Chicago Colleges: Brandon Vitabile

Position battles: Northwestern Wildcats

February, 12, 2015
Feb 12
The long wait until football returns is only beginning, but spring practice is at least another day closer. To help pass the time until Big Ten teams are back in pads, we're looking around the entire league at key position battles that could help sort out the race for a championship by the time fall eventually arrives.

Next in line: Northwestern.

1. Quarterback: The race to take the reins of the offense from Trevor Siemian may have actually started at the end of last season, and Northwestern got a glimpse at what Zack Oliver could offer as a starter. But expect all the options to open camp with a blank slate in what could be a three-man competition for the job, with Oliver, sophomore Matt Alviti and redshirt freshman Clayton Thorson all jockeying for the position. If the Wildcats are going to bounce back and be a factor in the West Division next season, identifying the right leader for the attack has to be at the top of the priority list.

2. Outside linebacker: The Wildcats are losing veterans at both outside positions at the second level and will need to replace Chi Chi Ariguzo and Jimmy Hall. Ariguzo led the team in tackles during his senior campaign, and his sidekick on the other side chipped in 58 tackles while intercepting two passes, forcing a fumble and recovering three more. Senior Drew Smith has experience already and should give the Wildcats a jump on filling one hole given his ability to line up on either side, but that still leaves a big pair of shoes to fill on the other side of Anthony Walker.

3. Center: Nobody at Northwestern ever took for granted the stability Brandon Vitabile provided in the middle of the offensive line, and it was certainly a luxury to be able to count on him for so long up front. Now the Wildcats will have to find somebody to replace everything he provided while anchoring that unit and starting every offensive play, and their appreciation for Vitabile might actually increase heading into spring practice without him. Backup Hayden Baker is gone as well, so one way or another Pat Fitzgerald is looking at some inexperience at such a crucial position.

Northwestern Wildcats season preview

August, 14, 2014
» More team previews: ACC | Big 12 | Big Ten | Pac-12 | SEC

Previewing the 2014 season for the Northwestern Wildcats:

2013 overall record: 5-7 (1-7 Big Ten)

Key losses: QB Kain Colter, DE Tyler Scott, LB Damien Proby, K Jeff Budzien

Key returnees: QB Trevor Siemian, RB Venric Mark, WR Tony Jones, WR Christian Jones, SB Dan Vitale, C Brandon Vitabile, LB Chi Chi Ariguzo, S Ibraheim Campbell

Instant impact newcomer: WR Miles Shuler. He arrived on campus last year but was forced to sit out a season following a transfer from Rutgers. He’s a second-team wideout, but he’ll definitely get some reps at the position -- and, with his speed, he should compete for the one of the spots at returner. After all, he did win the New Jersey high school state titles in the 55- and 100-meter events.

Projected starters

[+] EnlargeTrevor Siemian
Allen Kee/ESPN ImagesThe Wildcats are hoping senior QB Trevor Siemian can get them more wins in the Big Ten this season.
Offense: QB: Trevor Siemian, Sr., 6-3, 210; RB: Venric Mark, Sr., 5-8, 175; SB: Dan Vitale, Jr., 6-2, 225; OT: Paul Jorgensen, Sr., 6-6, 295; OG: Geoff Mogus, Jr., 6-5, 295; C: Brandon Vitabile, Sr., 6-3, 300; OG: Matt Frazier, Jr., 6-4, 290; OT: Jack Konopka, Sr., 6-5, 300; WR: Tony Jones, Sr., 6-0, 195; WR: Christian Jones, Sr., 6-3, 225; WR: Cameron Dickerson, Jr., 6-3, 200

Defense: DE: Dean Lowry, Jr., 6-6, 265; DT: Sean McEvilly, 6-5, 290; DT: Chance Carter, Sr., 6-3, 295; DE: Deonte Gibson, Jr., 6-3, 260; OLB: Jimmy Hall, Sr., 6-2, 205; MLB: Collin Ellis, Sr., 6-2, 230; OLB: Chi Chi Ariguzo, Sr., 6-3, 235; CB: Nick VanHoose, Jr., 6-0, 190; CB: Matthew Harris, So., 5-11, 180; S: Ibraheim Campbell, Sr., 5-11, 205; S: Traveon Henry, Jr., 6-1, 200

Special teams: K: Hunter Niswander, RS Fr., 6-5, 210; P: Chris Gradone, Jr., 6-2, 190

Biggest question mark: Can Northwestern win the close game? The Wildcats hung tough against Ohio State last season, but then, two weeks later, they began one of the most frustrating streaks in recent memory. From Oct. 19 to Nov. 16, Northwestern managed to lose four straight games by eight points or less. The game against Nebraska ended on a Hail Mary, then the loss against Michigan was decided in triple overtime. Northwestern has a lot going for it this season -- the return of Mark, a dynamic passing attack, a good defense -- but it has to prove it can win those tight contests.

Most important game: Sept. 27 at Penn State. It may not be the most anticipated game of the season but, as the conference opener, it’ll set the tone for a Wildcats team that won just a single Big Ten game last year. A win here should propel Northwestern to a 4-0 start and could give the Cats a boost of confidence heading into the heart (Wisconsin, Minnesota, Nebraska, Iowa, Michigan) of their conference schedule.

Upset special: Oct. 18 vs. Nebraska. Motivation shouldn’t be in short supply for Northwestern here, as it would’ve come away with the win last season if it weren't for a Hail Mary. Now the Huskers have a few more question marks on their team -- and Northwestern could be poised to take advantage.

Key stat: In conference play last season, Northwestern was outscored by its opponents 66-30 in the fourth quarter. Actually, building off a number first calculated by WNUR’s Michael Stern, opponents have outscored Northwestern in the fourth quarter by 703-580 during the Pat Fitzgerald era.

What they’re wearing: The Wildcats have purple, white and black Under Armour jerseys, pants and helmets in nine different combinations. But there's no telling yet what Northwestern will wear, since Fitzgerald and the student-athlete leadership council determine, week-to-week, what the Wildcats will be sporting on game day. According to a spokesman, there could also be a surprise in store this season, although nothing official has yet been announced.

All that being said, there are still two new definite additions to this year's uniforms: a new glove and cleat design.

Team’s top Twitter follows: The official accounts to follow include both Northwestern sports (@NU_Sports) and Wildcats' football (@NUFBFamily). Head coach Pat Fizgerald (@coachfitz51) is an active tweeter, but you'll find he mostly just retweets others. Ditto for offensive coordinator Mike McCall (@McCallMick). One Northwestern employee worth following, though, is director of player personnel Chris Bowers (@NU_Bowers) who mixes it up between work and other things. Running back Venric Mark (@PurpleBlaze_5) keeps it light, as does fellow tailback Warren Long (@larrenwong). Freshman cornerback Parrker Westphal (@Optimus_22HB) is also very active. As far as news coverage, you'll find plenty from blogs Lake The Posts (@LakeThePosts) and SB Nation's Inside NU (@insidenu). The award-winning student newspaper, The Daily Northwestern (@thedailynu), is also a good bet.

They said it: "I actually think, looking back, I think it was good for us in a sense -- just for guys talking about things that matter to us and guys had beliefs one way or another and overcoming all that. It was kind of a point for us to rally around and get over. And, looking back now, our guys were so mature handling that whole ordeal. It’s not even an issue now. I think it’ll help us out in the long term." -- quarterback Trevor Siemian, on overcoming the disagreements regarding the unionization issue

Stats & Info projections: 6.59 wins

Wise guys over/under: 7.5 wins

Big Ten blog projection: Seven wins. Northwestern will improve upon last season's performance. Really, the only question is, "By how much?" Even with Venric Mark's two-game suspension, Northwestern should be just fine. And with 18 returning starters, the Wildcats could be the surprise of the West. But last season still has us a bit jittery in picking the Cats to beat out teams such as Penn State and Michigan. That could change, but right now, we're going to play it safe and say -- at the least -- Northwestern easily rebounds with a bowl game.

Most indispensable players: Northwestern

June, 5, 2014
Summer is a time in college football where the only news is usually bad news. With that in mind, we're looking at the most indispensable players on each Big Ten team.

By indispensable, we don't necessarily mean best. We mean the players who would be hardest to replace between now and the start of the season if they got hurt/suspended/suffer from a grotesquely swollen jaw, etc. That could be because of their value to the team or because of a lack of depth at their position.

We'll pick two players from each team, usually offense and defense, but not always. Up next: the Northwestern Wildcats, who learned the hard way last year how tough it is to play without some of your most valuable players.

Brandon Vitabile, C, Sr.
Throughout a very rough 2013 season for the Wildcats, Vitabile provided some stability. He was an honorable mention All-Big Ten performer and team co-captain, and the redshirt senior has now started 38 straight games. Vitabile enters the season as one of the top centers in the league, and his leadership would be tough to replace on an offensive line that underperformed at times last season. Quarterback Trevor Siemian would also be a big loss on the offensive side, but Northwestern has some talented -- if very young -- options behind him.

Ibraheim Campbell, S, Sr.
The secondary should actually be one of the deepest and perhaps strongest units on the field for the Wildcats, who will return starters at all four defensive back spots. But Campbell is the most experienced and valuable player in the back end. His four interceptions tied for the team lead last year, and he provides major help in run support. Defending the middle of the field was an issue for Northwestern last year, and without Campbell, it would quickly become a major problem again.

Northwestern spring wrap

April, 28, 2014
The spring workouts are in the books and the long offseason has arrived. But before diving into summer and the painful wait for football to return, we're taking a look back at the developments from March and April and sneaking a peek at what to expect in the fall for Northwestern.

Three things we learned in the spring

  • The offense has a quarterback and an identity: The two-quarterback system Northwestern used with mixed results in 2012 and 2013 is dead, at least for now. Senior Trevor Siemian established himself as the top signal-caller and a team leader with a strong spring. Siemian has less mobility than recent Wildcats signal-callers but a stronger arm. Northwestern likely will return to its pass-first roots this season after never establishing a consistent identity last fall.
  • The secondary should be a strength: Northwestern historically has struggled in the back end of its defense, but it returns all four starters from a decent group last season and boasts unprecedented depth. The emergence of redshirt freshmen like Godwin Igwebuike, Kyle Queiro and Keith Watkins II this spring allows the Wildcats to go two or three deep at all four positions. Senior safety Ibraheim Campbell leads the group, which will be expected to generate takeaways.
  • Shuler, Prater add to receiving corps: This group has teased us before, but the combination of returning players, newcomers and a pass-driven quarterback/offense suggests big things are on the way. Rutgers transfer Miles Shuler is a natural playmaker who could star at the slot position, like Jeremy Ebert did in 2010 and 2011. Another one-time transfer, former USC Trojan Kyle Prater, is finally healthy and turned in a solid spring at the outside spot. The 6-foot-5, 225-pound Prater provides size on the edge.
Three questions for the fall

  • Defensive line health: Like the offensive line last spring, Northwestern's defensive front went through the session with limited bodies following offseason surgeries to four players, including tackle Sean McEvilly, a projected starter, and ends Ifeadi Odenigbo and Deonte Gibson. Everyone will be healthy for a vital preseason camp as Northwestern tries to firm up its run defense, a weakness during Big Ten play last season.
  • Venric Mark's role: A 1,300-yard rusher and All-America punt returner in 2012, Mark essentially has played one full game since the 2013 Gator Bowl. He should be a major addition on special teams, but his role in the offense remains to be seen. Mark had his most success running the zone read with Kain Colter, but Siemian has different strengths. Northwestern needs a stronger inside run presence, a role Mark relishes despite his size. Above all else, the Wildcats need Mark to stay on the field throughout the season.
  • Firming up the offensive line: The line took a significant step backward in 2013, possibly because of all the injury issues in the previous offseason. Northwestern had all of its linemen on the field this spring and ramped up the competition, as senior tackle Jack Konopka, a two-year starter, worked with the reserves. Center Brandon Vitabile and tackle Paul Jorgensen provide leadership for the group, but most spots remain open entering the summer.
One way-too-early prediction

Northwestern returns to the postseason and makes some noise in the West Division. Just about everything went wrong for the Wildcats from an injury and fortune standpoint in 2013. They had leadership issues that players acknowledged this spring. They had no identity on offense. Most of the core pieces return and the leadership appears much stronger. If Northwestern remains relatively healthy, it should win at least seven games and possibly challenge Iowa, Wisconsin and Nebraska in the West.

B1G spring position breakdown: OL

February, 28, 2014
We're taking snapshots of each position group with each Big Ten team entering the spring. Up next: the big uglies.

Illinois: This is another group that appears to be in significantly better shape now than at the start of coach Tim Beckman's tenure. The Illini lose only one full-time starter in tackle Corey Lewis, as four other linemen who started at least eight games in 2013 return. Senior tandem Michael Heitz and Simon Cvijanovic are two of the Big Ten's most experienced linemen, and guards Ted Karras also has logged plenty of starts. Right tackle appears to be the only vacancy entering the spring, as Austin Schmidt and others will compete.

Indiana: The Hoosiers have somewhat quietly put together one of the Big Ten's best offensive lines, and the same should hold true in 2014. Everybody is back, and because of injuries before and during the 2013 season, Indiana boasts a large group with significant starting experience. Jason Spriggs should contend for first-team All-Big Ten honors as he enters his third season at left tackle. Senior Collin Rahrig solidifies the middle, and Indiana regains the services of guard Dan Feeney, who was sidelined all of 2013 by a foot injury.

Iowa: The return of left tackle Brandon Scherff anchors an Iowa line that could be a team strength this fall. Scherff will enter the fall as a leading candidate for Big Ten offensive lineman of the year. Iowa must replace two starters in right tackle Brett Van Sloten and left guard Conor Boffeli. Andrew Donnal could be the answer in Van Sloten's spot despite playing guard in 2013, while several players will compete at guard, including Tommy Gaul and Eric Simmons. Junior Austin Blythe returns at center.

Maryland: Line play will go a long way toward determining how Maryland fares in the Big Ten, and the Terrapins will make the transition with an experienced group. Four starters are back, led by center Sal Conaboy, who has started games in each of his first three seasons. Tackles Ryan Doyle and Michael Dunn bring versatility to the group, and Maryland should have plenty of options once heralded recruit Damian Prince and junior-college transfer Larry Mazyck arrive this summer. Prince is the top Big Ten offensive line recruit in the 2014 class, according to ESPN RecruitingNation. New line coach Greg Studwara brings a lot of experience to the group.

Michigan: The Wolverines' line is under the microscope this spring after a disappointing 2013 season. Michigan loses both starting tackles, including Taylor Lewan, the Big Ten's offensive lineman of the year and a projected first-round draft choice. The interior line was in flux for much of 2013, and Michigan needs development from a large group of rising sophomores and juniors, including Kyle Kalis, Kyle Bosch, Jack Miller, Graham Glasgow, and Patrick Kugler. Both starting tackle spots are open, although Ben Braden seems likely to slide in on the left side. Erik Magnuson is out for spring practice following shoulder surgery, freeing up opportunities for redshirt freshman David Dawson and others.

Michigan State: The line took a significant step forward in 2013 but loses three starters, including left guard Blake Treadwell, a co-captain. Michigan State used an eight-man rotation in 2013 and will look for development from top reserves such as Travis Jackson (Yes! Yes!) and Connor Kruse. Kodi Kieler backed up Treadwell last season and could contend for a starting job as well. Coach Mark Dantonio said this week that converted defensive linemen James Bodanis, Devyn Salmon and Noah Jones will get a chance to prove themselves this spring. It's important for MSU to show it can reload up front, and the large rotation used in 2013 should help.

Minnesota: For the first time since the Glen Mason era, Minnesota truly established the line of scrimmage and showcased the power run game in 2013. The Gophers return starters at four positions and regain Jon Christenson, the team's top center before suffering a season-ending leg injury in November. Right tackle Josh Campion and left guard Zac Epping are mainstays in the starting lineup, and players such as Tommy Olson and Ben Lauer gained some valuable experience last fall. There should be good leadership with Epping, Olson, Marek Lenkiewicz and Caleb Bak.

Nebraska: Graduation hit the line hard as five seniors depart, including 2012 All-American Spencer Long at guard and Jeremiah Sirles at tackle. Nebraska will lean on guard Jake Cotton, its only returning starter, and experienced players such as Mark Pelini, who steps into the center spot. Senior Mike Moudy is the top candidate at the other guard spot, but there should be plenty of competition at the tackle spots, where Zach Sterup, Matt Finnin and others are in the mix. Definitely a group to watch this spring.

Northwestern: Offensive line struggles undoubtedly contributed to Northwestern's disappointing 2013 season. All five starters are back along with several key reserves, and coach Pat Fitzgerald already has seen a dramatic difference in the position competitions this spring as opposed to last, when many linemen were sidelined following surgeries. Center Brandon Vitabile is the only returning starter who shouldn't have to worry about his job. Paul Jorgensen and Eric Olson opened the spring as the top tackles, and Jack Konopka, who has started at both tackle spots, will have to regain his position.

Ohio State: Like Nebraska, Ohio State enters the spring with a lot to replace up front as four starters depart from the Big Ten's best line. Taylor Decker is the only holdover and will move from right tackle to left tackle. Fifth-year senior Darryl Baldwin could step in at the other tackle spot, while Pat Elflein, who filled in for the suspended Marcus Hall late last season, is a good bet to start at guard. Jacoby Boren and Billy Price will compete at center and Joel Hale, a defensive lineman, will work at guard this spring. Ohio State has recruited well up front, and it will be interesting to see how young players such as Evan Lisle and Kyle Dodson develop.

Penn State: New coach James Franklin admits he's concerned about the depth up front despite the return of veterans Miles Dieffenbach and Donovan Smith on the left side. Guard Angelo Mangiro is the other lineman who logged significant experience in 2013, and guard/center Wendy Laurent and guard Anthony Alosi played a bit. But filling out the second string could be a challenge for Penn State, which could start a redshirt freshman (Andrew Nelson) at right tackle. The Lions have to develop some depth on the edges behind Nelson and Smith.

Purdue: The Boilers reset up front after a miserable season in which they finished 122nd out of 123 FBS teams in rushing offense (67.1 ypg). Three starters return on the interior, led by junior center Robert Kugler, and there's some continuity at guard with Jordan Roos and Justin King, both of whom started as redshirt freshmen. It's a different story on the edges as Purdue loses both starting tackles. Thursday's addition of junior-college tackle David Hedelin could be big, if Hedelin avoids a potential NCAA suspension for playing for a club team. Cameron Cermin and J.J. Prince also are among those in the mix at tackle.

Rutgers: Continuity should be a strength for Rutgers, which returns its entire starting line from 2013. But production has to be better after the Scarlet Knights finished 100th nationally in rushing and tied for 102nd in sacks allowed. Guard Kaleb Johnson considered entering the NFL draft but instead will return for his fourth season as a starter. Rutgers also brings back Betim Bujari, who can play either center or guard, as well as Keith Lumpkin, the likely starter at left tackle. It will be interesting to see if new line coach Mitch Browning stirs up the competition this spring, as younger players Dorian Miller and J.J. Denman could get a longer look.

Wisconsin: There are a lot of familiar names up front for the Badgers, who lose only one starter in guard Ryan Groy. The tackle spots look very solid with Tyler Marz (left) and Rob Havenstein (right), and Kyle Costigan started the final 11 games at right guard. There should be some competition at center, as both Dan Voltz and Dallas Lewallen have battled injuries. Coach Gary Andersen mentioned on national signing day that early enrollee Michael Deiter will enter the mix immediately at center. Another early enrollee, decorated recruit Jaden Gault, should be part of the rotation at tackle. If certain young players develop quickly this spring, Wisconsin should have no depth issues when the season rolls around.

Northwestern Wildcats, Illinois Fighting Illini, Michigan Wolverines, Wisconsin Badgers, Michigan State Spartans, Minnesota Golden Gophers, Ohio State Buckeyes, Penn State Nittany Lions, Indiana Hoosiers, Iowa Hawkeyes, Nebraska Cornhuskers, Purdue Boilermakers, Big Ten Conference, Rutgers Scarlet Knights, Maryland Terrapins, Pat Fitzgerald, Jack Konopka, Michael Heitz, Taylor Decker, Kyle Bosch, Andrew Donnal, Brandon Scherff, Corey Lewis, Brandon Vitabile, Paul Jorgensen, James Franklin, Spencer Long, Gary Andersen, Zac Epping, Ted Karras, Eric Olson, Kyle Kalis, Blake Treadwell, Brett Van Sloten, Simon Cvijanovic, damian prince, Jaden Gault, Graham Glasgow, David Hedelin, Rob Havenstein, Jon Christenson, Darryl Baldwin, Miles Dieffenbach, Jake Cotton, Jeremiah Sirles, Mike Moudy, Zach Sterup, B1G spring positions 14, Andrew Nelson, Angelo Mangiro, Austin Blythe, Austin Schmidt, Betim Bujari, Cameron Cermin, Collin Rahrig, Connor Kruse, Conor Boffelli, Dallas Lewallen, Dan Feeney, Devyn Salmon, Donovan Smith, Dorian Miller, Eric Simmons, Erik Magnuson, Evan Lisle, Greg Studrawa, J.J. Denman, J.J. Prince, Jack Miller, James Bodanis, Jason Spriggs, Jordan Roos, Josh Campion, Justin King, Kaleb Johnson, Keith Lumpkin, Kodi Kieler, Kyle Costigan, Kyle Dodson, Larry Mazyck, Marek Lenkiewicz, Mark Pelini, Matt Finnin, Michael Deiter, Michael Dunn, Mitch Browning, Noah Jones, Pat Elflein, Patrick Kugler, Robert Kugler, Ryan Doyle, Sal Conaboy, Tommy Gaul, Tommy Olson, Travis Jackson

'Cats must buck up after loss to Buckeyes

October, 9, 2013
Pat Fitzgerald was rattling off some positives that he could take from Northwestern's 40-30 loss to Ohio State. He mentioned how the Wildcats showed off improved fundamentals after a bye week, how the offensive line turned in one of its best games of the season and how the players handled all the hype and excitement of the atmosphere as well as possible.

Still, Fitzgerald had a hard time summoning much enthusiasm.

"I'm bitterly disappointed," he said on Tuesday. "I'm not very pleased about it. We've got a bunch of not very happy people walking around here."

Northwestern acquitted itself very well against the No. 4 Buckeyes, even leading in the fourth quarter and nearly pulling off the upset. But this is a program that won 10 games last year and is ranked into the Top 20. It's not really into moral victories these days.

"We know Ohio State is going to be one of the best teams in the Big Ten, and we knew we could play with them," safety Ibraheim Campbell said. "And we did. We just didn't finish."

[+] EnlargeMeyers/Fitzgerald
Jerry Lai/USA TODAY SportsNorthwestern coach Pat Fitzgerald, right, with Ohio State coach Urban Meyer after the Buckeyes' win.
Finishing games has been an issue of late for both Northwestern and its opponent this week, Wisconsin. It's appropriate, then, that both teams meet Saturday after coming up just short against Ohio State in their last outing. Both will look to flush that loss out of their system and take their next step toward their season goals.

In that regard, the Wildcats are in much better shape than the Badgers. They lost their Big Ten opener but did so in a cross-division game. Wisconsin will have a hard time catching Ohio State now in the Leaders Division race, Northwestern remains among the favorites to win the Legends -- and possibly force a rematch with those Buckeyes in Indianapolis.

"If we can go out and win the rest of our games, we can still get to where we want to go," center Brandon Vitabile said. "If you lose, you've got to learn. We're just hoping to learn something and move on."

One major lesson stemming from last week's defeat involves the run defense. Led by Carlos Hyde, Ohio State ran for 248 yards in Evanston and used its offensive line to control the second half. Wisconsin doesn't have backs as big as Hyde, but it has two star runners in James White and Melvin Gordon and its typical massive O-line. The Badgers are averaging over 300 yards per game on the ground.

"It was a deal where we didn't fit very well, we didn't get off blocks, we didn't tackle and we didn't get enough population to the ball," Fitzgerald said of the defensive effort last week. "If we do that again this week, we'll give up the same amount of yards. … We need to perform better if we want to beat a very physical and a very dominant, in my opinion, Wisconsin offense."

Northwestern knows it also can't leave points on the board. It settled for three short field goals last Saturday night to help keep Ohio State in the game.

"We've got to finish when we get down there," Vitabile said. "We moved the ball well, but we can't just stop at third-and-5 or third-and-6. We've got to convert those and get into the end zone."

Wisconsin knows all about not finishing, as the Badgers have lost 10 games by seven points or less since 2011. Similarly, Northwestern has held a fourth-quarter lead in its four losses dating back to last year.

One team will finish on top at Camp Randall Stadium. The other could wind up bitterly disappointed once again.
Now that spring practice is over, we're examining the most indispensable players on each Big Ten team for the 2013 season.

By indispensable, we don't necessarily mean best. We mean the players who would be hardest to replace between now and the start of the season if they got hurt or suspended or vaporized. That could be because of their value to the team, or because of a lack of depth at their position.

We'll pick two players from each team, usually offense and defense, but not always. The series wraps up with the Northwestern Wildcats.

Venric Mark, RB, Sr.

There is little doubt Mark finished the 2012 season as Northwestern's most valuable player, and he'll enter the 2013 campaign as the team's most indispensable piece. Although you can make a good case for multitalented quarterback Kain Colter or even center Brandon Vitabile, one of just two returning starters on a new-look offensive line, no player fundamentally changes games like Mark. Last fall, he became Northwestern's first 1,000-yard rusher since 2006 and averaged 6.2 yards a carry with 13 touchdowns as the team's featured back. He also earned All-America honors as a return man, scoring two punt return touchdowns and averaging 18.7 yards per runback. Mark finished with 2,166 all-purpose yards, just 29 yards shy of Damien Anderson's team record, and he helped make the kicking game, once a weakness for Northwestern, into a significant strength. Colter would be a big loss, too, but Northwestern has another capable, albeit different option, in Trevor Siemian. Although the team's depth at running back isn't bad, no one has Mark's breakaway ability on carries and returns. He'd be missed.

Ibraheim Campbell, S, Jr.

It's a tough call here as cornerback Nick VanHoose certainly seemed indispensable last season, when his absence because of injury potentially cost Northwestern games against Nebraska and Michigan. Veteran linebacker Damien Proby also would be a good pick given the team's inexperience at the position, and defensive end Tyler Scott has revived the pass rush. But Campbell has been the Wildcats' most productive defender the past two seasons, racking up 189 tackles, two interceptions and two forced fumbles. He's an integral part of Northwestern's run defense, which rose from 84th nationally in 2011 to 21st last season. Safeties are often called the quarterbacks of a defense, and Campbell certainly fills that role as he has grown into a strong leader. Northwestern is building better depth at both secondary spots, but cornerback isn't the vacuum it once was in Evanston. The Wildcats should be better equipped to play without VanHoose if he goes down this season. They would have a tougher time replacing all that Campbell brings to the defense.

More indispensable:

Michigan State
Ohio State
Penn State
Northwestern brings back many of the central characters from a 10-win team that capped its season with a breakthrough bowl championship.

The two quarterbacks? They're back. So is the All-America running back/return specialist. Almost every wide receiver and tight end from 2012 remains on the roster, as do multiple starters at linebacker, defensive back and defensive line. If you watched Northwestern in 2012, you won't have to study up on personnel for the coming season.

Only one position group was hit moderately hard by graduation: the offensive line. Three starters depart, including second-team All-Big Ten guard Brian Mulroe and left tackle Patrick Ward, an honorable mention All-Big Ten selection. One of the returning starters, tackle Jack Konopka, is out for spring practice because of injury. Two other possible starters, Paul Jorgensen and Matt Frazier, also are sidelined until the summer.

[+] EnlargeBrandon Vitabile
Cal Sport Media via AP PhotoBrandon Vitabile is the lone returner starter on the offensive line who is healthy.
If there's a position to watch closely -- or fret about -- it's the O-line. Adam Cushing does both as Northwestern's offensive line coach, and his message this spring to a mostly young group is, "Cut it loose and don't be afraid to fail."

Cushing isn't filling out his depth chart tomorrow or the next day, especially with so many potential starters banged up.

"I'm evaluating who gets better, who shows that they can take what I'm asking them to do and improve on that," Cushing told "There's going to be some guys coming back [from injury], but there are some open slots along line to fill. So who gets to be out there first come fall camp is really what we're talking about coming out of spring."

Redshirt freshmen Ian Park and Eric Olson have stood out early in spring and are taking reps with the "first-team" offense. Geoff Mogus, a reserve lineman and special teamer in 2012, also has emerged, according to Cushing, and Shane Mertz has picked up the system well despite redshirting in 2011 and missing all of last season with injury. Although Konopka is "definitely the guy to beat out" at the left tackle spot, several of the younger tackles could challenge for the starting right tackle position.

One position Cushing doesn't worry about is center, where Brandon Vitabile, the team's only healthy returning starter, binds the line.

"He's absolutely the leader," Cushing said. "He's got to instill his attitude and the way he wants the group to play. I've seen him to a great job stepping up and taking guys under his wing. I'm really looking forward to what he's going to bring."

Northwestern's offense fundamentally shifted in 2012, going from a pass-first unit without a featured running back to run-heavy group with an All-Big Ten back in Venric Mark (1,371 yards, 12 touchdowns). The Wildcats finished 19th nationally in rushing, had seven performances of more than 200 rush yards and three games with more than 300 rush yards.

Although Mark and athletic quarterback Kain Colter received most of the accolades, the offensive line showed more grit than finesse, creating running room between the tackles. After struggling to covert red-zone chances into touchdowns for several years, Northwestern had 25 red-zone rushing touchdowns, tied for the third-highest total in the Big Ten.

"As the season went along, we gained confidence and gained that attitude that we can run the ball however we want to," Cushing said. "They know if we do our job, we don't have to do it forever. You go in there and say, 'We get No. 5 [Mark] and No. 2 [Colter] some space, we've got a chance to run the ball pretty well.'"

Like any new-look line, Northwestern needs to build chemistry, and Cushing is keeping the injured players involved by assigning them tasks in practice. Konopka is in charge of the personnel rotation, Jorgensen makes sure all the linemen know the play being run, while Frazier must keep the enthusiasm level high on the sideline. The responsibilities likely rotate next week.

All the injured players are expected back for camp, which will shape the depth chart.

"Our guys do a great job of working together over the summer," Cushing said, "so I'm not too worried about it because those injured guys are staying so involved."

Plenty of what-ifs for Wildcats, Spartans

November, 13, 2012
Dantonio/FitzgeraldUS PresswireMark Dantonio's Spartans and Pat Fitzgerald's Wildcats still have plenty to play for.
Michigan State linebacker Chris Norman admits he plays the what-if game.

It's what happens when your team loses four Big Ten games by a total of 10 points.

"I know I have, and I'm pretty sure some of my teammates have, too," Norman told "It's natural to do so with everything that hasn't been going our way. What if this would have happened? What if that would have happened? You can really point out so many things that happened and say, 'Man, if that one thing is different, then the whole season would be different.'"

Northwestern knows the feeling. The Wildcats haven't endured as much misery as Michigan State and, unlike the Spartans, who were pegged by many to win the Big Ten this year, they've exceeded many preseason expectations with a 7-3 record. But they've also held double-digit, second-half leads in all three of their losses (Penn State, Nebraska and Michigan).

Their most painful setback came last Saturday at the Big House, as a desperation pass from Devin Gardner, deflected by Northwestern's Daniel Jones and caught by Roy Roundtree allowed Michigan to tie the game at the end of regulation. The Wolverines won 38-31 in overtime.

"That's football for you," Northwestern center Brandon Vitabile told "That's what it comes down to sometimes, one or two plays, and just being able to make one more stop or one more block or more tackle. Everyone can play the, 'if this, then that' game."

Odds are the Wildcats or the Spartans will be asking those same questions after their game Saturday in East Lansing, Mich. One of them, though, will be celebrating an important win. Michigan State (5-5, 1-4) is still trying to get bowl eligible, while Northwestern (7-3, 3-3) can improve its bowl position before closing out the season against struggling Illinois.

But these teams easily could be playing for a chance to represent the Legends Division in the Big Ten title game in Indy. Both teams had division front-runners Nebraska and Michigan on the ropes. Both teams squandered fourth-quarter leads against the Huskers and Wolverines, losing by a combined 14 points in those four games.

"That just shows you how close both programs are," Northwestern coach Pat Fitzgerald said. "... With the ball being oblong, it sometimes bounces weird, and they've just had some tough bounces. At the end of the day, so have we, but it’s not a pity party. It's football."

Michigan State had an extra week to regroup following its loss to Nebraska, which featured some controversial calls down the stretch. When the Spartans resumed practice, Norman saw a "business-like approach" from his teammates. They know they need at least one win to reach a bowl game for the sixth consecutive season.

Close games and home wins had been Michigan State's hallmarks in 2010 and 2011, when the team won 22 games. The Spartans swept their home schedules in both seasons and went 9-1 in games decided by 10 points or fewer. A loss Saturday means Michigan State would go winless at home in Big Ten play for the first time since 2006.

"We really want to get at least one [Big Ten] win under our belt in Spartan Stadium," Norman said. "We've done really well here in the past, and it’s something we haven't been able to do this season. It's our last home game, and it's a really good stage that is set for us."

Michigan State's season reminds Mark Dantonio of the 2007 campaign, his first as the team's head coach. The Spartans lost five games by seven points or fewer and sat at 5-5 before winning its final two games.

"That's sort of the same situation we're in right now," Dantonio said. "You always want to finish strong. That's the message sent around here constantly, complete our circles and finish strong."

Fitzgerald on Monday calmly answered questions about the 53-yard pass to Roundtree that set up Northwestern's latest agony. What was the coverage plan? What was the personnel on the play? Should Northwestern have purposely interfered with Roundtree, limiting such a large gain?

But he not surprisingly seemed more eager to talk about the need to respond this week. Northwestern's late-game struggles are an issue that must be addressed, but the team also has rarely, if ever, let painful losses impact its next game.

"We’ve responded in the past, and we're going to need our best response of the year this Saturday," Fitzgerald said. "In a weird sort of way, it's easier to respond when you get knocked down than it is when you have success, in a crazy sort of way. We've won a lot of close games around here, and unfortunately we let one get away Saturday."

He liked the team's energy in Monday's workout and called Tuesday's practice the best of the season. But he also noted Northwestern is facing a Michigan State squad that "very easily could be undefeated."

"We're close," Fitzgerald said. "This young team's growing up. There's no moral victories in our ballclub. There's a lot of frustration in the way that we haven't been able to finish. But what's done is done."

Michigan State knows the feeling.

"Their problem, just like ours, has been closing out games," Norman said. "The same thing happened against Michigan. I guess when we play them, it's going to come down to who can finish the best. Saturday is going to be interesting."