Big Ten: Niko Mafuli
Here's the full rundown:
- DT Brian Arnfelt, foot
- DT Jack DiNardo, leg
- S Jared Carpenter, wrist
- CB Collin Ellis, hand
- LB Roderick Goodlow, leg
- WR Tony Jones, leg
- RB Adonis Smith, leg
- QB Dan Persa, leg
Northwestern will need veteran Niko Mafuli and its younger defensive tackles to step up against Army's triple-option offense. Although Smith will be missed at running back, Mike Trumpy is expected to return from a concussion after missing last week's game.
- Illinois picked a punter but has a few other position battles to decide. Here's the latest Camp Rantoul report from Bob Asmussen.
- An in-depth look at the Indiana quarterbacks. Lebron Daniel backed up Adrian Clayborn for three years and now is ready to take over at defensive end. A closer look at the Iowa running backs. A Hawkeyes recruit was arrested on four charges.
- Will Campbell was a can't-miss prospect for Michigan -- except he lacked fundamentals. Now he's trying to catch up as a junior. Chemistry is a hallmark of the Wolverines offensive line.
- Running the ball and having a high completion percentage are goals for new Michigan State offensive coordinator Dan Roushar. Converted defensive end Todd Anderson is making some noise -- mostly the crunching of pads -- with his blocking at fullback. Former quarterback Tony Lippett has found a home at cornerback.
- Minnesota players looked tired in Tuesday's scrimmage -- so Jerry Kill pushed them even harder Wednesday. Center Zach Mottla knows to prepare like a starter after being thrown into the job and struggling during that scrimmage.
- Nebraska looks to some young defensive backs with star corner Alfonzo Dennard sidelined by a pulled muscle. Jason Ankrah and Thad Randle are hoping to break out on the Blackshirts defense after redshirting.
- Northwestern defensive tackle Niko Mafuli has dropped about 30 pounds since the bowl game and hopes that makes him a new man on the field.
- Jim Tressel said he's uncertain if he'll coach again in his first public comments since his resignation from Ohio State.
- Penn State punter Anthony Fera is not practicing after his second alcohol-related offense. Brandon Beachum may not get as much attention as Silas Redd, but the "other" Penn State running back has similar numbers.
- Purdue coach Danny Hope says he isn't concerned about Robert Marve's eligibility.
- J.J. Watt may be gone, but Wisconsin has a track record of replacing defensive stars. Badgers linebacker Mike Taylor has some aches and pains in his repaired knee, but the team is confident he'll be ready for the opener. Two former Wisconsin athletic staffers find themselves in the middle of the Miami mess.
- Athlon predicts its Big Ten breakout players and games to watch.
The Big Ten had five defensive linemen, all from different teams, selected in the first round of April's NFL draft: Wisconsin's J.J. Watt, Illinois' Corey Liuget, Purdue's Ryan Kerrigan, Iowa's Adrian Clayborn and Ohio State's Cameron Heyward. Iowa lost three starting D-linemen to the draft, and almost every Big Ten squad has to replace major contributors.
The personnel losses make the preseason D-line rankings both tricky and fun. The first three groups look very good, while there's not much difference in the middle of the league.
Let's take a look:
2. Ohio State: Heyward's leadership and versatility will be missed, but Ohio State always finds ways to fill the gaps up front. Junior John Simon should be primed for a breakout season. Like Heyward, Simon can play both line spots but might see more time on the edge this fall. Nathan Williams adds experience at end, and promising sophomore Johnathan Hankins could wreak havoc on the interior this fall.
3. Michigan State: Like several Big Ten teams, the Spartans build their line around a potential superstar tackle in Jerel Worthy. The junior already is projected as a potential first-round pick in the 2012 draft after recording four sacks last fall. Anthony Rashad White emerged this spring as a nice complement to Worthy. Michigan State needs a better pass rush from the end spots, and hopes are high for William Gholston and Tyler Hoover.
4. Wisconsin: Watt is a huge loss because he contributed in so many ways, but Wisconsin could account for his production with greater depth. Ends Louis Nzegwu and David Gilbert both have played a lot of football, and junior Brendan Kelly came on strong toward the end of spring practice. Senior tackle Patrick Butrym has emerged as one of the leaders on defense. Wisconsin needs young tackles like Jordan Kohout and Beau Allen to help Butrym.
5. Michigan: This is a projection pick, but I think Michigan's defensive front takes a significant step forward this season. Senior tackle Mike Martin is a bona fide NFL prospect and will lead the way, and players like Ryan Van Bergen and Craig Roh should be among the primary beneficiaries of the new defense under coordinator Greg Mattison. Michigan needs to build depth with Jibreel Black, Will Campbell and others, but there's great potential here.
6. Iowa: The Hawkeyes face a tough task in replacing multiyear starters in Clayborn, Christian Ballard and Karl Klug. Senior tackle Mike Daniels is ready to lead the group after recording 11 tackles for loss and four sacks in 2010. The biggest key is getting Broderick Binns back to his 2009 form. Iowa also needs to build depth with Lebron Daniel and others, and avoid major injuries.
7. Purdue: Defensive tackle is a major strength for Purdue as Kawann Short and Bruce Gaston Jr. form one of the league's top tandems. Short quietly turned in an extremely productive season last fall (12.5 TFLs, 6 sacks). The big unknown is how Purdue replaces Kerrigan. The Boilers need veteran Gerald Gooden to stay healthy and others to emerge alongside him.
8. Penn State: Much like Purdue, Penn State looks strong at tackle and has question marks at end. Devon Still could contend for All-Big Ten honors after a terrific performance in the Outback Bowl against Florida. Still and Jordan Hill should lock up the middle, but Penn State needs Jack Crawford and Eric Latimore to get healthy at the end spots. If not, the Lions will turn to unproven players to spark their pass rush.
9. Illinois: Liuget is a significant loss in the middle and Illinois also must replace veteran end Clay Nurse. The Illini will rely on Akeem Spence to step in for Liuget, and Spence showed some good things this spring. There's talent on the edges with Michael Buchanan, Whitney Mercilus and others, but Illinois needs more consistent production.
10. Northwestern: This group took a step back last fall and got manhandled down the stretch as Northwestern hemorrhaged yards and points. Senior end Vince Browne is a playmaker who put up impressive numbers (15.5 TFLs, 7 sacks) in 2010. He'll need help from tackles Jack DiNardo and Niko Mafuli, and Tyler Scott could provide a lift at the other end spot. The Wildcats need their line to regain the edge it displayed in 2008.
11. Indiana: It wouldn't surprise me to see Indiana's front four rise up these rankings during the season. There are some nice pieces back, namely senior end Darius Johnson, who can be a force when healthy. Junior Adam Replogle has been productive at defensive tackle. There's plenty of competition at the other two spots as Indiana tries to turn a page on defense.
12. Minnesota: The Gophers' pass rush was practically invisible in 2010, as they finished last nationally in sacks (9). The good news is new defensive coordinator Tracy Claeys will turn his linemen loose more often, giving players like Brandon Kirksey chances to make plays. We've heard a lot about Minnesota's talent up front but haven't seen nearly enough production on Saturdays.
Biggest reason for hope: A restocked offense
Northwestern returns nine starters on offense, including the nation's second most experienced offensive line (137 combined career starts). It's unknown whether quarterback Dan Persa will recapture his All-Big Ten form after rehabbing from a ruptured Achilles', but the senior has been ahead of schedule throughout his recovery. The Wildcats boast arguably the Big Ten's deepest group of wide receivers and tight ends, led by All-Big Ten selection Jeremy Ebert. While they have plenty to prove in the run game, the pieces are in place there. It all adds up to an offense that could be among the Big Ten's most productive in 2011.
Biggest reason for concern: Question marks throughout the front seven
Fixing the defense has been a focal point throughout the offseason, as Northwestern tries to regain the assertiveness it displayed in 2008. The Wildcats have to replace two starting linebackers and identify more playmakers along the defensive line. Senior end Vince Browne is a nice piece to build around, but Northwestern needs big seasons from tackles Jack DiNardo, Niko Mafuli and Brian Arnfelt and must build greater depth at the end position. The coaches think they've upgraded their athleticism at linebacker in recent recruiting classes, and they'll need younger players like Damien Proby, Collin Ellis and Tim Riley to step up this fall.
More Hope and Concern
2010 overall record: 7-6
2010 conference record: 3-5 (T-7th)
Offense: 9; defense: 7; kicker/punter: 1
QB Dan Persa, WR Jeremy Ebert, LT Al Netter, C Ben Burkett, TE Drake Dunsmore, DE Vince Browne, CB Jordan Mabin, S Brian Peters, DT Jack DiNardo
LB Quentin Davie, LB Nate Williams, DT Corbin Bryant, WR Sidney Stewart, G Keegan Grant, K Stefan Demos
2010 statistical leaders (*returners)
Rushing: Mike Trumpy* (530 yards)
Passing: Dan Persa* (2,581 yards)
Receiving: Jeremy Ebert* (953 yards)
Tackles: Brian Peters* (107)
Sacks: Vince Browne* (7)
Interceptions: Brian Peters* and Quentin Davie (3)
1. Trump(y) card: The run game has been Northwestern's biggest weakness during Pat Fitzgerald's tenure, but the staff feels it has a good No. 1 option in sophomore Mike Trumpy. After showing some good signs toward the end of the 2010 season, Trumpy continued to make strides this spring and ended up as the lone starter listed on the post-spring depth chart. Coordinator Mick McCall said Trumpy become a tougher and more complete back this spring. Northwestern needs him to be a consistent run threat in the fall.
2. Defensive depth emerges: Northwestern was a pretty bad defense toward the end of 2010, and depth played a large role in the unit's struggles. The team exited the spring feeling better about its depth and the athleticism it will have on the field this fall. Players like defensive end Tyler Scott, defensive tackle Niko Mafuli and safety Ibraheim Campbell put themselves in position to challenge projected starters in fall camp and log significant playing time this season.
3. Matthews corners market: Jeravin Matthews has been a bit of a journeyman for the Wildcats, a superb athlete without a position. But after starring on special teams in 2010, Matthews seems to have found his calling at cornerback. He quickly locked up the starting job opposite veteran Jordan Mabin. The 5-11, 175-pound Matthews looked more comfortable at the corner spot and gives the secondary a chance to be a strength for Northwestern this fall.
1. Backup quarterback: As Dan Persa continued his recovery from a ruptured Achilles', Northwestern's other quarterbacks took all the reps this spring in what Fitzgerald called a competition for the "No. 1" spot. Persa obviously will be the starter, but none of the other signal callers really separated himself as the backup. The Wildcats fell apart after Persa went down last November, so they'll need improvement from Kain Colter, Evan Watkins and Trevor Siemian before Sept. 3.
2. Linebacker: The spring featured plenty of competition, and it should only continue in August as Roderick Goodlow gets healthy and he and others push the projected starters. Seniors Bryce McNaul and Ben Johnson and junior David Nwabuisi enter the summer as the first-team linebackers, but there are quite a few sophomores and redshirt freshmen behind them. The coaches have tried to upgrade the athleticism at linebacker, a group that struggled for stretches last fall.
3. Kickin' it: Stefan Demos endured his ups and downs in Evanston, but he leaves as one of the more productive specialists in team history. Jeff Budzien and Steve Flaherty competed throughout the spring to replace Demos, and neither emerged as the clear-cut starter. Fitzgerald said the kicker race could continue up until game week. Special teams could finally be a strength for Northwestern in 2011, but it needs to be able to count on a kicker.
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.
Although 24 players, including several key contributors, missed the game because of injury or coaches' decision, there were a few notable moments.
Let's take a look:
Game coverage: Here and here and here and here
Quotable: "None of those guys are ready today to go out there and be our starter, but they don’t need to be. They'll keep working at it. The good news is we have this guy named Dan [Persa] who is in the mix, and he’s pretty good. I really like our situation at quarterback." -- coach Pat Fitzgerald on his backup quarterbacks
- The No. 2 quarterback competition continued as Kain Colter, Evan Watkins and Trevor Siemian split the reps in the scrimmage. Watkins had an efficient performance, completing 7 of 11 passes for 70 yards and a touchdown. Colter displayed his dual-threat skills with a 28-yard touchdown run and a team-high 42 rush yards, but he completed only 5 of 10 passes. Siemian completed only 5 of 14 passes but had touchdown strikes to C.J. Bryant and Brendan Barber. "It's really hard to say who's further along," Fitzgerald said. "They've all had good days. They’ve all moved the offense. ... They've all done enough to get us beat."
- Northwestern lined up in the pistol formation at times Saturday, a look they also displayed at a practice I attended last month. The hope is the pistol will spark a rushing attack that has struggled in recent years. Other teams like Indiana have implemented the pistol to spark the ground game. Top running back Mike Trumpy had only three carries Saturday (14 yards), while Tyris Jones capped a strong spring with six rushes for 30 yards.
- Kicker is a question mark following the departure of Stefan Demos, and the Wildcats opened the scrimmage with field goals. Steve Flaherty went 2-for-2, connecting from 38 and 30 yards out, while Jeff Budzien hit from 30 and 33 but missed from 38.
- Northwestern's defense recorded three "sacks," five tackles for loss and seven pass breakups Saturday but recorded no takeaways. Defensive tackle Niko Mafuli had a sack and a pass deflection.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
- S David Arnold, foot
- LB Roderick Goodlow, knee (ACL, out for season)
- OL Evan Luxenburg, knee
- 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.
- S David Arnold, foot
- LB Roderick Goodlow, knee (ACL, out for season)
- WR Tony Jones, shoulder
- OL Evan Luxenburg, knee
- DT Niko Mafuli, knee
Outside linebacker Bryce McNaul is off the injury report and listed as a starter on this week's depth chart. Keegan Grant also has recovered from an injury and appears as the backup left guard on the two-deep. Mafuli's injury thins the depth a bit at defensive tackle, as true freshman Will Hampton is now part of the rotation.
- Safety David Arnold, foot
- Linebacker Roderick Goodlow, knee (ACL, out for season)
- Guard Keegan Grant, illness
- Wide receiver Tony Jones, shoulder
- Defensive tackle Niko Mafuli, knee
- Linebacker Tim Riley, shoulder
- Linebacker Bryce McNaul, shoulder
Mafuli, the team's No. 3 defensive tackle, sustained the injury last week at Vanderbilt and will be replaced by Will Hampton. McNaul actually has been upgraded after being listed as out on the Week 1 injury report. He should be back for Big Ten play, if not sooner, although his injury history is a concern. Northwestern also would like to get Arnold back on the field, as the depth situation at safety isn't great.
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.
2009 conference record: 5-3 (T-4th)
Offense: 8, defense: 5, kicker/punter: 1 (Stefan Demos handled both duties in 2009)
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
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)
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.
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.
Wildcats head coach Pat Fitzgerald told me Friday that the spring game wouldn't go longer than 80 plays or so and his main goal was to keep the team healthy. Injuries really hurt the Wildcats during the first half of the 2009 season and led to inconsistent play. Northwestern went through its healthiest spring in recent memory and survived any major injuries in the spring game, so mission accomplished.
As expected, the game was a bit watered down, but it provided a few clues about the 2010 team.
The defense led the way, allowing only 253 yards on 85 plays (2.9 ypp) and only 92 rushing yards on 47 carries. Northwestern's continued inability to spark the ground game is a concern after the 2009 season, when it finished an uncharacteristic 95th nationally in rushing average (117.5 ypg). Jacob Schmidt and Scott Concannon couldn't get going, and backup quarterback Evan Watkins (7 carries, 36 yards) actually had the best day on the ground.
It's important to note that Arby Fields, the team's leading rusher last fall and the frontrunner to win the job for 2010, didn't participate in the spring game -- or any spring scrimmages for that matter -- because he was playing baseball for Northwestern. The Wildcats also have a couple of starting offensive linemen banged up, but they simply need to improve the run or it could be a long season in 2010.
Starting quarterback Dan Persa was efficient, completing 7 of 11 passes for 83 yards, but he also got picked off in the end zone by cornerback Mike Bolden. Watkins threw an interception on his first drive but rebounded to pass for 78 yards and a touchdown.
A few Wildcats nuggets:
- Defensive tackle should be a strength for Northwestern this fall. Fifth-year senior Corbin Bryant has extensive experience, and Jack DiNardo and Niko Mafuli combined for four tackles for loss and a sack in Saturday's spring game.
- A healthy Jeremy Ebert makes a big difference, and the junior should be the team's No. 1 wide receiver this fall. Ebert recorded four receptions for a game-high 49 yards on Saturday, including a 21-yard gain.
- Linebacker Quentin Davie missed most of the spring with a foot injury, but he participated in the scrimmage and recorded three tackles.
- Northwestern's secondary took a good step Saturday as it looks to replace three multiyear starters from 2009. Bolden and safety David Arnold both recorded interceptions and cornerback Justan Vaughn had a sack, while safety Davion Fleming and cornerbacks Jeravin Matthews and Ricky Weina each recorded a pass breakup.
- Kickers Stefan Demos and Jeff Budzien both connected on 3 of 4 field-goal attempts, with their only misses coming from 51 yards (Demos) and 48 yards (Budzien). Steve Flaherty went 2-for-4 on the day, while Budzien had a game-long 46-yard conversion.
- Rather than have coordinators Mick McCall and Mike Hankwitz call plays, Fitzgerald gave the duties over to his position coaches, calling it an opportunity for them to professionally grow.
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.