Big Ten spring practice preview: Northwestern

Northwestern Wildcats
2009: 8-5 (5-3)

It’s amazing that Northwestern even has the energy for spring practice after its emotional overtime loss to Auburn in the Outback Bowl to conclude the 2009 season. But football is alive and well in Evanston as Chicagoans pack away their sweaters and dust off their golf clubs while saying goodbye to winter and welcoming in spring.

Yes, with 17 wins in the last two seasons, Wildcats football is a hot brand right now — even if NU is looking for its first postseason victory since the 1949 Rose Bowl.

But under the direction of Pat Fitzgerald, who has grown into his role as head coach since replacing the late Randy Walker, Northwestern football is on the upswing — and dare we say an emerging Big Ten power?

There are some issues that must be dealt with this spring, with the two most important being breaking in a new quarterback and establishing a rushing attack.

Junior Dan Persa is the new signal-caller in Evanston, replacing Mike Kafka, who led the conference in passing yards with 3,430 and total offense at 286.5 yards per game. We know that Persa can run the ball effectively out of NU’s offense, but he needs to become a more polished passer. In parts of 10 games last season, he went 20-of-34 for 224 yards with two touchdowns against two interceptions. Without a veteran presence behind him, Persa must take control of the Wildcats’ offense.

Based on his tireless work ethic throughout the offseason, Persa undoubtedly took the necessary steps in preparation to be successful under center. The offensive staff believes that the dual-threat QB will be a natural fit for coordinator Mick McCall’s spread offense. After all, Persa was the first Pennsylvania high school player to amass 2,000 passing yards and 1,000 rushing yards in a single season.

While there is confidence in Persa, the ground game in Evanston hasn’t exactly been productive the last few seasons, ranking eighth in the conference in ‘09. The ‘Cats do return all five starters on their offensive line, so the continuity up front will help. But can a backfield led by sophomore Arby Fields and featuring Scott Concannon, Jacob Schmidt and Stephen Simmons be productive?

Fields is NU’s leading returning rusher, amassing just 302 yards in ’09 as the Wildcats failed to have a back go over the 100-yard mark in any game last fall. He’s expected to get the first shot at being the top dog despite averaging just 3.7 yards per carry. However, he was just a true freshman last year and the line didn’t block as well in short-yardage and red-zone situations.

Alex Daniel had a great showing in last year’s spring game before missing the entire season with an ankle injury. Expected to be in the mix for reps this spring, Daniel was suspended for violating team rules and won't be back until Sept. 5. It’s unlikely that he will be able to move up the depth chart after essentially missing the entire offseason program.

At wideout, Jeremy Ebert looks to make a big jump in ’09 after compiling 36 catches for 387 yards and two scores in his first two seasons. He was hampered by a surgically repaired hip last year but is expected to be the go-to guy for Persa on offense. Sidney Stewart looks to build off of his productive final two games of the season, where he combined for 14 receptions, 191 yards and two touchdowns. Lee Coleman will also see time at receiver while Josh Rooks will serve as the team’s hybrid back while starter Drake Dunsmore recovers from shoulder surgery.

The offensive line, when healthy, is solid but must get tougher, especially when the field shrinks near the goal line. Likely starters heading into the fall include Al Netter at left tackle, Brian Mulroe at left guard, Ben Burkett at center, Neil Dieters or Doug Bartels at right guard and Patrick Ward at right tackle.

Defensively, NU must replace three starters in the secondary — All-Big Ten cornerback Sherrick McManis, All-Big Ten safety Brad Phillips and multiyear starting safety Brendan Smith. Brian Peters is expected to grab one of the safety spots, while converted linebacker David Arnold is expected to compete with sophomores Jared Carpenter and Hunter Bates, along with redshirt freshman Cooper Gerami, for the other starting gig. Despite the loss of McManis, the cornerback position may not be a concern for very long if the solid play the Cats are receiving this spring carries over into the fall. Junior Mike Bolden and sophomore Demetrius Dugar have been impressive early in camp and look to be frontrunners for starting jobs.

Fitzgerald is excited about his group of linebackers — a unit that is deep and talented and will likely be the strength of the defense. Senior outside linebacker Quentin Davie could easily be an all-conference player in 2010. Nate Williams will also make plays, although he will be sidelined this spring after undergoing shoulder surgery. Sophomore Roderick Goodlow has shown a lot of energy and a knack for making plays this spring, while coaches are high on redshirt freshman linebacker Tim Riley.

The Wildcats must replace two starting defensive linemen, including defensive end and future pro Corey Wootton. But end Vince Browne could emerge as one of the conference’s top pass rushers in the fall, while Davon Custis and Anthony Battle will be joined by Quentin Williams and Kevin Watt in competition for the starting gig on the other side. Corbin Bryant returns inside at tackle after a surprisingly solid ‘09, while Brian Arnfelt, Jack DiNardo and Niko Mafuli will compete for the right to play next to him.

Northwestern will enter the fall with a very good chance of earning an unprecedented third consecutive berth to a bowl game. Believe it or not, the Wildcats are making postseason football more of a common occurrence these days in Evanston. The next step for the program under Fitzgerald? Not playing such thrilling overtime games, ultimately to come out on the losing end. A win — even if it’s ugly — would be a nice way to end a season for a change after back-to-back bowl heartbreaks.

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