Chicago Colleges: Daniel Jones

Spring game preview: Northwestern

April, 10, 2014
Apr 10
3:30
PM CT
We're previewing all of the Big Ten spring games, even the ones that are not quite spring games, like Northwestern's practice on Saturday ..

When: 11 a.m. ET
Where: Ryan Field
Admission: Free. Stadium gates will open at 10 a.m. ET
TV: Big Ten Network (live)
Weather forecast: Partly sunny, with a high near 68. Wind 10 to 15 mph.

What to watch for: Just like last year, the Wildcats won’t hold an actual spring game. Instead, their 15th session of the spring will be just like a regular practice, except that fans will be invited to attend.

And, no, they didn’t scrap the spring game because of union demands. Pat Fitzgerald’s team is simply too banged up to field two squads and go at it in any kind of live scrimmage. Northwestern opened spring drills with 11 players sidelined because of injuries, including potential starting defensive linemen Sean McEvilly, Deonte Gibson and Ifeadi Odenigbo, cornerback Daniel Jones and star running back Venric Mark.

Because of the injuries, Fitzgerald hasn’t really been able to have scrimmages all spring and says he’ll have to hold some during two-a-days in August to get his players up to speed.

There will still be some story lines to watch Saturday, and in fact, you may learn more from a regular practice effort than you would from most vanilla, fan-friendly spring exhibitions. Fitzgerald has said this is quarterback Trevor Siemian’s team, which means the offense should be fairly reliant on the passing game and not so much the option. At receiver, transfer Miles Shuler has earned praise, and the oft-injured Kyle Prater has had a nice spring, Fitzgerald said this week. It's just about now or never for Prater.

Collin Ellis has moved to middle linebacker, and there's a pretty good competition for his old spot on the outside, with Jimmy Hall and Drew Smith battling it out.

Mostly, though, the Wildcats and their fans are happy to see a day that should be all about football after their spring was dominated by union talk. The vote still looms, but at least on Saturday, the team can just practice, even if it's not a traditional spring game.

B1G spring position breakdown: DB

March, 6, 2014
Mar 6
3:00
PM CT
We're taking snapshots of each position group with every Big Ten team entering the spring. Up next: the defensive backs.

Illinois: The secondary returns mostly intact from 2013, as Illinois returns starters at both cornerback spots (V'Angelo Bentley and Eaton Spence), as well as Zane Petty, who started the final seven games at free safety. Taylor Barton, who opened last season as a starting free safety, also is back. Building safety depth is important this spring as Illinois must replace Earnest Thomas III. Barton will compete with Jevaris Little and others for playing time. The depth is much better at corner as Darius Mosely and Jaylen Dunlap both saw significant action as freshmen last fall.

Indiana: Like Illinois, Indiana returns a lot in the defensive backfield but must improve after struggling to stop opponents in 2013. The Hoosiers also lose only one starter in safety Greg Heban, a mainstay during the past four seasons. There's a lot of experience at cornerback with returning starters Tim Bennett (senior) and Michael Hunter (junior), along with reserve Kenny Mullen (senior). Decorated recruit Rashard Fant, who redshirted in 2013, will compete for significant playing time. Senior safety Mark Murphy will lead the secondary, and sophomore Antonio Allen could fill the other safety spot when he returns from an ACL tear. Building depth here always is a priority at IU.

Iowa: The situation isn't as dramatic as the linebacker spot, but Iowa still must replace two productive players in cornerback B.J. Lowery and safety Tanner Miller, who combined for six interceptions in 2013. Lowery is the more significant loss, as he had 19 passes defended and three forced fumbles. The good news is Desmond King looks like a budding star and he will move into the featured role Lowery occupied. Jordan Lomax, Sean Draper and others will compete to start opposite King. Strong safety John Lowdermilk returns after a solid junior season. Lomax also could play free safety and will compete there with Anthony Gair and Nico Law, who both appeared in all 13 games last fall as reserves.

Maryland: The back four aims for better results on the injury front and on the field in 2013. Maryland returns both starters at safety in Sean Davis, the team's leading tackler with 102 last fall, and Anthony Nixon, but there should be competition behind them with A.J. Hendy and Zach Dancel. The cornerback position is worth watching this spring as Dexter McDougle departs and Jeremiah Johnson remains limited by a toe injury. Will Likely has opened the spring as a starter, and Alvin Hill could rise up after recording 24 tackles last season.

Michigan: The secondary took a step back in 2013 and all jobs are open even though Michigan returns two veteran cornerbacks -- Blake Countess and Raymon Taylor -- and some experience at safety. Jabrill Peppers, the nation's No. 2 overall recruit according to ESPN Recruiting Nation, will play a major role for the Wolverines this fall, whether it's at corner, safety or nickel. Junior Jarrod Wilson started the first seven games of last season at free safety, and Dymonte Thomas is a good candidate to start at one of the safety spots. Michigan should expect more from this group in 2014.

Michigan State: Will opposing offenses invade the No Fly Zone in 2014? Not if Michigan State can fill several spots, none bigger than Darqueze Dennard's at cornerback. Dennard, a unanimous All-American and the Jim Thorpe Award winner, departs to the NFL, and junior Trae Waynes slides into the featured corner role after a promising sophomore season. The competition opposite Waynes heats up this spring as Ezra Robinson, Darian Hicks, Jermaine Edmondson and Arjen Colquhoun compete. Free safety Kurtis Drummond boasts 21 career starts and enters 2014 as one of the league's top safeties. RJ Williamson likely will fill Isaiah Lewis' spot at strong safety, and Demetrious Cox provides depth.

Minnesota: Like the Gophers' defensive line, the secondary loses a huge piece in Brock Vereen, who played both safety and cornerback last season. But there might be enough returning pieces to fill the void. Cornerback Eric Murray had a very solid first season as a starter, and Minnesota also brings back Derrick Wells and Briean Boddy-Calhoun, both of whom have starting experience. Leading tackler Cedric Thompson and Antonio Johnson finished last season as the starting safeties, and both are back. Senior Grayson Levine provides some experience in a reserve safety role.

Nebraska: An important spring awaits new defensive backs coach Charlton Warren, who must identify new starters at cornerback, safety and nickel. The Huskers are replacing Ciante Evans and Stanley Jean-Baptiste, who combined for eight interceptions, 18 passes defended and 15 tackles for loss in 2013. Safety Andrew Green, who made 10 starts in 2013, also leaves. The good news is cornerback Josh Mitchell had an excellent bowl game and will fill a starting spot. Leading tackler Corey Cooper also returns at safety. There's not much experience at corner other than Mitchell, and Daniel Davie, Auburn transfer Jonathan Rose and others will compete. Nebraska brings back more at safety with Harvey Jackson, who made three starts in 2013, and junior Charles Jackson.

Northwestern: That the Wildcats' secondary could be one of the team's biggest strengths seemed laughable three years ago, but it could be true this fall. All four starters return, led by safety Ibraheim Campbell, one of the Big Ten's most productive defenders (262 career tackles). The depth at cornerback looks strong as starters Nick VanHoose and Matt Harris return, along with Dwight White and Daniel Jones, who opened 2013 as a starter and is coming back from an ACL tear. Traveon Henry should start alongside Campbell, and there are some promising young safeties like Godwin Igwebuike.

Ohio State: Pass defense proved to be Ohio State's downfall in 2013, and the Buckeyes' secondary will be under the microscope this spring as new assistant Chris Ash steps in. Ohio State loses All-Big Ten cornerback Bradley Roby and will lean more on Doran Grant, who started opposite Roby in 2013. Ash also expects big things from Tyvis Powell, who will start at one of the safety spots. Safety Vonn Bell finally logged significant playing time in the Orange Bowl and could become a permanent starter as a sophomore. Veteran Ron Tanner and Cam Burrows also are in the mix at safety. There should be good competition to start opposite Grant, as Armani Reeves tries to hold off redshirt freshmen Gareon Conley and Eli Apple.

Penn State: After a season of moving parts and inconsistent plays, Penn State hopes for a more settled secondary. Adrian Amos, who alternated between cornerback and safety last season, will lead the group and brings plenty of experience. Jordan Lucas likely will start opposite Amos at cornerback after making strides toward the end of his sophomore season. PSU loses some leadership at safety with Malcolm Willis and Stephen Obeng-Agyapong departing and will lean on Ryan Keiser and Jesse Della Valle, both of whom have starting experience. Converted wideouts Trevor Williams and Malik Golden provide depth at cornerback and safety, respectively.

Purdue: The rotation from 2013 returns almost completely intact, but Purdue loses a very big piece in cornerback Ricardo Allen, a four-year starter. Cornerback Frankie Williams enters his third year as a starter and will slide into Allen's featured role, while the competition for the other top corner spot will feature Antoine Lewis and Leroy Clark, among others. Purdue has plenty of experience at safety with Taylor Richards, who started every game in 2013, and Anthony Brown, who replaced the injured Landon Feichter and had 69 tackles. Feichter also is back from a broken leg.

Rutgers: This group is anxious to turn the page after a season filled with personnel issues and poor performance (Rutgers finished 120th nationally in pass defense). Senior safety Lorenzo Waters leads the group after recording 62 tackles and two forced fumbles in 2013. Johnathan Aiken will try to start opposite Waters at free safety, although he'll be pushed by Delon Stephenson and Tejay Johnson, who started three games last fall. Gareef Glashen started six games last season and seems likely to retain one of the top cornerback spots. There will be competition at the other between Anthony Cioffi and Nadir Barnwell, both of whom started games as true freshmen in 2013. The most intriguing player to watch is cornerback Ian Thomas, who returns to the team after quitting midway through last season, one that he began as a starter.

Wisconsin: The Badgers are relatively young at both secondary positions but boast far more experience at cornerback than safety. Junior Darius Hillary and sophomore Sojourn Shelton started all 13 games at cornerback last season. Peniel Jean adds even more experience at the position. Safety is much less settled as Dezmen Southward graduates, Michael Caputo shifts to linebacker and Tanner McEvoy returns to quarterback. Nate Hammon and Leo Musso both played in all 13 games last fall as reserves. Newcomers like Serge Trezy and Austin Hudson could compete for time when they arrive this summer.
Tags:

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, Dwight White, Ian Thomas, Ibraheim Campbell, Tanner Miller, Mark Murphy, Daniel Jones, Nick VanHoose, Traveon Henry, Darius Mosely, Adrian Amos, Chris Ash, Zane Petty, Jaylen Dunlap, Godwin Igwebuike, Rashard Fant, Vonn Bell, Darius Hillary, Michael Caputo, Peniel Jean, Eaton Spence, Jevaris Little, Taylor Barton, V'Angelo Bentley, Corey Cooper, Josh Mitchell, Landon Feichter, B.J. Lowery, Ryan Keiser, Derrick Wells, Dezmen Southward, Jesse Della Valle, Blake Countess, Jabrill Peppers, Trae Waynes, Doran Grant, Sojourn Shelton, Kurtis Drummond, Tyvis Powell, Charlton Warren, Charles Jackson, B1G spring positions 14, A.J. Hendy, Alvin Hill, Andrew Green, Anthony Cioffi, Anthony Gair, Anthony Nixon, Antoine Lewis, Antonio Allen, Antonio Johnson, Arjen Colquhoun, Armani Reeves, Austin Hudson, Briean Boddy-Calhoun, Cam Burrows, Cedric Thompson, Daniel Davie, Darian Hicks, Delon Stephenson, Demetrious Cox, Dexter McDougle, Dymonte Thomas, Eli Apple, Eric Murray, Ezra Robinson, Frankie Williams, Gareef Glashen, Gareon Conley, Grayson Levine, Harvey Jackson, Jarrod Wilson, Jeremiah Johnson, Jermaine Edmonson, John Lowdermilk, Johnathan Aiken, Jonathan Rose, Jordan Lomax, Kenny Mullen, Leo Musso, Leroy Clark, Lorenzo Waters, Malik Golden, Matt Harris, Michael Hunter, Nadir Barnwell, Nate Hammon, Nico Law, Raymon Taylor, RJ Williamson, Ron Tanner, Sean Davis, Sean Draper, Serge Trezy, Taylor Richards, Tejay Johnson, Tim Bennett, Trevor Williams, Will Likely, Zach Dancel

RB Mark among Wildcats out for spring

February, 24, 2014
Feb 24
6:00
PM CT
Venric Mark's ankle injury was serious enough to sideline him for the final six-plus games in 2013 -- and earn him a chance to return this fall.

The injury also will keep Northwestern's star running back/returner sidelined for the spring.

Mark is one of 11 Wildcats players out for spring ball following winter surgeries. Northwestern opens practice on Wednesday.

Other notables sitting out include defensive tackle Sean McEvilly (foot) and defensive ends Ifeadi Odenigbo (shoulder) and Deonte Gibson (shoulder), all potential starters this fall. Cornerback Daniel Jones and running back Stephen Buckley both are recovering from knee injuries sustained during the 2013 season.

Last spring, Northwestern lacked bodies along the offensive line because of winter surgeries. It altered practices and arguably cost the Wildcats during the season. This year, the defensive line will be thin as McEvilly, Odenigbo, Gibson and tackle Max Chapman all are out for the spring session.

"Our numbers will be down there," Northwestern coach Pat Fitzgerald told ESPN.com. "Would you notice watching practice? Maybe not. We'll probably take more breaks during scrimmage days. It's kind of the reverse of last year, so we'll have to do a better job than a year ago.

"The depth is good; I don't think the depth is great in spring. That's going to be an area we're really going to have to improve in camp."

Injury impact: Big Ten

October, 24, 2013
10/24/13
8:00
AM CT
Injuries are an unfortunate part of the game. Every team must deal with them, but some teams get hurt harder than others. Today, we're taking a look at the teams that have been impacted the most this season. Here's our ranking of the top three:

1. Northwestern: Injuries have played a major role in the Wildcats' 0-3 start in Big Ten play. All-American kick returner and star tailback Venric Mark has been healthy enough to play exactly one full game -- against Ohio State. Quarterback Kain Colter has been banged up just about all season as well. Both were reinjured at Wisconsin and missed all of last week's loss to Minnesota. In addition, top defensive tackle Sean McEvilly has played in only three games, while starting cornerback Daniel Jones suffered a season-ending knee injury in the opener at Cal.

2. Penn State: The Nittany Lions had major depth issues to begin with because of NCAA sanctions. It hasn't helped that they have also dealt with a series of injuries. Tight ends Matt Lehmen and Brent Wilkerson and defensive end Brad Bars were lost for the season. Linebacker Mike Hull was hurt for most of the first two months, as was tight end Kyle Carter. Wide receiver Brandon Felder missed the Indiana loss with an ankle problem. Linebacker Ben Kline has been limited after offseason shoulder surgery. Safety Ryan Keiser has been dealing with a hand injury since the Kent State game. This team can't afford many more injuries as it approaches the homestretch of the season.


3. Nebraska: The Huskers' injury problems haven't adversely affected them -- at least not yet. Still, it's never easy when you lose your four-year starting quarterback, and Taylor Martinez hasn't played since Week 3 versus UCLA because of turf toe. He could be back this week, but All-American guard Spencer Long was lost for the season in the last game against Purdue with a knee injury. He'll be tough to replace.

Bye week to-do list: Northwestern

September, 26, 2013
9/26/13
5:00
PM CT
Northwestern's record is a perfect 4-0, but the Wildcats haven't exactly been perfect. They enter the bye week after an unconvincing 35-21 win over FCS school Maine, and they'll try to regroup in time for their next big test -- against No. 4 Ohio State on Oct. 5. Here are a few things they'll have to focus on to improve in time for the conference season:

[+] EnlargeVenric Mark
Tony Ding/AP PhotoNorthwestern running back Venric Mark hasn't played since making 11 carries in the Wildcats' opener at Cal.
1. Get tailback Venric Mark up to speed. Northwestern's option just hasn't been the same without Mark, who hasn't played since Week 1 because of a leg injury. He returned to practice Tuesday, however, and Pat Fitzgerald labeled him "day to day." The Wildcats' rushing attack has fared well in his absence, but Northwestern sure could use the running back who rushed for 1,366 yards and a dozen scores last season. Northwestern needs its best players for its best opponents, so Mark's progress here is paramount. This bye week is crucial to him healing.

2. Shore up the secondary. Pat Fitzgerald was thrown a curveball when cornerback Daniel Jones suffered a season-ending injury in Week 1, and the Wildcats' secondary just hasn't been able to rebound. Teams are targeting Jones' replacement, Dwight White, and Northwestern will have to find a way to neutralize opponents' passing games. The numbers just haven't been pretty so far. Northwestern ranks No. 115 in pass defense, allowing 308 yards a game, and that issue has caused problems elsewhere. Opponents are converting more than 44 percent of their third downs, which puts NU at No. 94 in that area. And their red-zone defense has been atrocious. Opponents, which include the likes of Maine and Western Michigan, have combined to score on all but one of their 14 trips to the red zone. Those aren't numbers expected of a Big Ten title contender.

3. Limit the turnovers. It's difficult to point too many fingers at an offense that's scored at least 35 points in four consecutive games. But turnovers have stalled too many Wildcats drives. They've committed seven turnovers already -- four interceptions, six fumbles (three lost) -- when they had just 15 all last season. In just the last three games, Kain Colter fumbled twice (neither lost) and threw two interceptions on 35 passing attempts. He has to protect the ball better or this trend could turn into a bigger problem. Northwestern was ranked within the top 15 last season when it came to limiting turnovers. This season? Tied for 82nd.

Northwestern bears down for takeaways

September, 18, 2013
9/18/13
1:00
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EVANSTON, Ill. -- Northwestern coach Pat Fitzgerald knows football fans in Chicago spend their Sundays watching a defense fixated on takeaways. As a Chicago Bears fan, he's one of those people.

[+] EnlargeIbraheim Campbell
AP Photo/Ben MargotIbraheim Campbell is leading Northwestern's charge for more turnovers having picked off passes in five straight games.
Fitzgerald hopes the same folks see the same thing on Saturdays as they tune in for Wildcats' games. So far this season, "Chicago's Big Ten team" has embraced the takeaway trend trademarked by Chicago's NFL team.

After topping the Big Ten takeaways chart last season with 29, Northwestern is tied with Michigan State for the league lead with eight through the first three games (tied for sixth nationally). All eight Wildcats takeaways have been interceptions, which leads the FBS, and they've converted them into 45 points.

Northwestern has 17 interceptions in its last six games, stretching back to last season, and junior safety Ibrahaim Campbell has picked off passes in each of the past five contests, a new team record. Linebacker Collin Ellis recorded two interceptions Aug. 31 in the season opener at, returning both for touchdowns and claiming national defensive player of the week honors.

"I don't know, maybe it's just a Chicago thing," Fitzgerald said following Tuesday's practice. "We're definitely inspired by [the Bears'] defense and really, we’ve pulled a lot of their plays off and given them as examples to the players."

The Bears led the NFL with 44 takeaways last season and were among the league leaders for much of former coach Lovie Smith's tenure. Even though Smith is gone, the Bears already have six takeaways in their first two games, tied for the second-most in the NFL.

Football coaches are known to go far and wide to find effective teaching tools for their players. Northwestern's staff simply looked "down the road," defensive coordinator Mike Hankwitz said, at what the Bears have been doing for years.

Last season, Northwestern defensive backs coach Jerry Brown had players watch video of Bears cornerback Charles "Peanut" Tillman forcing fumbles with his "Peanut punch" move. Tillman led the NFL with 10 forced fumbles last season and boasts 39 for his career.

"We took some highlights off TV and showed how they’re always punching at the ball," Hankwitz said. "And we did cause some fumbles. [Former safety Jared Carpenter] caused one, punching the ball out. Ibraheim caused two, punching the ball.

"Now that they see that it works, we're starting to build a little more of a takeaway culture."

Northwestern had at least one forced fumble in nine games last season, jarring the ball loose three times in wins against Vanderbilt and Minnesota. Campbell and three defensive linemen -- Tyler Scott, Quentin Williams and Brian Arnfelt -- all recorded multiple forced fumbles.

Hankwitz also started to mix coverages more as the season went along. The different looks, combined with increased pressure from the line, led to a surge of interceptions, including four in the Gator Bowl victory over Mississippi State.

"Like anything in life, you achieve what you emphasize," Fitzgerald said. "I don't want these high school coaches to think we're doing some magical turnover circuit or rubbing on the ball with some magic stick and all of a sudden it comes to us. It's just emphasizing it and making our guys aware up front to the quick game of, 'If you're not necessarily going to get home, get your hands up,' being aware of route progressions and where a quarterback may go."

Hankwitz credits Northwestern's linemen for getting their arms in passing lanes, noting that three interceptions this season stemmed from deflections, including both of Ellis' pick-sixes against Cal. Scott and fellow linemen Dean Lowry and Chance Carter already have combined for eight pass deflections.

The 5-foot-11, 205-pound Campbell has been the face of the team's takeaway surge. Although Hankwitz has coordinated defenses since 1982, he can't remember another one of his players recording interceptions in five straight games.

Campbell attributes the streak to simply maximizing his playmaking opportunities.

"With the time I’ve been playing, the game has slowed down tremendously," said the junior, in his third year as a starter. "I know what to look for more, and it's paid off a lot."

[+] EnlargeCharles Tillman
Jeff Hanisch/USA TODAY SportsThe "Peanut Punch," a favorite weapon of the Bears' Charles Tillman has caught on at Northwestern.
Northwestern has become a more opportunistic defense in recent games, but it remains vulnerable in certain areas, surrendering 442.3 yards per game, including 319.3 pass yards, second most in the Big Ten. Hankwitz notes that most of the yards stem from a few big plays. Several have come against redshirt freshman cornerback Dwight White, who stepped in for injured starter Daniel Jones against Cal and quickly became a target for opposing quarterbacks.

There's no doubt that takeaways can cover up yards allowed -- turnover margin is the game's most important metric -- but Campbell wants to tighten things up before Big Ten play begins Oct. 5 against Ohio State.

"If we have explosion plays going against us, a takeaway isn't going to make that go away," he said. "Those are still things we need to fix, but it obviously helps because you can’t have an explosion play if you don't have the ball."

Fitzgerald's goal is to have a defense built on "the complete and total commitment to taking the ball away." The Wildcats aren't there yet. Although takeaways for points seemed to rescue Northwestern at Cal, Fitzgerald was disappointed that the Wildcats couldn't corral three Cal fumbles. Western Michigan coughed up the ball last Saturday at Ryan Field, but Northwestern couldn't recover it.

Wildcats players will continue to think turnover, just like the Bears do.

"They’re great tacklers and everything like that, but they're excellent at taking the ball away," Campbell said. "That's something we're trying to create here.

"We’re right down the street from Chicago, so it would be a great thing to establish in the city."

Daniel Jones to miss rest of season

September, 2, 2013
9/02/13
12:21
PM CT
Northwestern starting cornerback Daniel Jones will miss the rest of the season after suffering a left knee injury in Saturday's season-opening win against California.

Jones suffered the injury in the final minute of the first half while committing a pass-interference penalty in the end zone. He had to be carted off the field.

Read the entire story.

Northwestern season preview

August, 13, 2013
8/13/13
10:30
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Northwestern finally shredded the monkey Jan. 1 and won its first bowl game since the 1949 Rose, recording its 10th win in the process. Pat Fitzgerald's crew returns the core pieces from that team, but faces a tougher schedule featuring the likes of Ohio State and Wisconsin.

Can Northwestern take the next logical step and reach the Big Ten title game, or will it backslide in 2013?

NORTHWESTERN WILDCATS

[+] EnlargePat Fitzgerald
Rich Barnes/US PresswireNorthwestern coach Pat Fitzgerald has a lot of returning talent, but faces a difficult 2013 schedule.
Coach: Pat Fitzgerald (50-39, seven seasons at Northwestern and overall)

2012 record: 10-3 (5-3 Big Ten)

Key losses: G Brian Mulroe, OT Pat Ward, DT Brian Arnfelt, LB David Nwabuisi, DE Quentin Williams

Key returnees: RB Venric Mark, QB Kain Colter, C Brandon Vitabile, TE Dan Vitale, DE Tyler Scott, S Ibraheim Campbell, CB Nick VanHoose, LB Chi Chi Ariguzo, K Jeff Budzien

Newcomer to watch: Redshirt freshman cornerback Dwight White had an excellent spring as he makes a push to start opposite Nick VanHoose. White, a 5-foot-10, 178-pound speedster, has good ball skills and brings a playmaking threat to a secondary that, while improved, needs more difference-makers. White will push Daniel Jones and others for playing time this fall.

Biggest games in 2013: The Wildcats face plenty in Big Ten play, starting with the league opener Oct. 5 against Ohio State. If Northwestern and Ohio State both come in undefeated -- a good possibility -- it'll be Northwestern's biggest home game in Fitzgerald's tenure. Another big game follows Oct. 12 at Wisconsin, and Northwestern opens November with three Legends division tests, as it visits Nebraska (Nov. 2) and hosts Michigan (Nov. 16) and Michigan State (Nov. 23).

Biggest question mark heading into 2013: Northwestern must shore up its line play on both sides of the ball after losing valuable veterans to graduation. Three starting spots must be filled on the offensive line, including right tackle, as Jack Konopka is expected to slide over to the left side. Several likely starters missed spring ball after offseason surgeries, which gave players like Shane Mertz and Ian Park added reps.

Northwestern also must find a space-eater or two on defense after losing Brian Arnfelt. The team has better depth at defensive end than tackle, where it needs more from veterans Will Hampton and Sean McEvilly.

Outlook: The arrow is definitely pointing up in Evanston after Northwestern recorded just the second 10-win season in team history and could have easily won more games. Many of the building blocks remain, including the dynamic backfield of Mark and Colter, who executed the zone-read game to perfection last fall. Northwestern has upgraded its recruiting efforts, especially on defense, and should boast more speed, athleticism and depth than it did in 2012.

So why is there a hesitation to buy into the Wildcats, who most are picking to finish third or fourth in the Legends division?

There's the Northwestern factor, as some still can't separate the program's current state from its pathetic past in the 1970s and 1980s. A more valid reason for concern is the schedule, as both Ohio State and Wisconsin return, and Northwestern skips the Indiana schools. There won't be many easy games during Big Ten play, and getting back to 10 wins will pose a significant challenge.

Northwestern once again will employ a quarterback rotation of Colter and Trevor Siemian, a big-armed junior who can spark the passing game. The receivers had a somewhat underwhelming season, but could be a bigger threat this season as almost everyone returns. Tight end Dan Vitale blossomed down the stretch in 2012 and will attack the deep middle along with wideout Christian Jones.

The defense generated 29 takeaways in 2012 and hopes to continue its playmaking ways with more explosive athletes at all three levels. Campbell is one of the Big Ten's best defensive backs, and VanHoose made a huge difference when healthy. Northwestern needs linebacker Chi Chi Ariguzo to continue smothering the football, and for speedy down linemen like Dean Lowry to complement Tyler Scott on the pass rush.

Special teams was a huge factor for Northwestern's success in 2012, and must continue its upward trajectory. The Wildcats also hope to stay healthy after losing only five starts to injury -- the fewest in the Big Ten -- last season.

"To have the number of young men we have coming back in '13 from a starting standpoint," Fitzgerald said, "gives us great confidence we'll hopefully be able to take the next step."

On paper, this is a better Northwestern team than the 2012 version, but the tougher schedule will make it difficult to match or exceed last season's win total.

Plenty of what-ifs for Wildcats, Spartans

November, 13, 2012
11/13/12
5:12
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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 ESPN.com. "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 ESPN.com. "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."

Spring Q&A: Northwestern's Pat Fitzgerald

March, 6, 2012
3/06/12
10:16
AM CT
Spring football is under way at Northwestern, which returned to the practice field Saturday. The Wildcats say goodbye to a decorated senior class, which included quarterback Dan Persa, and must fill several key spots on both sides of the ball. Head coach Pat Fitzgerald has an emphasis on learning and fostering new chemistry on the team, as the Wildcats' leadership features several new faces. The 2012 season will be crucial for Northwestern, which has reached four consecutive bowl games but also seen its wins total drop every year since 2008.

ESPN.com recently caught up with Fitzgerald. Here are his thoughts:

What have been some of your emphasis points from the end of the bowl game and your objectives in spring ball?

[+] EnlargePat Fitzgerald
Reid Compton/US PresswirePat Fitzgerald, the Wildcats' coach since 2006, led Northwestern to a 6-7 record last season.
Pat Fitzgerald: Every year you look for ways you can improve and build upon your past, but it's always a new team. Obviously, we've got a lot of young men that graduated who were very dynamic for us over the last four years, multiyear starters who laid a tremendous foundation of success for our program. Now you have to come together with this team and number one, we want to build better chemistry with this team. Eight of our 12 leadership council members, it's their first year, so it's kind of indicative of trying to forge the chemistry, player to player.

Is it a better chemistry or a new chemistry?

PF: Every time you get to the offseason, you fall into that trap, is it better or worse? More importantly, it's always new. It's new guys jelling, guys assuming new roles and the natural progression. The guys have done a tremendous job. I look forward to watching to see how we do when somebody punches you back in football.

Were you surprised at how last season turned out? Some guys were talking about contending for a Big Ten title and you end up at 6-7.

PF: Well, we had a tough five-game stretch. That overshadows anything else that we did. What we look at it is we stayed the course and fought through it. You can point back to multiple plays and calls on our end and what we did schematically as coaches, you vet through all that stuff and you look at how close we were. It's easy to point blame and point fingers. It's more important to create some solutions and through that, you always start with the way you're teaching and coaching, and what you're asking guys to do schematically. Are we playing to their strengths? Because of maybe a little youth and inexperience, are we asking them to try to do too much? And I thought we adjusted. Obviously, you don't want to go through what we went through, and it was our fault. You look back and say, we adjusted, but did we adjust fast enough? Hindsight's always 20-20, but you learn from it, you grow and then you educate the guys on why it happened and how we're going to be stronger moving forward. What did we win, four of our last six games? So we finished strong. Obviously, you'd love to have back the last one here at home. And in the bowl game, we played two really good quarters and two quarters that beat ourselves, so we've got a lot to learn from. I wouldn't say I was surprised. No matter what you predict, you never know how it's going to go.

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