Five minutes and three seconds. That’s all that separated the Wildcats from an undefeated 2012.
With music blaring and weights clanking, Northwestern’s football team continues to be dominated by those five minutes and three seconds. On the ‘Cats’ first day of spring practice, players take reps and engage in conditioning clocked for 5:03, reminding them of just how far the program has come in recent years and of the mammoth expectations that the team faces this fall.
“Our internal expectations have always been to be Big Ten champs,” head coach Pat Fitzgerald said after practice. “We haven’t accomplished that yet, so there’s a lot of work to do.”
That work kicked off Wednesday, when the Wildcats took Trienens Hall at the Ryan Field complex for nearly two hours of offense/defense drills. Fielding an impressive recruiting class and 17 returning starters, Northwestern will ostensibly be ranked to start the season.
Notching double-digit wins and knocking off a 64-year bowl drought, the ‘Cats have an opportunity to really change their culture with a big 2013. Yet Northwestern faces three missing starters on the offensive line, an unproven defense and a competitive Big Ten schedule. Check out the most notable happenings of Wednesday’s practice.
Colter and Siemian continue to battle
“There’s a battle to help us win. That’s it.”
Fitz refused to acknowledge a frontrunner in the quarterback race, yet rising senior dual-threat Kain Colter took first team reps Wednesday.
“If we started Kain today and Trevor tomorrow, you guys would write up about it and make way too big a deal,” Fitzgerald laughed. Siemian still saw plenty of practice time, and worked on his mobility outside the pocket.
“Yeah, I’m gonna change my number to [Colter’s] two,” he joked. “I have to get better at running the football and keeping guys honest.”
O-line goes through growing pains
Losing tackle Patrick Ward to graduation and missing tackle Jack Konopka, who was shelved from practice with injuries, Northwestern’s line will struggle in preliminary practices. Only two starters return up front this spring in Konopka and rising junior Brandon Vitabile. But with Konopka likely switching to the left side to replace Ward, this unit will need a lot of time to find its stride.
Sophomore Shane Mertz took first team reps after missing all of 2012 due to injury. Other newcomers included Geoff Mogus and redshirt freshmen Ian Park and Eric Olson. It was encouraging to see rising senior ‘back Venric Mark bust a huge touchdown run in a scrimmage setting, but the line will see shuffles and change-ups until everyone’s healthy and ready to go.
“It’s basically like taking apart a puzzle...We have some missing pieces because of graduation,” Fitz said. “That’s the biggest macro goal. What are the new pieces, how do they fit in?”
Henry and Jones start
Sophomore safety Traveon Henry started aside senior standout Ibraheim Campbell in the secondary Wednesday, while redshirt freshman Joseph Jones was with the first team as a linebacker.
Northwestern ranked 84th in the FBS in pass defense last year, and the ‘Cats know they face an uphill battle with No. 1 corner Nick VanHoose sidelined from spring practices with injuries.
“Last year, our focus was on communication, because that causes a lot of our breakdowns. That’s something that we’ve gotten better at,” Campbell said. “Now, I would say that we harp more on making plays and taking advantage of opportunities. We had a lot of opportunities that we could have capitalized on.”
Young guns get first looks
Wednesday marked the first appearances of many new Wildcats. Most freshmen, including four-star quarterback Matt Alviti, will redshirt this season. Still, there will be ample opportunity for playing time along the offensive and defensive line.
“I hope they go out and mess up a ton, so we can coach them,” Fitz said. “Go cut it loose, let’s go see what you can do. More importantly, learn what your limitations are.”
The ‘Cats have nine more practices before finals come around. Northwestern will return for four practices to kick off spring quarter and will host its official spring exhibition on April 13.