arnold to safety to fill a need there, but Jared Carpenter is listed ahead of Arnold on the depth chart. Another good battle brewing there opposite Brian Peters.
  • Starting placekicker Stefan Demos is listed as a co-starter at punter with Brandon Williams. Northwestern really would be best served if Williams can win that job and lighten the load on Demos.
  • Jordan Mabin and Hunter Bates are the two options at punt returner, a weak spot for NU in recent years. Incoming freshman Venric Mark also could compete here.
EVANSTON, Ill. -- Twenty years ago, a Northwestern bowl appearance would qualify as major news.

[+] EnlargePat Fitzgerald
Scott Boehm/Getty ImagesCoach Pat Fitzgerald is trying to steer Northwestern to an unprecedented third consecutive postseason appearance.
Now the Wildcats are getting attention for what they're doing on the field in late December or early January.

Arguably no team in the country has been part of two more exciting bowl games the last two years than the Wildcats, who played overtime thrillers against both Missouri (2008 Alamo Bowl) and Auburn (2010 Outback Bowl). Both games put Northwestern on the national radar, particularly the Outback Bowl, which featured a truly wild ending and a once-in-a-generation stat line from Wildcats quarterback Mike Kafka.

The only problem: The Wildcats walked off the field as losers both times.

For decades, Northwestern was haunted by streaks of futility -- an NCAA record 34-game slide between 1979-82, a 47-year drought between bowl games -- only to overcome them, beginning with its breakthrough season in 1995. The Wildcats have reached seven bowl games in the last 15 years and established themselves in the middle of the Big Ten pack, but they're dogged by another losing streak: no postseason wins since the 1949 Rose Bowl.

"You look at the bowl appearances we've had in the last 15 years; it's an unprecedented time in our program's history," head coach Pat Fitzgerald said. "There's been unfinished business in the bowl season. You look at the games, outside of a couple, they've been unbelievable.

"We just haven't gotten over the mountaintop. We'll worry about that down the road."

Fitzgerald has more immediate concerns in spring practice, like sparking the rushing attack, replacing three starters in the secondary and adjusting to a new starting quarterback in junior Dan Persa. And with only eight bowl games in team history, Northwestern knows better than to take postseason appearances for granted.

But after winning 17 games the last two seasons, the Wildcats expect to play past November. And they won't be satisfied with just another bowl invite.

"That's the only thing on my mind right now," senior defensive tackle Corbin Bryant said, "to continue to improve so we can get over the hump and win this bowl game. That's one thing I want to achieve before I leave here, and I'm sure it's something everybody, as a collective team, wants to achieve."

It's no accident that a sign displayed next to the stage in Northwestern's team meeting room ends with the words: "Consistently Prepare for Victory. Win a Bowl game." After the Outback Bowl loss, All-Big Ten cornerback Sherrick McManis, an outgoing senior, spoke to the team about what comes next.

"Sherrick said, 'It's one thing just to get there. Yeah, we went to the Outback Bowl and it's awesome, but we've got to get over that hump,'" sophomore running back Arby Fields recalled. "One of the cornerstones of our program is finishing, and we feel like we haven't finished. We get there, but we don't finish."

To get across that line, Northwestern must get more from a run game that ranked eighth in the Big Ten last fall. The Wildcats return all five starters on the offensive line as well as a running back group led by Fields, Scott Concannon and Jacob Schmidt.

Offensive coordinator Mick McCall wants to identify a clear No. 1 back, something the Wildcats failed to do last fall, but Fitzgerald is willing to let the competition play out.

"I'm pleased with the progress so far of our backs," Fitzgerald said. "I said to the team [Monday] that the one group that's embracing what we're working to accomplish is our running backs. Everybody writes negative stuff about them, so I guess they use that negative fuel to get things going in spring ball."

The defense loses McManis, All-Big Ten safety Brad Phillips and Brendan Smith, a multiyear starter at safety, as well as two starting defensive linemen. Brian Peters will step in at one safety spot, but the other position is up for grabs between converted linebacker David Arnold, sophomore Jared Carpenter and Hunter Bates and redshirt freshman Cooper Gerami.

Fitzgerald will lean on a linebacker group that he calls "as deep as we've had in a number of years." Senior outside linebacker Quentin Davie could contend for All-Big Ten honors this fall.

Northwestern showed last year that it could overcome key personnel losses and get back to a bowl game. The Wildcats face a similar challenge in 2010 as they aim for an unprecedented third consecutive postseason appearance.

"We make it to bowl games around here now," Davie said. "That's the standard that we've set already, so the only acceptable thing is to go to a bowl game and win one, too."
EVANSTON, Ill. -- I thought it was an April Fool's joke when I heard temperatures might reach the 80s in Chicago today. But the pleasantly surprising forecast held up, at least for Northwestern's morning workout. The Wildcats put on pads for the first time this spring and practiced in incredible weather conditions.

Spring football, 70-degree temps and no clouds in the sky = a winning combination.

A few thoughts from Northwestern's practice:

  • Quarterback Dan Persa looked sharp for the most part, especially during the 7-on-7 portion of practice. He hit Jeremy Ebert on a deep post route and made several strong throws over the middle. He had an interception during team drills, as safety Jared Carpenter recorded the pick off of a tipped ball. But otherwise, Persa performed well. He also showed good leadership for a projected starter, checking in with wide receiver Lee Coleman after some confusion on a route.
  • Joining Persa with the first-team offense were running back Arby Fields, Ebert, Coleman, wideout Sidney Stewart and superback Josh Rooks. Starting superback Drake Dunsmore is out for the spring following shoulder surgery, and he actually had a follow-up shoulder procedure today. So Rooks is getting a lot of work.
  • Ebert's surgically repaired hip limited him throughout the 2009 season, but he should be a major factor for Northwestern this fall. The junior, who likely will be Persa's top option at wide receiver, made several receptions Thursday and had a nice gain on an end around.
  • As 2009 All-Big Ten cornerback Sherrick McManis watched from the sideline, the men vying to replace him this fall looked good. Junior Mike Bolden recorded several pass breakups and sophomore Demetrius Dugar had a leaping interception of an Evan Watkins pass.
  • Top linebackers Quentin Davie (foot, out for a few days) and Nate Williams (shoulder surgery, out for the spring) aren't practicing right now, but I was impressed with sophomore Roderick Goodlow, who recorded a tackle for loss and several other good plays. Redshirt freshman linebacker Tim Riley is also generating some buzz this spring.
  • Starting safety Brian Peters sat out practice with a hamstring injury, so Carpenter and projected starter David Arnold, a converted linebacker, got most of the reps at safety.
  • It was great to see defensive line coach Marty Long jogging around the practice field. Long underwent surgery in December to remove a growth and missed the Outback Bowl, but he's back to 100 percent. His NU predecessor Eric Washington, now the defensive line coach for the Chicago Bears, was in attendance at Thursday's practice.
  • The first-team offensive line had Al Netter at left tackle, Brian Mulroe at left guard, Ben Burkett at center, Neil Dieters at right guard and Patrick Ward at right tackle. Don't be surprised if this is the starting line entering the fall, as Ward, the team's top recruit in 2009, has been impressive. The most competitive position battle takes place at right guard between the 6-foot-8 Dieters and junior Doug Bartels.
  • Fields took all of the reps with the first-team offense and had a few nice runs, while Stephen Simmons and Scott Concannon worked with the second team. Sophomore Tyris Jones also got quite a few reps at running back.

SPONSORED HEADLINES

BIG TEN SCOREBOARD

Saturday, 12/20
Monday, 12/22
Tuesday, 12/23
Wednesday, 12/24
Friday, 12/26
Saturday, 12/27
Monday, 12/29
Tuesday, 12/30
Wednesday, 12/31
Thursday, 1/1
Friday, 1/2
Saturday, 1/3
Sunday, 1/4
Monday, 1/12