NCF Nation: Geoff Mogus

Northwestern Wildcats season preview

August, 14, 2014
8/14/14
10:30
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Previewing the 2014 season for the Northwestern Wildcats:

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

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

Key returnees: QB Trevor Siemian, WR Tony 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. With Christian Jones' season-ending knee injury, 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 dash 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: Treyvon Green, Sr., 5-10, 215; 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: Cameron Dickerson, Jr., 6-3, 200; WR: Kyle Prater, Sr., 6-5, 225

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 overcome the sudden losses of leading wideout Christian Jones and top tailback Venric Mark? It was one surprising Wednesday, as the Wildcats discovered Jones would miss the season with a knee injury and that Mark would transfer elsewhere. Before the news, the big question was whether Northwestern could win those tight games. Now it’s just whether Northwestern can win -- period -- without some of its biggest offensive names. This preseason has already gone above and beyond Pat Fitzgerald’s worst-case scenario ... so can the Wildcats overcome it?

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 season. A win here could propel Northwestern to a 4-0 start and should give the Cats a boost of confidence heading into the heart (Wisconsin, Minnesota, Nebraska, Iowa, Michigan) of their conference schedule. They'll need it without Jones and Mark.

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 last-second Hail Mary. Now the Cornhuskers 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 Warren Long (@larrenwong) keeps it light, and 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: "Today is a difficult day for our football family and, most importantly, for Venric. We love him, and there is no doubt we're going to miss him as both a person and player. But this is unquestionably what is best for Venric and those closest to him." -- Head coach Pat Fitzgerald, on Mark's Wednesday announcement he's transferring due to personal reasons

Stats & Info projections: 6.59 wins

Wise guys over/under: 7.5 wins

Big Ten blog projection: Six wins. If you would've asked this question 24 hours ago, the answer likely would've been seven wins. Now, with the absence Jones and Mark, it's no stretch to think the Cats will drop at least one extra game. Depending on Siemian's performance, Northwestern still has a shot to be the surprise of the West. But that chance has obviously become more of a long-shot with the recent news. With 16 returning starters, Northwestern should still improve upon last season's finish. But Wednesday's news and last season's performance 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 Northwestern rebounds -- slightly -- by finishing at .500.
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 ESPN.com. "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, anchors 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."

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