Big Ten: Nate Williams

Given Bryce McNaul's injury history, Northwestern might feel a bit leery about relying too heavily on the linebacker this season. The senior has missed portions of the past three seasons with various ailments.

Then again, the Wildcats have no choice. After losing two starting linebackers (Nate Williams and Quentin Davie) who combined for 167 tackles, Northwestern needs big things from McNaul at an otherwise shaky position.

The team got some good news Monday when it resumed practice following spring break and McNaul was on the field, fully cleared for participation. McNaul had shoulder surgery Feb. 16 -- he had his AC joint removed -- and was supposed to be limited this spring. But he made a rapid recovery.

From's Skip Myslenski:
"It's kind of funny because the last shoulder surgery I had was around the same time after the Alamo Bowl back in '09," McNaul said. "That was an eight-month recovery and it was kind of all doom-and-gloom. So when they told me shoulder surgery, and especially when they said we're taking your AC joint out, I'm like, 'Oh, great. Here we go again.' But I came out of surgery and I kind of had a smile on my face because I felt great. It was a 45-minute operation and, like I said, they just cleaned it up. They didn't have to reconstruct or re-patch the whole thing. So it's all good. I just have a few more holes in the shoulder."

Although McNaul had been on schedule to return this fall either way, his participation in spring ball can only help the Wildcats linebacking corps. He started nine games last fall and will provide leadership for a group that needs some unproven players to emerge.
The spring superlatives series, which examines the strongest and weakest position groups for each Big Ten squad in spring ball, continues with Northwestern.

Strongest position: Wide receiver/tight end (superback)

  • Top returnees: Jeremy Ebert (62 receptions, 952 yards, 8 TDs); Drake Dunsmore (40 receptions, 381 yards, 5 TDs); Demetrius Fields (25 receptions, 291 yards, 2 TDs); Charles Brown (16 receptions, 198 yards); Rashad Lawrence (12 receptions, 178 yards)
  • Key losses: Sidney Stewart (40 receptions, 454 yards)
  • The skinny: New receivers coach Dennis Springer inherits the deepest position group on the roster. Ebert, a first-team All-Big Ten selection, headlines the receivers along with Dunsmore, who can be more productive than he was in 2010. Both players will be featured a lot this fall. The big upside with the group comes from three rising sophomores -- Lawrence, Tony Jones and Venric Mark -- all of whom saw the field as true freshmen last fall. All three players possess big-play potential, which Northwestern needs as it struggles to stretch the field at times.
Weakest position: Linebacker
  • Top returnees: Bryce McNaul (62 tackles, 5 tackles for loss, 1 sack, 1 forced fumble); David Nwabuisi (26 tackles, 2 tackles for loss, 1 interception, 1 forced fumble); Ben Johnson (21 tackles, 1.5 tackles for loss, 1 interception, 1 fumble recovery)
  • Key losses: Nate Williams (96 tackles, 9.5 tackles for loss, 2 sacks, 3 quarterback hurries, 1 forced fumble; Quentin Davie (71 tackles, 6 tackles for loss, 3 interceptions, 6 quarterback hurries, 1 forced fumble, 1 fumble recovery)
  • The skinny: A group pegged to be the strength of the defense struggled to meet expectations in 2010. Northwestern got steamrolled in losses to Illinois, Wisconsin and Texas Tech, and in the second halves of defeats against both Penn State and Michigan State. Two productive starters depart and there are questions about who can fill the gaps. McNaul boasts talent and leadership ability but has struggled to stay healthy throughout his career. Northwestern needs more from both Nwabuisi and Johnson and a surprising surge from a guy like Roderick Goodlow this fall. The kicker spot also is a concern after the departure of four-year starter Stefan Demos.
Here are three keys for Northwestern heading into its TicketCity Bowl matchup against Texas Tech.

1. Help out Evan Watkins: I think Northwestern got a little too comfortable letting Dan Persa work his magic on offense. Then when Persa got hurt, the Wildcats didn't have enough options to contribute around backup quarterback Evan Watkins. Northwestern needs a big game from its veteran offensive line and must establish the rushing attack with Adonis Smith, Stephen Simmons or, if cleared to play, Mike Trumpy. Players like wideout Jeremy Ebert and superback Drake Dunsmore also must help out Watkins in the pass game.

2. Tackle in space: The Wildcats' tackling left much to be desired at times this season, especially in blowout losses to Illinois and Wisconsin to end the regular season. The pre-bowl layoff allowed Northwestern to get healthy and refocus on its fundamentals, but Texas Tech's dynamic spread offense will test the Wildcats' tackling ability. NU needs veterans like linebackers Quentin Davie and Nate Williams and safety Brian Peters to prevent explosion plays.

3. Avoid special teams miscues: Northwestern's perfect ending Saturday calls for kicker Stefan Demos to end the team's 62-year bowl drought with a game-winning field goal. Demos missed a game-winning kick in the 2010 Outback Bowl and had a punt returned for a touchdown in the 2008 Alamo Bowl. Special teams have cost Northwestern too often at critical times, and the Wildcats need strong performances from Demos, return man Venric Mark and others on Saturday.

Northwestern Wildcats season recap

December, 7, 2010
Northwestern entered the season with a big question mark at quarterback and enough answers elsewhere on the two-deep.

Dan Persa eased all concerns about the most important position on the field, but he didn't get enough help for Northwestern to build on a 5-0 start.

The Wildcats still made history by clinching a team-record third consecutive bowl appearance and recording three consecutive winning seasons for the first time since 1958-60. They maintained their recent success against Iowa, beating the Hawkeyes for the third straight year and for the fifth time in six seasons. But losses in five of the final seven regular-season games, plus the season-ending loss of Persa to a ruptures Achilles' tendon, put a damper on things heading into December.

Persa was brilliant from the get-go, showing incredible accuracy and the mobility to keep the chains moving. He formed a strong connection with All-Big Ten receiver Jeremy Ebert and others, but a veteran offensive line didn't perform to expectations and Northwestern once again struggled to run the ball.

The flaws on defense were there during the 5-0 start, as Northwestern endured stretches of missed tackles and didn't get enough from its linebackers.

The Wildcats were close, building big leads against Michigan State and Penn State before stumbling. Northwestern could be the classic year-away team, but it needs to build more around Persa.

Offensive MVP: Dan Persa. Who else? Persa set a Big Ten record for completion percentage (73.5) -- since broken by Wisconsin's Scott Tolzien -- and passed for 2,581 yards with 15 touchdowns and just four interceptions in only 10 games. He also led the team in both rushing attempts (164) and rushing touchdowns (9) and finished second in rushing yards (519). Persa earned first-team All-Big Ten honors from the league's coaches.

Defensive MVP: Bryce McNaul. The junior linebacker finally stayed healthy and made his presence known for an up-and-down defense. McNaul recorded 61 tackles, including five for loss and a sack, to go along with a forced fumble in only 10 games played. Defensive end Vince Browne, safety Brian Peters and linebacker Nate Williams also merit mentions here.

Turning point: The Iowa game. Northwestern finally put it all together Nov. 13 for what was a signature victory at the time (Iowa came in ranked No. 13), but the Wildcats also lost Persa for the season as the star quarterback injured himself throwing the decisive touchdown pass. Two blowout losses followed as Northwestern finished the regular season at 7-5.

What's next: Northwestern aims for its first bowl victory since the 1949 Rose when it takes on Texas Tech in the inaugural TicketCity Bowl on Jan. 1 in Dallas. The Wildcats have a month to prepare backup quarterback Evan Watkins after the redshirt freshman struggled against Illinois and Wisconsin. The defense really needs to pick up its play after surrendering 118 points in its last two games.
Welcome to National Depth Chart Day. No day on the college football calendar inspires more curiosity about depth charts than the Monday before the season, when most teams release their Week 1 two-deeps.

(And then there's Purdue, which didn't include a depth chart in its game notes for Notre Dame. Ugh.)

I've had the chance to review depth charts from those programs that released them today -- two-deeps from Illinois, Michigan State and Minnesota are coming soon -- and I checked in on several coaches' news conferences.

Here's what stood out:

  • Even though Indiana will shift to a 3-4 defensive alignment this year, the depth chart lists a 4-3 with Darius Johnson and Fred Jones as the starting ends and Chad Sherer and Tyler Replogle flanking junior college transfer Jeff Thomas at linebacker.
  • Interesting to see several veteran offensive linemen like Justin Pagan and Cody Faulkner listed as backups rather than starters. Junior Andrew McDonald steps into some big shoes at left tackle as Rodger Saffold departs to the NFL.
  • The backup quarterback job remains open, as Dusty Kiel and Edward Wright-Baker are both listed as No. 2 behind Ben Chappell.
  • Indiana expects big things from redshirt freshman Duwyce Wilson, listed as a starter at wide receiver, kick returner and punt returner.
  • Sophomores Micah Hyde and Greg Castillo are listed as the starting cornerbacks. Shaun Prater doesn't appear on the depth chart after dealing with a leg injury in camp. Prater hasn't been officially ruled out for the Eastern Illinois game, but I wouldn't expect to see much of him on Saturday.
  • James Ferentz is listed as the starting center, a spot where Iowa might be a little thin following Josh Koeppel's motorcycle accident Monday morning.
  • Starting defensive end Broderick Binns is suspended for the opener, so Christian Ballard is listed as a possible starter at both end and tackle. Mike Daniels and Lebron Daniel are the next options behind Ballard.
  • Sophomores Denard Robinson and Tate Forcier and freshman Devin Gardner are listed as co-starters at quarterback. Head coach Rich Rodriguez reiterated Monday that Gardner won't redshirt this fall.
  • Vincent Smith and Michael Shaw are listed as co-starters at running back, with Michael Cox behind them.
  • True freshman Carvin Johnson is listed as the starter at the spur position (safety/linebacker). Pretty big surprise here, and a testament to Johnson's work in camp.
  • Senior James Rogers steps into Troy Woolfolk's starting cornerback spot opposite J.T. Floyd.
  • Receivers Martavious Odoms and Kelvin Grady clearly showed enough in camp to be listed as starters or possible starters against Connecticut.
  • Sophomore running back Arby Fields returned to practice Monday and wore a no-contact jersey after being sidelined with a shoulder problem. He's listed as a co-starter at running back with Jacob Schmidt and Stephen Simmons. Northwestern wanted a clear No. 1 running back to emerge in camp, but Fields' injury changed the plan.
  • Junior Bryce McNaul is listed as the third top linebacker alongside returning starters Quentin Davie and Nate Williams. McNaul won the job in camp.
  • Venric Mark is the only true freshman listed on the depth chart, both as a backup wide receiver and a co-starter at punt returner. I'll go out on a huge limb (sarcasm) and predict Mark will be the man on returns for the Wildcats very shortly.
  • Junior defensive end Nathan Williams, a projected starter, will miss the Marshall game with a knee injury. He should be back shortly thereafter. Solomon Thomas will start in Williams' spot Thursday night.
  • Starting cornerback Chimdi Chekwa (hamstring) is questionable for the Marshall game, but corner Devon Torrence (hamstring) should be fine.
  • Sophomore C.J. Barnett's strong performance in camp lifted him ahead of Orhian Johnson on the Week 1 depth chart. Johnson missed a chunk of camp with an injury.
  • Start salivating, Buckeyes fans, because running backs Jordan Hall and Jaamal Berry likely will handle kickoff returns against Marshall.
  • Sophomores Kevin Newsome and Matt McGloin and freshman Robert Bolden are listed as co-starters at quarterback for the Youngstown State game.
  • Sophomore Devon Smith's strong camp landed him a starting spot at both receiver and kick returner, and a backup role on punt returns.
  • Redshirt freshman Garry Gilliam is listed as the starting tight end, as Andrew Szczerba likely will miss the opener with a back injury. Penn State obviously is thin here after losing Andrew Quarless and Mickey Shuler.
  • Veterans Nate Stupar, Chris Colasanti and Bani Gbadyu are listed as the starting linebackers, with promising younger players like Michael Mauti and Gerald Hodges right behind them.
  • After a very impressive camp, freshman running back James White appears at No. 3 on the depth chart behind both John Clay and Montee Ball. White also is the No. 2 punt returner behind David Gilreath. His emergence likely will result in veteran Zach Brown redshirting the season.
  • Senior Blake Sorensen likely will start at outside linebacker, as Mike Taylor continues to rehab after undergoing a second procedure on his knee in camp. Culmer St. Jean and Chris Borland are listed as the other starting linebackers.
  • The starting cornerback spots remain open, as Niles Brinkley, Antonio Fenelus and Devin Smith will compete in practice this week.
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.
It's time to take a look at the top five linebacker units in the Big Ten this fall.

1. Ohio State: The Buckeyes boast two of the Big Ten's top 10 linebackers in Ross Homan and Brian Rolle, and they also have good depth. Homan might have been the league's most underrated defender in 2009 after tying for fourth in the league in interceptions (five) and finishing eighth in tackles (8.3 per game). Rolle makes up for his lack of size with speed and explosiveness. Ohio State's supporting cast includes Etienne Sabino, Andrew Sweat, Dorian Bell and others.

2. Michigan State: Back-to-back Big Ten preseason Defensive Player of the Year Greg Jones enters the season as the frontrunner to win the Butkus Award. But he's not alone on what should be a loaded linebacking corps. All-Big Ten candidate Eric Gordon has played a ton of football alongside Jones, and the coaches were pleased with Chris Norman this spring. Hopes are extremely high for true freshmen William Gholston, the Big Ten's top-rated recruit, and Max Bullough. It's clear to see why the Spartans are moving closer to the 3-4.

3. Wisconsin: Health remains a concern, as Mike Taylor's knee problems will linger and Chris Borland comes off of shoulder surgery, but Wisconsin has plenty of talent here. Borland is a rare, do-everything player who won Big Ten Freshman of the Year honors in 2009. Taylor likely would have contended for the same award if not for a torn ACL against Iowa. The Badgers also bring back Culmer St. Jean and Blake Sorensen.

4. Northwestern: As a College Football Hall of Fame linebacker, Northwestern head coach Pat Fitzgerald loves the look of this group. Senior Quentin Davie is a bona fide NFL prospect who has consistently reached the offensive backfield throughout his career. Middle linebacker Nate Williams enters his third year as the starter, and the coaches have solid options in Bryce McNaul, Ben Johnson and David Nwabuisi. Fitzgerald says this is the most linebacker depth Northwestern has had in his tenure.

5 (tie). Iowa and Penn State: These teams combine to lose five All-Big Ten 'backers from 2009, including first-team selections Pat Angerer (Iowa) and Navorro Bowman (Penn State). But both have historically reloaded at linebacker, and this year should be no different. Iowa's Jeremiha Hunter returns for his third year as a starter, and Jeff Tarpinian and Tyler Nielsen are primed for bigger roles. Troy Johnson and Bruce Davis are two other names to watch, and hopes are high for freshman James Morris. Penn State loses all three starters, but Nate Stupar and Bani Gbadyu have played a lot of football. Michael Mauti's return from an ACL injury and Penn State's strong recruiting at linebacker also elevate hope for the group.

Next up: Secondary

More rankings ...
For years, Northwestern linebacker Quentin Davie felt like a contestant on a popular British game show that briefly gained popularity in the United States.

You know, the show with the smarmy host.

"Since my freshman year, it's always been, we were the weakest group," Davie said. "And on paper, we were the weakest group. All around, nobody really recognized us or gave us credit."

That will change in 2010.

Northwestern's linebackers are unquestionably the strength of a defense that has stabilized during the past two seasons under coordinator Mike Hankwitz. The Wildcats finished fifth in the Big Ten in total defense in both 2008 and 2009, which doesn't sound great but marks a significant improvement from the struggles under previous coordinators Greg Colby and Jerry Brown.

This year's unit must replace three multiyear starters in the secondary, including All-Big Ten selections Sherrick McManis and Brendan Smith. Also gone is defensive end Corey Wootton, a fourth-round pick in last month's NFL draft.

The linebackers, meanwhile, return just about everyone. Davie is back after a quietly productive junior season in which he recorded 11.5 tackles for loss, 5.5 sacks, four forced fumbles, six quarterback hurries, an interception and four passes defended. He's joined by middle linebacker Nate Williams, who trailed on Davie in tackles last year with 86 tackles to go along with two interceptions, a forced fumble, seven tackles for loss and six passes defended.

"We're the guys that everybody looks up to now," Davie said. "We have two of the most productive players in the linebacker room, so that's a good thing, and that's just natural leadership. The linebackers are supposed to lead the defense, and we do."

Ben Johnson and David Arnold split the starts at the third linebacker spot in 2009, but Northwestern's depth at the position allowed the coaches to move Arnold to safety, a much bigger concern. Johnson, meanwhile, is being pushed by Bryce McNaul for the top job.

Reserves Roderick Goodlow, David Nwabuisi, Damien Proby and Tim Riley also provide insurance.

"It's as deep as we've had in a number of years," head coach Pat Fitzgerald said. "We were fortunate to redshirt Proby and Riley, and we played Roderick [as a true freshman]. That's a really talented young group, and you couple that with Williams and Ben Johnson and Q. Davie and Bryce McNaul, those guys have played a lot of football.

"It's time for them to take the next step."

Early in his head-coaching career, Fitzgerald talked openly about Northwestern going toward a 3-4 alignment. That plan has been scrapped despite the depth at linebacker, as the Wildcats will remain in a 4-3 set.

Davie, the team's top NFL prospect for 2011, missed part of spring practice with a foot injury but returned for the spring game and looked sharp. After going through a significant physical transformation before the 2009 season, Davie spent the winter and spring working on his speed and explosiveness, focusing mainly on his legs.

The senior hopes to be the strongest link for arguably the Wildcats' strongest group in 2010.

"It feels good to be fast and big at the same time," said Davie, who checks in at 6-foot-4 and 230 pounds. "I always want to be the best, and being the best means hopefully playing in the NFL. I'm focusing right now on college, to be the best here, where I'm at, and that will take me where I need to go."
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. -- 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.
The superlatives series marches on with Northwestern, which comes off of consecutive bowl appearances for the second time in team history. The Wildcats once again lose a productive starting quarterback in Mike Kafka, and also must replace three starters in the secondary and two solid receivers. But they look good on both lines and at linebacker.

Here are the spots to watch during spring practice, which begins March 29.

Strongest position: Linebacker
  • Key returnees: Quentin Davie (90 tackles, 11.5 tackles for loss, 5 sacks, 4 forced fumbles, 1 interception, 6 quarterback hurries); Nate Williams (86 tackles, 7 tackles for loss, 1 sack, 2 interceptions, 1 forced fumble, 6 passes defended); David Arnold (34 tackles, 4.5 tackles for loss, 2 sacks, 1 forced fumble); Ben Johnson (28 tackles, 3.5 for loss, 1 interception, 1 forced fumble, 1 fumble recovery).
  • Key losses: None
  • The skinny: The easy pick here would be offensive line, as Northwestern returns all five starters up front. But until that group shows a better ability to run block, I'll hold off on giving high praise. Davie, much like Ohio State's Ross Homan and Brian Rolle, was overshadowed last year in the Big Ten by guys like Greg Jones, Pat Angerer and Navorro Bowman. But he has been very productive for several years now and will be on the NFL radar as a senior. Williams did some nice things in his first year as the starter, and both Arnold and Johnson bring a lot of athleticism to the table. Northwestern is both experienced and deep here.
Weakest position: Running back
  • Key losses: Kafka played quarterback but led the team in both rushing attempts (150) and rushing touchdowns (8), while finishing second in rushing yards (295).
  • The skinny: Everyone returns from 2009 and several new players join the mix, but until someone emerges as a Big Ten-caliber feature back, this group raises some red flags. The committee thing just isn't going to work. Simmons looked good before sustaining an ankle injury in Week 2, and both Fields and Concannon showed promise at times. But Northwestern needs to restore its tradition of producing 1,000-yard rushers, especially with a new starting quarterback taking over this fall. The offensive line boasts ton of experience and should do a better job of creating gaps. Another potential weak spot is safety, where Northwestern loses multi-year starters Brad Phillips and Brendan Smith.

Posted by's Adam Rittenberg

Mike Hankwitz has coached defense long enough to know when a problem can be isolated and immediately fixed.

Unfortunately for Hankwitz, Northwestern's defensive decline this season can be attributed to multiple factors.
  • Injuries have hit the unit especially hard. All-Big Ten defensive end Corey Wootton is still working back into form following ACL surgery in January, and fellow defensive linemen Corbin Bryant and Adam Hahn are also not 100 percent. None of them participated in spring ball. The team's top defensive back, safety Brad Phillips, dealt with elbow and calf injuries in preseason camp after undergoing shoulder surgery earlier in the offseason. Injuries have kept two starters, cornerback Sherrick McManis and middle linebacker Nate Williams, off the field for games and thinned the depth behind them.
  • The linebacking corps is enduring some growing pains after losing two starters from 2008. Outside linebacker Ben Johnson played primarily on special teams last year after missing some time with an injury. Junior Quentin Davie started 11 games last season but is learning a new position this fall, Hankwitz said.
  • Players are simply not executing on game day. Missed tackles have been a problem throughout the Wildcats' last three contests, and the team has lost opportunities to secure takeaways at key times. Hankwitz spotted three missed interceptions in Saturday's loss to Minnesota. The line hasn't put consistent pressure on opposing quarterbacks.

"It’s a lot of little things," said Hankwitz, the team's second-year defensive coordinator who fostered massive improvements in Year 1. "Sometimes it hasn’t carried over from practice. Part of our problem is a lot of guys are fighting through injuries, and they haven't been able to practice as much as we’ve needed them to. The linebackers are brand-new players. And we aren’t getting the consistent execution we were getting last year.”

Defense was Northwestern's calling card in 2008, as it ranked fourth in the league in both points allowed (20.8 ppg) and rush defense (126.4), tied for first in sacks (34) and finished third in both red zone defense (78.6 percent) and third-down defense (34.7 percent). Despite returning eight starters this fall, the defense has backslid in several key areas, looking more like the unit that struggled mightily before Hankwitz's arrival.

Northwestern has surrendered 72 points and 823 yards in consecutive losses to Syracuse and Minnesota, hardly offensive juggernauts. The defense's tackling struggles against Minnesota stunned head coach Pat Fitzgerald, who described the performance as "awful."

Things need to get fixed before Saturday when Northwestern visits Purdue, which boasts and improved offensive line several big-play threats, including running back Ralph Bolden.

"We don’t feel we’re that far away," Hankwitz said. "We’re trying to show them how close we are. If we all do our job a little better and more consistently, a lot of these things wouldn’t happen. We’re right there. We have to go do it in a game."

The defense hasn't executed zone blitzes as well as it did a year ago, leaving gaps for opposing ball carriers to shoot through. Hankwitz also admits he has had to adjust the way he calls games for several reasons, including the new offenses Northwestern has faced in all four games.

"You don’t have as much background on them, as much experience," he said. "You play somebody the year before, you have a lot better feel for their philosophy. We’re trying to do the things we did last year. At times we’re limited a bit because of youth and the injuries.”

The defense can't afford another step back this week, but Hankwitz sees signs of progress as key players like Wootton and Phillips work through injuries and young players like Johnson get more comfortable.

"Our guys are disappointed, but we’re not discouraged," he said. "We're trying to show them how close we are. As much as challenging them, it’s encouraging them and making them realize they're not that far away."

Northwestern injury report

September, 24, 2009
Posted by's Adam Rittenberg

Northwestern has released its injury report for Saturday's game against Minnesota (Big Ten Network, noon ET).

  • Offensive tackle Mike Boyle, back
  • Running back Alex Daniel, ankle (out for season)
  • Running back Stephen Simmons, ankle
  • Cornerback Justan Vaughn, leg

Cornerback Sherrick McManis and middle linebacker Nate Williams are both off the injury report, which is excellent news for a Northwestern's defense that got shredded last week at Syracuse. McManis likely will be assigned to Minnesota star wide receiver Eric Decker on Saturday, while Williams should help a linebacking corps that didn't tackle well at all against the Orange.

Simmons' absence for the second straight week will sting, as Arby Fields and Jacob Schmidt likely will share most of the carries. The big question: Do the coaches really trust Fields, who has shown playmaking ability but makes some mistakes as well? Reserve running back Jeravin Matthews also is off the injury report, which adds more speed to the offense.

Posted by's Adam Rittenberg

Good news for Northwestern's defense as starting cornerback Sherrick McManis and starting middle linebacker Nate Williams both participated fully in Wednesday's practice, according to a team spokesman.

Reserve running back Jeravin Matthews also practiced without any restrictions Wednesday. Both McManis and Matthews have missed the last two games with injuries, while Williams was a late scratch last Saturday against Syracuse.

McManis' return looms large for the Wildcats as they face Minnesota star wide receiver Eric Decker on Saturday. Northwestern had no answer for Syracuse's Mike Williams in a 37-34 loss, and you could make a good case the Wildcats would have won the game had McManis played.

Williams also provides a boost to a defense that hasn't tackled well for much of the season.
Posted by's Adam Rittenberg

A very entertaining game between Northwestern and Syracuse so far. The teams have combined for 45 points and a ton of big plays.

Northwestern looked sloppy early on, falling behind 17-0. But the Wildcats scored 21 unanswered points to take the lead as quarterback Mike Kafka completed his first 16 pass attempts and 18 of 19 in the half for 242 yards and two scores. Syracuse answered to go ahead, 24-21.

The Wildcats are extremely banged up on defense, and Greg Paulus has taken advantage. Northwestern is playing without starting middle linebacker Nate Williams, starting corner Sherrick McManis and backup corner Justan Vaughn. Syracuse's Mike Williams is having a field day against the secondary.

Northwestern is also without running backs Stephen Simmpons and Jeravin Matthews, but Kafka has kept the offense afloat.

The team that makes the best halftime adjustments wins this one.