Spring practices came to an end Saturday with the Northwestern football team’s annual scrimmage capping weeks of practices that have been notable mostly for players who haven’t played.
Regardless, there was still football to be played on a damp afternoon at Ryan Field, two halves of a scrimmage format that differs substantially from a typical football game. In the first half, the Wildcats worked out in different units with drills that combined the offensive, defensive and special teams coaches. The second half was a modified version of a typical game, with the offense playing the defense as the coaches rotated players. Offense won the game, 48-36, with scoring determined by a complicated system of points awarded for first downs, sacks, defensive stops and turnovers as well as touchdowns, field goals and safeties.
The scrimmage was a fitting end to the quarter’s practices that have been inhibited by the absence of key contributors, with 17 injured players being joined on the sidelines by seven “Coaches’ Decision” players sitting so as to avoid the risk of further injury. The list of missing players was peppered with notable starters, including rehabbing quarterback Dan Persa, who has yet to return to full football activity after injuring his Achilles tendon last November. Senior standouts Jeremy Ebert, Vince Browne, Al Netter and Drake Dunsmore also sat on a mostly precautionary basis.
The missing starters allowed several backup players a chance to distinguish themselves with plenty of playing time. While Coach Fitzgerald’s postseason proclamation that “no starting jobs are safe” may have just been a motivational tactic, there were still plenty of roles to be sorted out this spring.
Most prominent of those battles, the fight among freshmen to serve as Dan Persa’s backup quarterback is still far from over. Rising sophomores Kain Colter and Evan Watkins, who both played last fall, have been running an even race with redshirt freshman Trevor Siemian. None of the candidates particularly distinguished themselves during the scrimmage.
The quarterbacks split snaps in the simulation fairly equally, with Colter playing first before Watkins and Siemian. Colter picked up where he left off in the TicketCity Bowl on New Year’s Day, rushing for 42 yards on four carries and including an explosive 27-yard touchdown scamper, but he remained inconsistent through the air, completing five of his 10 passes for 35 yards. Watkins was more consistent through the air, going 7-for-11 for 70 yards, but proving to be no more mobile than he had been last fall. Siemian, the dark horse in the quarterback race after a strong camp, struggled to find his receivers and completed only five of his 14 passes for 46 yards.
The fight for the starting job at running back remains equally muddled. Rising sophomore Mike Trumpy saw limited action, rushing for 14 yards on just three carries. Trumpy was the only competitor for the job who played: both rising sophomore Adonis Smith and rising senior Jacob Schmidt sat. Walk-on back Tyris Jones was a major bright spot in the scrimmage, rushing for 30 yards on six carries. Jones could see time at fullback in the fall.
Despite losing on the scoreboard, it was a fairly successful outing for the defense, with several emerging players having solid games. Rising junior lineman Quentin Williams was among five team leaders with three tackles, notching a sack as well. Redshirt freshman cornerback Ibraheim Campbell had 2.5 tackles and a big pass deflection to put an exclamation point on a strong camp that signaled his emergence as a major competitor to replace the graduating Justan Vaughn.
While Saturday’s game signaled the end of practice for the spring, it is just the beginning of the Wildcat’s ultimate offseason endeavor: getting the team healthy. Persa should resume football activity sometime around early June, and the rest of the sitting players are not likely to be dealing with significant injury concerns once summer practices begin.