EVANSTON, Ill. -- With snow on the ground, temperatures at the freezing level and the sun still waiting to make its first appearance of the day, nothing about 6 a.m. Monday indicated spring had arrived on Northwestern’s campus.
Just don’t say anything to the Wildcats football team.
Northwestern coach Pat Fitzgerald and his team assembled before sunrise Monday and held their first of 15 spring football practices.
Although sophomore running back Mike Trumpy may have been delirious after the three-hour morning practice, he sounded as if he enjoyed being back out on the field even it was March 7 and so early in the morning.
“It was so much fun,” Trumpy said. “I love practicing. It doesn’t bother me we to wake up at five in the morning. I love it.”
Coming off a disappointing loss in the TicketCity Bowl, Fitzgerald has said there will be competition at every position in the spring, but it’s especially expected at running back. Trumpy, sophomore Adonis Smith and senior Jacob Schmidt are all in the running for the starting role next season.
The running game went through its ups and downs throughout last season. Arby Fields was expected to be the starter, but struggled early and left the program before the end of the season. Trumpy made the most of his chance, with two 100-yard rushing games before fracturing his wrist against Illinois and sitting out the last two games. Schmidt also was hampered last season with an ankle injury. Smith showed promised as a freshman and rushed for 61 yards in the bowl game.
“We all bring something different to the table,” said Trumpy, who practiced with a protective cast on his right wrist. “We all work hard and have a good time. I think it’s going to be fun competing with everyone.
“It’s the Big Ten. There’s never one running back. It’s always going to be multiple running backs. Someone’s going to get dinged up. Last year, we had I think four running backs go down at one point of the season. Everyone’s got to be ready. Everyone’s got to compete every single day and work hard every single day because you never know what’s going to happen.”
Fitzgerald preached the same message about his quarterbacks. While senior Dan Persa still rehabs after rupturing his Achilles tendon last season and will be limited in his practice participation, Fitzgerald is evaluating sophomore Evan Watkins, sophomore Kain Colter and redshirt freshman Trevor Siemian for his spring starting quarterback.
Watkins and Colter both saw time in the Wildcats’ final three games last season after Persa’s injury against Iowa.
“Dan’s out,” Fitzgerald said. “With that being said, now is the time. Last year after the Iowa game, we didn’t have a chance; Evan was next up. We decided we’d move forward with Kain. Those two guys, their playing was predicated based on success. We went 0-3. Neither one of those guys is a starting quarterback. We add Trevor to the mixer.
“One of those three guys has to emerge to be the starting quarterback this spring. They’re going to work their butts off and compete, and I’m look forward to watching.”
Placekicker is another position up for grabs. Stefan Demos had the role locked down for the past four seasons, but with his graduation either sophomore Jeff Budzien or junior Steve Flaherty will take over.
On Monday, Budzien went 4 for 4 on field-goal attempts, and Flaherty was 3 for 4.
“It’s about consistency,” Fitzgerald said. “I would love for Jeff and Steve to both have a role.”
Senior wide receiver Jeremy Ebert thought the first day went as well as could be.
“We came out a little sloppy,” Ebert said. “You know, first day, it was expected. But I thought for a first day, it was pretty good.
“We’ve experienced this before. It’s not our first rodeo. We have a sour taste in our mouth. We have a lot of guys coming back, and we’re trying to do something big this year.”