Fresh Blood For A Fresh Season

Back in February, Northwestern fans were excited for the program’s future. For yet another year, Pat Fitzgerald was being heralded for bringing in a strong recruiting class by those outside the program. The treasure was Ifeadi Odenigbo, a four-star linebacker from Ohio who had several major programs calling for his services for the next four-plus years.

Fitzgerald will tell you all those recruiting rankings are meaningless. Football is not played on paper and cannot be projected four years into the future. If that were the case, Dan Persa would never have been #PersaStrong and Kain Colter would have been abandoned because of an injury his junior year that saw several programs abandon their recruitment of him. The Wildcats take pride in being able to find diamonds in the rough and finding fits for their program rather than simply amassing talent.

Those lofty ideals are nice in the offseason. But with the accolades of bringing in more recognized talent comes the expectation of performance. Nobody is satisfied with a 6-7 record and another bowl loss. This program wants more and that is certainly fed by a group of young players who want to make that history.

The beginning of the season is always the time to start proving the paper analysts right or wrong, whatever the case may be. That may not be more important in Northwestern history than it is right now. The Wildcats, as mentioned over and over again, have made strong gains in recruiting but have yet to see that translate on the field. Yes, Northwestern is in an unprecedented era of winning — going to its fourth straight bowl game last year and expecting a fifth this year — but the team’s record is not improving drastically and that bowl drought still exists.

Everyone surrounding the program wants more.

It is unfair to put this kind of pressure on freshmen and redshirt freshmen like heralded linebacker Ifeadi Odenigbo, offensive lineman Adam DePietro, defensive lineman Deonte Gibson, safety Traveon Henry, defensive lineman Greg Kuhar, offensive lineman Ian Park, defensive back Nick VanHoose and superback Dan Vitale are projected to make an impact their first years of eligibility. VanHoose is projected to start int he secondary and many suspect Odenigbo and Gibson will rotate in with the defense and DePietro will be part of the offensive line rotation.

There will be lots of fresh faces on the field when Northwestern opens things up in New York about a month from now. And whoever comes on the field will be expected to perform at a high level.

There have been plenty of freshmen and redshirt freshmen who have stepped on the field. Each time, Fitzgerald only threw them into the fire if they earned the position on the practice fields and if they are truly ready. Most famously, Ibraheim Campbell was thrown directly into the fire last year as the team’s starting safety opposite Brian Peters. Tony Jones and Christian Jones saw ample playing time last year as freshmen as did Jack Konopka at super back.

Fitzgerald is not afraid to play his least “experienced” players. Experience does not really mean anything if you don’t apply it properly. For prognosticators and analysts, it is just a base of reference to predict future results.

There is some mystery on how these young players will respond to the rigors of college football and the pressure that comes with it. Some of the players will be ready immediately, some will need acclimating. Fitzgerald and his coaching staff should be able to get many ready to play and contribute at some point this year. We do not yet know which ones will step up.

That is one of the reasons it is so hard to rely on freshmen, no matter how talented or highly touted they may be. But rest assured there will be new faces to surprise us throughout the year and even at the beginning of the season.

We will begin to find out who takes that step when practice opens Monday.

  • KL

    Great post, I can’t wait to see who comes out on top of the depth chart after Kenosha.

    One little thing: Tony Jones redshirted last year and did not play.

  • Joe College

    I was satisfied with the 6-7 season. This is amateur football no? I must be one of the few who enjoys truly enjoys college football as just a spectator sport. If NU is competitive (the games are fun and exciting), I am satisfied. From what I understand these are just student-athlete and no one is being paid. What other goal do you have in mind? Bragging to your friends? Confirming some inner feeling?

    • Chasmo

      Joe College, there is nothing wrong with your approach to watching college football but if all you really like is the spectacle and competitive contests, you should be able to get as much pleasure watching Texas plays Oklahoma as you do watching NU vs. Illinois. That’s cool but that doesn’t make you a NU fan.
      It is illogical that the fate of a team of strangers can make fans happy or sad but that’s what being a fan is all about. You get pleasure from dreaming about the season ahead, get excited to get up every Saturday morning, and are filled with joy or disappointment when your team wins or loses. Fans enjoy following their team and the more the team wins, the more coverage it gets, so winning is important because it increases the pleasure of being a fan.
      College sports is professional sports — the head coaches make millions of dollars and the assistants make hundreds of thousands of dollars annually. The players, who are unfairly paid just room and board and given the opportunity to get a degree for free, are not amateurs in the way Division III players are.
      Do you really mean to say that if NU went 0-12 in 2012 but every game was exciting and competitive to the final whistle, you would be just as happy as if the team went 12-0?
      If the answer is yes, that’s cool. But it means you’re not really a fan.

      • VAWildcat

        I’m basically with Joe College. The flaw in your thinking, Chasmo, is that I don’t care at all about Texas vs. Oklahoma and wouldn’t walk across the room to watch them play. NU, though, is my school (except for several graduate schools, and I don’t care about their sports teams either), so I enjoy watching them play.

    • DT

      @Joe College…
      Have at it how you might– yet suggesting what you do in this forum is akin to being the guy advocating the “size does not matter” perspective in Playboy Advisor…

  • Chasmo

    Fitz has said that he will redshirt any frosh who is not going to crack the two-deep. He said he they would contribute more to the program as fifth year position players than as first year special team players.
    NU needs to find a fourth defensive tackle so Kuhar might have a chance to play right away and NU needs superbacks so Vitale has a shot and, of course, NU is desperate for running backs so Malin might also play this fall.
    NU is deep enough at offensive line and linebacker that Fitz might be less likely to play his highest rated recruits, Odenigbo and DePietro, than he might be kids at other positions.
    Odenigbo has been assigned the same number as another defender, Bates, so that might indicate that Fitz plans to redshirt his superstar recruit.

    • gocatsgo2003

      From what I have heard:

      1) Kuhar isn’t ready to play both because of his knee and lack of weight room work as related to his rehab

      2) I think your DT rotation is likely to be (i) Arnfelt, (ii) Hampton, (iii) Carter, (iv) Robbins, and (v) McEvilly. However, we will probably only go three deep if possible unless Robbins and McEvilly step up in a big way.

      3) Rather than playing Vitale, I think you see the coaches go with many more four-wide sets while using our bigger bodied receivers (e.g. Christian Jones and Demetrius Fields) to seal the backside like Drake did last year. After all, Vitale is only 6-2 220, so he isn’t much bigger than Fields (6-0 210) or Jones (6-3 225), both of whom have the advantage of a couple years in NU’s conditioning program.

      4) I think you see Malin playing in the rotation early in the year (along with Trumpy and Green) before ultimately pushing his way into the feature role by the end of the year.

      5) I would still be HIGHLY surprised if Odenigbo takes even one snap as a linebacker. Given his frame and the likelihood that he will be able to add a LOT of weight without sacrificing too much speed, I think he turns into a significant weapon coming off the edge at about 250 pounds after a redshirt year.

      All in all, this recruiting class is part of the generally rising level of talent and athleticism on our team. Let’s also not forget that a player’s biggest jump is often between their first and second full year of competition. This gives me hope for a LOT of our players (e.g. Colter — I don’t REALLY count the end of his FR year, C. Jones, Carter, Hampton, Ariguzo, Ellis, T. Jones, Campbell, Vitabile, and Green), when the players are able to use the experienced gained in their first year combined with another year in the strength and conditioning program.

      • PhillyCat

        Great Post!

  • Mark

    Most often the freshmen that play are receivers, defensive backs, and running backs. Linebackers maybe next. But you do see guys like Clowney at South Carolina play as freshmen at DE or other line positions. Of course Clowney was the top or one of the top recruits in the whole country. I think we’ll know closer to the Syracuse game if Odenigbo and others will play.

    I do want to follow one team and don’t care if Texas is good or poor. (Or USC, Florida, etc.) What I find is that going to the games fills my desire to see football – there’s just a world of difference in going to a game and watching on television for me. Others may find watching on television preferable, but for me there’s nothing better than parking in downtown Evanston and walking to the stadium. I agree with LTP that for those of us on the blog the best thing we can to is fill the stadium – that will improve recruitment more than anything we can do to assist the team. I like watching the turnover on the team and having a new experience every year. (And it provides me with a continuous supply of new passwords!)

  • ende

    Glad to see other supporters out there, but honestly the idea of being satisfied with 6–7 season is less than desirable. Glad to hear you are a NU supporter, but we’ve had a progressively declining winning-loss record and need it to go the other way. I don’t think college football is in any way amateur, especially even Northwestern, but if you mean to say amateur is less than pro, maybe so, but I don’t think amateur applies here. Nor do our proud athletes see it that way, I would surmise.

    I will be happy to take your support, viewing, but would hope you share our hope of improvement, success, and turning the tides on the W-L. Not criticizing but we shouldn’t dilute our acceptance of victory just because of this impression it is Northwestern.

  • David

    The slight tweek I would make on Joe College’s comment is that no matter what NU’s record is in a given season…I am proud to be a Wildcat Fan. W/L’s do not diminish my pride in our team. The NU experience is about way more than simply W/L’s on Saturdays. There my be another 100 players spread amongst the other B10 teams who have the grades, character, life goals (beyond the NFL) and poise to be Wildcats.
    Losses are crushing in the moment. Knowing that life is so much more than football…helps to put things in persepctive quickly.

    In terms of discourse on this board, I have one hope for this season. I hope that we can address specific decisions, plays, penalties, strategies that we may have an issue with…”I think it was a terrible decision when Fitz decided to punt for these reasons”. “At the end of the third quarter I think Colter needed to wait for the receiver to come open in the endzone, instead of pulling it down and running.” I don’t like reading posts which place judgements on these kids. I.E. “He always…”, “He can’t…” , “He is just..”.
    Also, please let’s not throw in the towel on the season even if things look bad. Let’s assume that these kids have strong character…and give them an opportunity to show that character and turn things around.

    I can not wait for 9/1.

    • chasmo

      David, why do you not want to read NU fans saying “He can’t rush the passer” or “He can’t cover Big Ten receivers”?
      Are you worried about these kids’ egos being hurt?
      These kids have spent much of their lives promoting themselves and want to be famous and part of being famous is being scrutinized and criticized.
      These kids tweet with journalists while they are being recruited, they hold press conferences when they are about to announce their college choice, they talk about wanting to perform on “the big stage” and the conference promotes itself as being just that.
      One they are on campus they do TV and newspaper interviews and they appear in TV commercials and print ads promoting their school and the Big Ten. These kids want to be famous. If they didn’t, they could have gone to play for Division I-AA or Division II or Division III schools and played the game they love in relative privacy.
      So these kids want to be talked about. And, of course, the downside of wanting to be talked about is that not all the talk will be positive.
      I don’t think we should worry about hurting these kids’ feelings. If a kid isn’t playing well and someone wants to say so on this board, so be it. If others disagree and want to defend the kids’ performance, so be it.
      Pat Fitzgerald isn’t being paid over $1 million a year because people don’t care whether NU wins or loses. And these kids aren’t on billboards because they expect not to be criticized.
      Let the games begin!

      • Ron


        These are not fragile petunias we’re talking about. There is, of course, a line that should not be crossed. Hyper-personal attacks are different than calm, objective criticism of the performance during last Saturday’s game.

      • DT


        BRAVO for your input on this thread. A solid dose of reality for those who no doubt have been over served the 100 proof Koolaid in advance of what by any objective standard is going to be a challenging season per the ultimate measure of D-1 Athletics, The Won-Loss record…

        And for 1.8 million a year, The Head Coach better have the broad shoulders for critique deserving of “Chicago’s Big Ten Team”…

        Truly, let the season begin…

        • NUCat_TX

          DT – I may have missed it, but what’s your prediction on the season….? in fact this may be a good thread for LTP to post and get the community predictions…. “wisdom of the crowd” and all that stuff…..

  • DT

    I’m comfortable keeping my prediction of 5-7 for the 2012 season– heading into Camp Kenosha…

    As is the annual right of passage, a swing game of sorts with some good fortune might put em at 6-6 or for that matter, 4-8…

    Net/net, I see Colter and some other skill guys having solid seasons and putting up points… Not enough points to overcome Hank, JB and the “D”, nor Fitz’s shortcomings with adjustments or clock management…

    The view from my Press Box of sorts!

    Go Cats-