Big Ten: Josh Rooks

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.

Posted by ESPN.com's Adam Rittenberg

EVANSTON, Ill. -- Before hitting the road, I caught a portion of Northwestern's practice this afternoon. Though I couldn't stay for most of the good stuff -- 7-on-7s and team drills -- I did notice a few things of note.

  • Junior outside linebacker Quentin Davie is a specimen. He always had the size (6-4) but lacked the mass. Davie is only listed at 225 pounds, but I'd be stunned if he wasn't at least 230, if not 235. He looks a lot stronger in his upper body. Davie also seems much more vocal in practice.
  • The wide receivers clearly have taken head coach Pat Fitzgerald message about their anonymity to heart. Earlier today, Fitzgerald said of the new skill-position players on offense: "None of (the media) know any of our guys' names, so I'll spare it." Junior Sidney Stewart spent much of practice saying, "Nobody knows who I am. Who am I? Where did I come from?"
  • Quarterbacks Mike Kafka and Dan Persa looked good during the drills I watched, connecting on their downfield throws.
  • Senior Andrew Brewer appears to be the team's top wideout, followed by sophomore Jeremy Ebert. Brewer has moved from the slot to an outside receiver spot, where his speed should be a bigger factor. Ebert, who comes off of hip surgery, fills the slot role previously occupied by standout Eric Peterman.
  • True freshman quarterback Evan Watkins certainly looks the part at 6-6 and 235 pounds. No Northwestern signal caller in recent memory resembles Watkins, who wears C.J. Bacher's old number, 18.
  • Defensive end Corey Wootton (knee) and cornerback Sherrick McManis (foot) sat out the workout. Both players are expected to miss a practice here and there, though both are fully cleared.
  • Tight end Drake Dunsmore is back from a knee injury, but he'll have to beat out Josh Rooks for the starting job. Expect Northwestern to use the tight ends (superbacks, they call them) more this year and possibly together for some plays.

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

MINNEAPOLIS -- Pat Fitzgerald's first significant decision as Northwestern's head coach came on Aug. 28, 2006, when he named Mike Kafka the team's starting quarterback.

 
 Harry How/Getty Images
 Quarterback Mike Kafka led Northwestern to an upset victory over No. 17 Minnesota.

Kafka went on to start the first four games of a star-crossed season for Northwestern. The team struggled to bounce back after the sudden death of head coach Randy Walker earlier in the summer. The Wildcats went 2-2 with Kafka at the helm, but a hamstring injury against Nevada sent the freshman to the sidelines.

He remained backstage until Saturday.

Starting quarterback C.J. Bacher had injured his hamstring a week earlier at Indiana, and though Bacher was available for the game against No. 17 Minnesota, Fitzgerald and his staff decided after Wednesday's practice that Kafka would get the start.

Kafka was ready Saturday, and his performance helped Northwestern to a 24-17 upset of Minnesota. The 6-3, 210-pound junior shattered a school record for quarterback rushing with 217 yards and also threw two touchdown passes to go along with two interceptions.

Kafka had runs of 53, 38 and 30 yards in the victory.

"He does it every week in practice," freshman wideout Jeremy Ebert said, "so it doesn't really impress us too much."

Minnesota shut down running back Omar Conteh, leaving the ball in the hands of Kafka, who Fitzgerald called "a true dual-threat quarterback."

"It shows great maturity on Mike's part," Fitzgerald said. "As a competitor, you never want to learn patience. It's the worst word in the world for a competitor. Mike's been patient for his opportunity."

How hard was the wait?

"You're a play away," Fitzgerald had continued to remind him. "You don't know when that opportunity's going to arise. All you control is if you're ready or not. And if you're ready, you go out there and take advantage of the opportunity. If you're not, you get exposed. That's the great thing about football, and it mimics life.

"We all get opportunities in life. Either we're ready for them or we're not."

Consider: Since the Nevada game in 2006, Kafka had completed 8 of 14 passes for 38 yards and no touchdowns.

"Us as an offense grew from there, and individually I definitely grew from that, too," Kafka said. "Since then, we've had a lot of adversity. We've had a lot of good things happen, too."

Many of those good things happened on the game's opening drive, as Kafka led the offense 78 yards in seven plays. He set the tone with an 11-yard run on the first play from scrimmage and hit several short routes.

Then, on third-and-5, with Minnesota cheating up to the line, Kafka found Ebert for a 36-yard score over the top of the defense.

"It was a very strong statement," Wildcats safety Brendan Smith said. "It put energy and life into our team.

"When he did that, everyone knew that, 'OK, it's a ballgame. We're going to win this game.'"

With both Bacher and starting running back Tyrell Sutton sidelined, Northwestern operated in a more conservative scheme, trying to avoid turnovers at all costs.

The Wildcats ran on third-and-19 to set up a field goal. They ran on third-and-17 inside Gophers territory, settling for a punt. Another trip to plus territory ended with a run on third-and-11. You could say Northwestern played not to lose on offense -- a risky proposition on the road. But it worked.

"It's different," Ebert said of the scheme, "but we trust our coaches and we trust our game plan."

Despite the no-mistakes plan, disaster struck for Kafka in the second quarter, as Minnesota cornerback Traye Simmons jumped his pass to Ross Lane and walked in for a touchdown. It was exactly the type of error an undermanned Northwestern offense needed to avoid.

But Kafka bounced back two possessions later, racing to the Gophers' 2-yard line after recognizing an open running lane. On the next play he found Josh Rooks in the end zone, putting Northwestern back on top.

"When adversity hits, just flush it and move on," Kafka said. "There was still a lot of game left.

"I love the way our team responded today."

Last week's loss to Indiana mirrored Wildcats setbacks of past seasons -- Duke in 2007, New Hampshire in 2006. The game took a greater toll with the losses of Sutton and Bacher. Many waited for the collapse to begin.

But Saturday's win ensures Northwestern of a postseason bid -- the first hands Fitzgerald shook coming out of the locker room belonged to representatives of the Insight and Champs Sports Bowls -- and elevates hope for the future with Kafka under center.

"From adversity, you can really respond and respond greatly," Fitzgerald said. "A lot people were jumping off the bandwagon last week, a lot of people telling us just how bad we were. We don't worry about those things."

Fitzgerald left the Metrodome singing a Jimmy Buffet song.

Pretty soon, others might start to change their tune about his team.

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.

INDIANA

  • 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.

NORTHWESTERN

  • 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

EVANSTON, Ill. -- Sorry for the lengthy delay. I just got back from watching Northwestern's practice and listening to coach Pat Fitzgerald address the media. I spoke with both new coordinators (Mike Hankwitz and Mick McCall) and several players at practice, so check back throughout the afternoon for updates.

Here are some items of interest from practice:

  • Starting running back Tyrell Sutton sat out practice after sustaining a minor leg/ankle injury Wednesday, but he should be fine in a few days. I spoke to Sutton and he expects to practice next week when the team heads to Kenosha, Wis., for training. Though any sort of leg problem is a concern after Sutton missed five games last season with a high ankle sprain, the senior wasn't wearing any brace and seemed to be walking fine.
  • Promising redshirt freshman defensive end Vince Browne also missed practice with a minor injury.
  • As expected, junior defensive tackle Marshall Thomas practiced with the first-team defense in the spot normally reserved for John Gill, who is suspended for the first week of practice and the season opener for violating team policy. Thomas and classmate Corbin Bryant are the likeliest candidates to start against Syracuse on Aug. 30. Gill is working out independently at the football complex and was spotted on his way to the locker room.
  • The defense looked significantly more aggressive than in past seasons, a possible result of Hankwitz's arrival. Junior safety Brendan Smith, who earned a medical hardship last season because of a shoulder injury, leveled several big hits. Redshirt freshman linebacker Kevin Watt also delivered some punishment on running back Jacob Schmidt.
  • Smith staged an entertaining competition with wide receiver Andrew Brewer, another projected starter who comes off an injury. Brewer, a former starting quarterback for the Wildcats, will be a major threat on deep routes, as he showed by leaping to snag a pass.
  • I spent some time with Northwestern's new athletic director Jim Phillips, who is working to upgrade the school's facilities. After seeing what's going on at Michigan and Michigan State, it's crucial for Northwestern to catch up and keep pace. Phillips also said general ticket sales for the football season are up 56 percent from last year. He's driving up to Green Bay on Friday to visit with his Northwestern predecessor, Packers president Mark Murphy, who has been a little busy lately with some Favre guy.
  • The safeties stood out more than any other position during team drills. Smith, Brad Phillips and redshirt freshman David Arnold all recorded pass breakups, and sophomore James Nussbaum picked off a pass.
  • Northwestern hasn't used its tight ends much in the spread offense era, but that could and should change this fall. Drake Dunsmore and mammoth sophomore Josh Rooks looked good at the superback position, a tight end-fullback-wide receiver mix. Both players are threats down the middle of the field.
  • Senior Rasheed Ward is projected to start with the first-team offense, but sophomore Sidney Stewart took his place at Thursday's practice.
  • With players in shorts, it was hard to get a great read on the offensive line, the team's biggest question entering the season. The first team consisted of tackles Kurt Mattes and Al Netter, guards Joel Belding and Keegan Kennedy and center Ben Burkett.

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