With 17 wins in the last two seasons, Northwestern views itself as a program that has risen yet remains on the climb.
Thanks to gnawing overtime bowl losses that capped the last two seasons, the Wildcats still burn to earn the school's first bowl victory since the 1949 Rose Bowl. If they're going to accomplish that goal in 2010 -- particularly at a relatively prestigious bowl -- they're going to need to improve their running game.
Northwestern finished 95th nationally in rushing last year with just 117.5 yards per game. Not only did the Wildcats run the ball inconsistently (3.0 yards per rush), they couldn't find a go-to guy. Offensive coordinator Mick McCall rotated four guys depending on the situation. All four of those guys are back this season, but none of them made much headway during the spring.
Sophomore scatback Arby Fields, the team's top rusher with 302 yards and five touchdowns, split his time between spring practices and his duties as Northwestern's starting center fielder. Juniors Jacob Schmidt and Scott Concannon -- the latter of whom fell out of favor late in the year due to fumbles -- finished the spring healthy, but they combined for 52 yards on 25 carries in the spring game. Undersized senior Stephen Simmons, who entered the 2009 season as the starter but fell to the wayside in part due to injuries, carried three times for minus-4 yards.
More candidates will join the fray during Camp Kenosha in August. Northwestern hoped to get a good look at redshirt freshman Mike Trumpy in the spring after his solid fall on the scout team, but he was injured and missed most of spring. NU also has high hopes for incoming freshman Adonis Smith, a three-star runner from Oakland, Calif.
There's also an unknown variable to this equation. Graduated senior quarterback Mike Kafka, who was snapped up by the Philadelphia Eagles in the fourth round, was the team's most potent rusher last year with 295 yards and eight TDs. As good as Kafka was, new quarterback Dan Persa is even more of a threat on the ground.
When Persa played the second half against Penn State and the first half against Iowa late last year due to a Kafka injury, the Wildcats didn't hesitate to send him on single-wing sweeps. He also looked terrific while scrambling out of the spread offense. Persa posted 109 rushing yards in those two halves and managed 167 rushing yards for the season in relatively limited time.
"It gives you more options," Northwestern running backs coach Matt MacPherson told the Daily Northwestern. "It gives you more possibilities. In some ways it's better for the back because the defense can't key in on him. Now it takes away probably some carries from him, but it gives you more weapons, more options."NOTES, QUOTES
--Junior quarterback Dan Persa entered spring ball as the heir apparent to NFL draftee Mike Kafka and he did nothing to jeopardize his status. Barring injury, Persa will take the first snap in the Sept. 4 opener at Vanderbilt while redshirt freshman Evan Watkins will be the backup. NU's other two scholarship quarterbacks -- Trevor Siemian and Kain Colter -- are incoming freshmen.
"Well, I like where the offense is at," head coach Pat Fitzgerald told reporters after the spring game on April 24. "We're ahead of where we were last spring at this time. I like both quarterbacks. They both throw the ball really well and take good command of our offense. They're a perfect fit for what we do. They have different strengths, and we'll play to those strengths."
Persa is a prototypical dual-threat quarterback while the 6-foot-6, 235-pound Watkins has a bigger arm and less mobility.
--Northwestern announced on April 23 that it will play its final 2010 home game at Wrigley Field against Illinois. The Wildcats and the Illini will provide the first football game at Wrigley since the Chicago Bears in 1970 -- and the first collegiate game at the Friendly Confines since DePaul played there in 1938.
"I get the questions all the time about 'Why?'" Northwestern athletic director Jim Phillips told the Daily Herald. "I think the question is 'Why not? Why not bring football back to this historic stadium?'"
WR Jeremy Ebert -- The junior started several games as a true freshman. That led to big expectations in 2009, but a hip injury limited Ebert's time and his production. After catching just 11 passes in NU's first 11 games, he stepped forward with 10 catches in the final two games -- including 6 for 64 yards in the Outback Bowl. Ebert continued to progress in the spring and figures to be Dan Persa's top option (along with returning starter Sidney Stewart) in 2010.
P Brandon Williams -- This redshirt freshman walked on in the fall, but took a big step toward earning the starting job during spring ball. NU retains two-year punter Stefan Demos, but he's a natural kicker who has punted mostly because he has been the best option. Demos averages 38.0 yards per punt, so Williams will be an upgrade.
S David Arnold -- Literally one of Northwestern's spring movers as the junior, who started his NU career as a safety before moving up and earning a starting job at outside linebacker last fall, moved back to safety where he's expected to start.
QUOTE TO NOTE: "He's an extremely good leader. He's demanding on himself, as much as any player that we have in the program. So yes, I expect a sweet transition. I expected it over the off-season, and it happened over the spring." -- Northwestern coach Pat Fitzgerald telling reporters about junior QB Dan Persa, who'll take over the starting job from Philadelphia Eagles fourth-round pick Mike Kafka.STRATEGY AND PERSONNEL
2010 OUTLOOK: Northwestern lost three players who went in the NFL draft, including second-team all-Big Ten quarterback Mike Kafka, first-team all-Big Ten cornerback Sherrick McManis and terrific defensive end Corey Wootton. The Wildcats also have to fill the shoes of several other long-time starters, including safeties Brad Phillips and Brendan Smith, but they have built enough depth and athleticism in their younger classes to have replacements. NU's non-conference schedule is relatively challenging (Vanderbilt, Rice, Central Michigan, FCS opponent Illinois State) without being overwhelming to the new starters. Look for a third consecutive bowl berth.
SCOUTING THE OFFENSE: Junior QB Dan Persa assumes control of Mick McCall's spread offense. Persa is a true dual threat but has never started a game. NU lost its top two pass-catchers in Zeke Markshausen and Andrew Brewer, but senior Sidney Stewart and junior Jeremy Ebert lead a cast that should be solid. The Wildcats return all of their offensive linemen, which should prove to be a big boost as they look to improve their running game. NU figures to be running game-by-committee again, though sophomore Arby Fields has breakout potential.
SCOUTING THE DEFENSE: Coordinator Mike Hankwitz must rebuild his secondary after losing 10 seasons' worth of starting experience when Sherrick McManis, Brendan Smith and Brad Phillips were graduated. Junior Brian Peters should be fine at safety after starting several games in 2009 for the injured Smith, while linebacker David Arnold has returned to his original safety spot to take the other open job. NU is thick with linebackers as seniors Quentin Davie and Nate Williams are all-league candidates. There's playing time available up front as DE Corey Wootton and DTs Adam Hahn and Marshall Thomas have been graduated, but returning DT Corbin Bryant has developed as a leader and an anchor while there are several players ready to battle for Wootton's snaps.
SCOUTING THE SPECIAL TEAMS: Stefan Demos has handled the punting and kicking each of the last two years, but it looks like he'll be able to focus on kicking this year with the emergence of redshirt freshman punter Brandon Williams. That should be a big help (NU ranked 115th nationally in net punting) while NU still needs to improve its return games. The Wildcats ranked among the Big Ten's bottom third in both PR and KR.
--Senior linebackers Nate Williams (shoulder surgery) and Quentin Davie (foot) did little during spring ball, but they'll be ready to reassume their starting jobs in the fall. Their absences allowed youngsters such as David Nwabuisi, Damien Proby and Roderick Goodlow to gain valuable experience and give NU playable depth.
--Junior RG Doug Bartels and senior LG Keegan Grant, who combined for 20 starts in 2009, sat out spring ball due to injury. They'll find it tough to regain their jobs in the fall. Sophomore LG Brian Mulroe started the Outback Bowl and looks solid there, while sophomore RT Neal Dieters shifted to RG during the spring to make room for four-star sophomore Patrick Ward at RT.
--TE Drake Dunsmore, the Wildcats' No. 1 returning pass-catcher for 47 grabs for 523 yards and three scores, missed spring ball after undergoing shoulder surgery. He ought to be ready to roll in the fall.
Previous Report: 04/28/2010