Big Ten: Kevin Watt

Northwestern has released its depth chart for next week's season opener at Boston College. Although Dan Persa's injury status remains up in the air, the senior is listed as the starting quarterback ahead of sophomore Kain Colter.

A few other notes:
  • Mike Trumpy and Jacob Schmidt are listed as co-starters at running back. Wildcats coaches were calling Schmidt the No. 1 back in camp, although some saw it as a way to motivate Trumpy, clearly the team's top ball-carrier late in the 2010 season. Although both players will see time against Boston College, expect Trumpy to get more carries.
  • True freshman wide receiver Christian Jones really impressed me at Wednesday's practice, and he appears to have been rewarded for a strong camp. Although Northwestern is very deep at receiver, the 6-3, 225-pound Jones is listed as a co-starter with Rashad Lawrence. Expect big things from Jones this fall.
  • Redshirt freshman Brandon Vitabile has locked up the starting center spot, while Ben Burkett, who started the past three seasons at center, moves to right guard.
  • The Wildcats linebacker situation seems fluid, but Ben Johnson, David Nwabuisi and Bryce McNaul enter Week 1 as the starters.
  • Tyler Scott has moved ahead of Kevin Watt for a starting defensive end spot opposite All-Big Ten candidate Vince Browne.
  • Jeff Budzien is listed as the starting place-kicker, although Steve Flaherty will handle kickoffs. Redshirt freshman Ibraheim Campbell joins return specialist Venric Mark on kickoff runbacks.
Northwestern has issued its post-spring depth chart after wrapping up its practice session Saturday with the spring exhibition.

A few notes and observations:
  • Sophomore Mike Trumpy is listed as the starting running back, a position where Northwestern needs much more production in 2011. Coordinator Mick McCall wanted a No. 1 back to emerge this spring, and Trumpy really seems like the best option. He played better as the 2010 season went along before fracturing his wrist against Illinois. Senior Jacob Schmidt and sophomore Adonis Smith are listed as co-backups. I'm a little surprised not to see Tyris Jones' name on the two-deep.
  • Although the reserve quarterbacks took all the reps this spring, there's still no answer about who will back up Dan Persa this fall. Kain Colter, Trevor Siemian and Evan Watkins all are listed as co-backups. Colter would be my choice, but he still has to prove more to the staff.
  • Receivers Charles Brown and Mike Jensen both helped their cause this spring. Brown is listed as a starter with Jensen as his backup. Sophomore Rashad Lawrence, the most impressive of the three true freshmen wideouts who played in 2010, also is listed as a starter.
  • Guard Doug Bartels, who missed spring ball following shoulder surgery, will compete with Neal Deiters for a starting job this summer. Bartels started every game in 2009 and the first three last fall.
  • Defensive linemen Tyler Scott and Niko Mafuli both drew praise from the coaches this spring, and both players now are listed as co-starters at their respective positions. Scott will compete with returning starter Kevin Watt, while Mafuli and Brian Arnfelt will compete to fill a vacancy.
  • As expected, Jervain Matthews is listed as a starting cornerback, a job he secured this spring. Redshirt freshman Ibraheim Campbell moved into a backup role after impressing the staff in practice.
  • The competition at kicker will continue into the fall -- and possibly all the way until game week -- as Jeff Budzien and Steve Flaherty are listed as co-starters.

Northwestern also announced its Sept. 17 game at Army will kick off at 3:30 p.m. ET and be televised by CBS Sports Network.
National Signing Day is just about a week away, so let's take a look at the recruiting needs for each Big Ten team.

In compiling these lists, I tried to look at positions that have depth issues for 2011 and/or 2012.

Let's start off with the Legends division.

IOWA

Running back: Marcus Coker's breakout performance in the Insight Bowl got Iowa fans excited for the future, but there's still a significant depth issue here. If Adam Robinson can't get reinstated, the Hawkeyes will be looking for No. 2 and No. 3 options behind Coker. As we've seen the past two seasons, freshmen backs will see the field at Iowa.

Linebacker: Iowa felt the losses of Pat Angerer and A.J. Edds this season, and it must continue to rebuild the depth at the three linebacker spots. Multiyear starter Jeremiha Hunter departs along with players like Jeff Tarpinian and Troy Johnson. Iowa needs to build around rising star James Morris.

Wide receiver/tight end: Iowa loses Derrell Johnson-Koulianos, Allen Reisner and Colin Sandeman this year. Also, receiver Marvin McNutt and tight end Brad Herman depart after the 2011 season. Although the Hawkeyes boast young talent at both positions, they need to build depth with this class.

MICHIGAN

Secondary: The Wolverines couldn't find many answers here in 2010, and though the return of players like cornerbacks Troy Woolfolk and J.T. Floyd will help, there are opportunities for freshmen to make an immediate impact. Michigan simply needs more options at both secondary spots in 2011.

Defensive line: It's crucial for coach Brady Hoke and defensive coordinator Greg Mattison to begin building depth up front. Future NFL player Mike Martin departs after 2011 along with Ryan Van Bergen, so Michigan needs to solidify both line positions.

Kicker: Field goals were an adventure in 2010, and Michigan simply can't have so much uncertainty at kicker going forward. The Wolverines need a reliable leg here ASAP.

MICHIGAN STATE

Linebacker: I like some of the young linebackers the Spartans bring back in 2011, but you can't overlook the losses of multiyear starters Greg Jones and Eric Gordon, not to mention reserve Jon Misch. Michigan State should have a decent group of first-string 'backers, but wants to build depth in the defensive midsection.

Offensive line: Not only do the Spartans lose three starters from the 2010 line, but they're still not where they need to be depth-wise up front to become a consistent top-tier Big Ten program. Michigan State wants to become like Iowa and Wisconsin. The big step is to keep fortifying both lines, especially on the offensive side.

MINNESOTA

Pass rusher: Minnesota finished last in the Big Ten in sacks last season (9) and hasn't had an intimidating pass rusher since Willie VanDeSteeg in 2008. The recent departure of defensive tackle Jewhan Edwards, who led the team in both sacks and tackles for loss in 2009, underscores this need.

Offensive line: The Gophers lose three starters up front, and while they boast some promising young linemen like tackle Ed Olson, the depth just isn't there yet. Minnesota's best teams had powerful offensive lines, and new coach Jerry Kill must continue to create competition up front.

NEBRASKA

Running back: The Huskers lose standout Roy Helu Jr., and while Rex Burkhead quickly will become one of my favorite Big Ten players, he might not be an every-down back for Nebraska going forward. You always want options in the backfield, and Nebraska must continue to address its run game with the 2011 class.

Wide receiver: Nebraska loses Niles Paul and wants to identify playmakers to surround Taylor Martinez or whomever starts at quarterback. Brandon Kinnie departs after the 2011 season, and while Burkhead helps in the receiving department, Nebraska needs others to emerge.

NORTHWESTERN

Running back: Although Mike Trumpy and Adonis Smith emerged as possible answers late in the 2010 season, Northwestern needs to create real competition here. The Wildcats have lacked a dominant back during the Pat Fitzgerald era and need a dangerous rushing option to complement Dan Persa.

Defensive line: The Wildcats lose only one starter (Corbin Bryant) from the 2010 squad, but four more rotation players (Vince Browne, Jack DiNardo, Kevin Watt and Niko Mafuli) depart after 2011. Fortifying the pass rush is a major priority going forward.

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

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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