New outlook

EVANSTON, Ill. -- As a handful of Northwestern players are expected to be drafted over the next few days, junior left tackle Al Netter is preparing to put himself into that same position next year.

Netter, who is 6-foot-6 and 300 pounds, has started 26 consecutive games for the Wildcats and was recognized as an honorable mention All-Big Ten selection by the coaches and media last season. But as Netter approached Northwestern's spring game on Saturday, he said he understood that to get to the next level, he has to improve his work ethic.

That means spending more time in the film room, the weight room and on the field. For some, that may be daunting. But Netter's confident he can do it. And of all places where he gained that confidence, it was in Guatemala.

Netter traveled to Guatemala with a group of Northwestern students through Alternative Student Breaks just before Northwestern's spring season began. For a week, he worked at an orphanage, splitting his time between teaching children and working in the fields.

It was in the fields, assisting a man named Hector, when Netter learned something about himself, and what can be achieved.

"Just to see his work ethic, working for minimum wage -- I don't know what minimum wage is in Guatemala -- but he was just the most diligent worker I've ever seen," Netter said. "He never complained once and just went on after it. We were there Monday through Saturday, and he worked every day. It was in the 90s and humid. It taught me a lot about the kind of person I want to be with my work ethic and how hard I know I can work now.

"It was a great experience. It was a really good growing experience for me."

Netter has carried that over to Northwestern's spring season. He's put in extra work to add muscle to his frame and improve his run blocking, an area of concern for the entire line last season.

"I think me, personally, it goes along with our mentality as an offensive line that we got to run to the ball better," Netter said. "A lot of that is just working on our technique and doing the right things every time in the run game. You can have four guys doing the right thing, one guy screw up and the entire run play is blown up. It's about everyone being on the same page, working on the fundamentals and getting after it."

Northwestern coach Pat Fitzgerald has been happy with Netter's progress through his first three seasons. Fitzgerald thought some added weight would help even more next year.

"Al had an All-Big Ten level year, just didn't get up to a first-team All-Big Ten guy," Fitzgerald said. "I see the right growth. He's the mainstay on the left side of that offensive line. That left tackle is critically important to the success of our offense.

"I think back to this time, April, May of his junior year in high school. He was about 240 pounds. He's come a long way in a couple years. He just needs to continue to get strong. Up there in the trenches, it's a man world. Where he's come from his junior year to now, the growth is exponential. I mean it's incredible."

Netter admitted making it to the NFL is a goal of his, but he wasn't going to get caught up in it right now. His concern now is Northwestern's spring game and next season.

"Really, it's down the road," Netter said. "I think by improving the things I need to out here in order to win, I'm improving the things that will help me in the future as well if the NFL is my future."

Scott Powers covers high school and college sports for ESPNChicago.com and can be reached at spowers@espnchicago.com.