Happy Thoughts: Top Ten Intriguing Storylines For Spring Football

I don’t know about you, but after attending last night’s blowout loss to Wisconsin, I’m in need of some positive vibes. We’re going to pivot from hoops to football as the lack of comments and significant traffic dip this week lead me to believe most of you are done reading about NU basketball for this season. So, on to some happy thoughts.  Here are the Top Ten most intriguing storylines I’m thinking about going in to Spring Football, which begins on February 27.

#10 – Ifeadi Odenigbo – The highly-touted 4-star DE/LB earned his way on to the field as a freshman, seemingly against Fitz’s intended desire. Ifeadi was undersized for DE, but he was playing just so well in fall camp that Fitz felt he had to get him on the field as Ifeadi was a guy who gave NU a chance to win.  Unfortunately, Odenigbo got injured early in the season. Fortunately, it forced Fitz to redshirt a young man who now has a season at Northwestern under his belt and four years of eligibility remaining. With DE Quentin Williams graduating, will Odenigbo be the guy who steps up to bookend Tyler Scott? Obviously Dean Lowry and Deonte Gibson are a leg-up on him based on experience, but I’m intrigued.

#9 – Dan Vitale – The freshman superback may very well win the award for “biggest surprise” among NU fans in 2012.  Filling Drake Dunsmore’s shoes was no easy task, but Vitale became, well, a vital piece of the ‘Cats offense, especially down the stretch.  His breakout game was obviously the road win at Michigan State, where he hauled in nine receptions.  He also shined in the Gator Bowl win. His ability to run the seam route and haul in seemingly anything gives NU such a fantastic wrinkle.  He is now very much respected by opposing coaches and his route running forces opposing defenses to commit one way or another in a split second decision that opens up the rest of the offense. With both Trevor and Kain returning, a seasoned Vitale will be even more prominent in our offense in 2013.

#8 – RB Depth – I feel like the RB position gets the most attention in spring football. We know that seniors Venric Mark and Mike Trumpy are going in as the 1-2 punch, but who’s next? Treyvon Green disappeared in 2012 after a promising freshman campaign. Malin Jones spent his freshman year on the sidelines redshirting due to injury.  Jordan Perkins, well, I have no idea what happened to Jordan Perkins. The RB on the depth chart who got quite a bit of ink last season was freshman Stephen Buckley, also a guy with four years of eligibility. Regardless of how these guys progress, there is the always fun speculation of incoming freshmen who could challenge to get on the field.  At the top of this list is Godwin Igwebuike, the 5-11, 185 pound California native who just put up silly stats last season . Warren Miles Long and Xavier Menifield are both 5-10, 200 pounders who are prime redshirt candidates as with some weight room time and a full season to acclimate could offer NU that power running size we haven’t had in some time.

#7 – Next Man Up At CB – Nick VanHoose has locked down one corner slot and seems destined to be a guy that will have opponents not even throwing to his boundary.  All you need to do to see how important he was is to watch the moment he left the Nebraska game injured. Opposite VanHoose is where fans will give a lot of attention.  Daniel Jones seems to be the primary candidate to start, but I believe this will be a race that won’t be decided until August.  Will Dwight White step up and challenge? What about Jarrell Williams? Will an incoming freshman challenge?  With Ibraheim Campbell, Traveon Henry and VanHoose anchoring a very athletic and much improving secondary, this position will be heavily under the microscope.

#6 – WR Play – Last year at this time we were giddy with the prospects of our loaded receiving corps. It turned out to be the most disappointing unit, especially when you consider the expectations we had as fans (and the hype for Kyle Prater we propagated).  Well, I’m still bullish on the group.  We’re just as strong, on paper, heading in to this season. Tony Jones, Rashad Lawrence, Christian Jones, Cameron Dickerson, Kyle Prater, Mike Jensen –  all back. The WR unit turned in to a stellar group of blockers, with a few exceptional holding penalties. However, I expect a full year in to the Kain/Trevor platoon, Mick McCall will have some innovative ways to involve this unit. Essentially, we only lost Demetrius Fields and guys like Mike McHugh, and Pierre Youngblood-Ary (who was the most impressive player in last year’s Spring Game) pushing for time, I’m excited to see what we can do here.

#5 – Venric’s encore – Venric’s 2012 season goes down as one of the more valuable year’s by a player in recent memory. When you combine his incredible productivity at RB with his national leading punt returning numbers, he was our clear MVP.  Many of us questioned his size and durability and he proved doubters wrong week after week, game after game.  With a revamped offensive line and opposing coaches keying on ways to stop #5, it will be fascinating to see what and how he does in 2013. The goal of the spring for Venric is to keep him healthy. We obviously won’t be able to tell much about his encore until September, but I’ll be holding my breath that he doesn’t get any dings this spring.

#4 –Replacing Nwabuisi– Two-thirds of the LB corp returns with Damien Proby and Chi Chi back in action. I’m really high on Proby as his closing speed and nose for the ball were fun to watch in 2012 and I’m expecting a huge year from the senior.  Chi chi is NU’s Johnny-on-the-spot, always seemingly in the right place at the right time.  Who will step up and fill David Nwabuisi’s spot and MLB? Collin Ellis finished the year as his back-up, while Drew Smith was getting back-up minutes as OLB.  Is this Ellis’ job to lose? Will we consider reshuffling Smith or Timmy Vernon? Our LB corps proved to be very solid in 2012 and has the chance to be very good in 2013, but solidifying the MLB spot will be the make-or-break for this unit.

#3 – The OL – I think we can all agree, this is the biggest question mark heading in to Spring Football. Patrick Ward, Brian Mulroe and Neal Deiters – all gone. Geoff Mogus, Matt Frazier and Paul Jorgensen are on deck. Jack Konopka, a critical, versatile lineman who had some ups and downs learning to adjust to a new position may be moved again on the line.  Our 2012 line was very good. If the mentioned on deck players can just get us to the same level as last year, this team has the potential for a huge year. That’s a pretty big “if”, though.

#2 – Leadership & Chemistry – Despite thinking we had it in 2011, it was clear that the 2012 team was closer, more connected and felt the leadership was different, in a good way. This is that year-to-year intangible that guys like Fitz know so well, yet is really hard to put your finger on.  A year ago, we were a rebuild project with all sorts of green.  Now, just one year later, so many starters have added “13” to their games started list.  We are still relatively young, but we’re loaded with experience.  It will be fascinating to see which upperclassmen step up and set the bar, which should be high, for 2013.

#1 – Trevor & Kain Part II – The Kain = run, Trevor = pass debates from 2012 got old quickly.  If we thought it was bad last year, it’s going to be more annoying this year.  You’ve got to believe that a full off-season for opposing coaches will bring more drastic approaches to forcing the issue on us.  Situations have been dissected, tendencies measured and the defenses will be bringing perhaps even a more deliberate (beat us with the pass Kain!) approach. I’m banking on Mick McCall really getting creative this year and making us less predictable. I’ve got to believe we’ll be seeing all sorts of new wrinkles this season, but it might be hard to glean them this spring.

  • CatAlum06

    It will be interesting to see how #5, #3 and #1 all play out together. I hope we don’t try to get too creative, and in the process set the young linemen back a year. But the un-traditional two-quarterback thing means we are only one bad game away from fans turning on you. I see the biggest challenge this year is for Fitz and his staff to move forward really into unprecedented territory for this program.

  • Sasser

    Personally, I think #1 is going to get overtalked. The Gator Bowl, if not other games, proved that Siemian is a throwing QB who can run, and Colter is a running QB who can throw. The only play we’re telegraphing anymore is Siemian + empty backfield = pass. Everything else is up for grabs.
    That said, I wonder what it would be like if NU went the LA-Monroe route and used a true “Dual-QB” system — both QBs on the field, all the time.

    • cardiac_cat_fan

      A “dual-QB” system would be very interesting to see, especially since both QBs are capable in their own right of leading this offense. Is this the year Mick McCall incorporates some creativity to pre-snap play design? I sure hope so. It took 3/4 of last season for Mick McCall to stay aggressive late in games with his play calling, but he did it! With a bevy of quality skill position players he could really give opposing defenses fits trying to account for Kain, Venric, and Trevor on an every down basis. There are many ways to move a slot WR (Kain) and RB (Venric) pre-snap to setup an option play.

  • gocatsgo2003

    10) Pretty sure Ifeadi won’t leap over Lowry and Gibson on the depth chart.
    7) How are we to know that Henry has the safety spot opposite Campbell locked down? He played last year, but only sparingly and got injured to boot.
    5) I significantly doubt you see Venric (or any of our veterans really) going through much in spring practice by way of contact drills. Fitz has increasingly used spring ball to focus on development of young players while keeping his veteran core as healthy as possible (e.g. reducing exposure to potential injuries as much as possible).
    4) Why would we need to fill MIKE, as Proby was probably our best LB last year? The Will spot will likely come down to a competition between Ellis, Smith, and Wilson — my money is on Smith with him also serving as Chi-Chi’s backup at SAM.
    2) I think we return the bulk of our leadership on both sides of the ball — Colter, Siemian, Scott, Campbell, etc. The interesting thing is that we lack experience in the two places that are most integral to NU’s success, at least in my opinion (OL and CB… especially OL).
    1) I don’t think there was any “vs.” in our QB “competition” last year. Both guys knew their roles and were increasingly better-utilized as the season wore on. I suspect that Kain will improve incrementally with his arm while Trevor will likely do the same. I anticipate a repeat of much of what we did last year with a transition to a more pass-heavy attack in 2014 in Trevor’s fifth year.

  • Carlton

    One quick correction: “At the top of this list is Godwin Igwebuike, the 5-11, 185 pound California native who just put up silly stats last season” Godwin is from Columbus, Ohio.

    For me, the biggest question on running backs is which ones will be moved to safety or linebacker? Once we add in the three freshman running backs, we will have TWELVE on the roster. I’d like for the coaches to identify our top two underclassmen RB prospects, and then move at least two to linebacker (prime candidates Treyvon Green, Malin Jones, Warren Long, and Michael Odom) and one to safety (prime candidates Igwebuike, Buckley, Perkins).

    • gocatsgo2003

      1) While there will be 12 on the roster, only nine are on scholarship and three are likely redshirts, leaving six scholarship players on the active roster.
      2) Rumor has it that Perkins has already been moved to DB, which would bring the total down to five. That’s really not a lot… at all.
      3) Why would we obliterate our depth at RB to augment the depth at DB or LB, especially when both of those positions have plenty of interesting young players in their own right?

      • Carlton

        Well if you noticed from my list, I’m including redshirts and walk-ons in there, so we’re still talking about 12 on the roster, and it’s not like taking 3 out of 12 would “obliterate” depth. Venric and Trumpy are going to get 90% of the carries next year. 3 active and ready backups along with 2 redshirting freshman is certainly sufficient backup.

        After Proby graduates we have ONE middle linebacker!

        • Next Cat

          We may HOPE Venric and Trumpy get 90% of the carries but the likelihood of injuries at that position — and Trumpy’s injury history in particular — may render that unrealistically optimistic. Depth at RB is way more important than depth of middle LB. (Plus, there are probably better places to look for other middle LBs than the RB depth chart.)

          • Carlton

            I think you miss the point that even if Venric and Trumpy do not get 90% of the carries, we are still more than OK with 4-6 backups. We certainly don’t need 9-10 backups at running back!

            The coaches should be able to evaluate the talent and then funnel certain players to positions where they might actually see the field in their 4-5 years on the team. Here’s to hoping they do this.

          • gocatsgo2003

            (Combining my response to your two posts in this thread into a single response.)

            While I can’t really believe we are having this debate, I guess there’s nothing better NU football-related to discuss in mid-February, so I’m game.

            1) I realize you were including walk-ons and true freshmen on your list (I can count after all), but do you really want to consider the walk-ons as true “back-ups” that could play extensive minutes in the case of injury to the top-line players? You may be nice enough for that, but I’m definitely not.
            2) If you move all but the top two underclassman RBs to defense, you’re left with a grand total of… three RBs (including Treyvon Green, who isn’t technically an underclassman) after next season as both Mark and Trumpy graduate.
            3) You think the coaches may have recruited players to their position and place them there because they, I don’t know, thought they “might actually see the field?”
            4) While we may have one player on the roster who is a MIKE after Proby graduates, it’s about 100 times easier for an OLB to slide inside to contribute quickly than someone switching from another position.
            5) It’s not like we are really hurting for young players at DB or LB. The following players all have at least two more years of eligibility — DBs: Ibraheim Campbell, Jarrell Williams, Nick VanHoose, CJ Bryant, Dwight White, Traveon Henry, Jordan Perkins (I think), Terrance Brown, Matt Harris, Marcus McShepard, Kyle Queiro, and Keith Watkins; LBs: Collin Ellis, Chi-Chi Ariguzo, Jimmy Hall, Drew Smith, Eric Wilson, Jaylen Prater, Joseph Jones, Anthony Walker, and Brett Walsh

          • Next Cat

            Understood your point. Just disagree w/ it. Agree 9-10 may not be needed but disagree 4 would be sufficient and even doubt 6 would be. Maybe we could split the difference and agree 7 – 8 backups would be more ideal… eventually… maybe… depending on developments?

            That’s not to say that all of these kids will end up staying at RB their entire NU careers. The question is when do you switch them and when do you worry about raiding the RB talent to backfill the defense. My main point is that certainly w/ respect to the incoming freshman you name and that coaches have not even seen practice yet at RB — and maybe w/ respect to some of the others who may not have had enough reps yet at RB in practice much less playing time in games to be fairly evaluated — the funneling process to other positions is premature. I think it’s unfair to these kids to identify them this way so early.

            If you recruit kids as RBs and don’t give ‘em a full and fair shot at that position, that can come back to bite you in future recruiting (and, for that matter, in team morale).

            If all you’d said was that we may currently have a surplus of talent at RB and a deficit on defense at LB and safety . . . and that eventually that surplus might be re-assigned as a way to address the deficit, I’d agree 100%. My friendly disagreement w/ you was in naming names (particularly of incoming freshman) and in your target levels at RB.

    • Next Cat

      I don’t think it makes sense to identify incoming freshmen — who were recruited as RBs and who officially signed only weeks ago — as prime candidates for a possible switch to defense. Geez, let these kids get to campus and actually compete at RB first!

      Agree that 12 RBs may be more than we need in the long run. Disagree that if you’re not identified as among the top two RB underclassmen that should make you a potential target for a switch to defense. (We need more high quality RBs in our future than that.) Nor should we assume that a bit of size, speed and athleticism on offense necessarily translates into defensive ability.

      I saw Warren Miles Long’s last high school game against perennial Calif. powerhouse De La Salle. On defense, he was quick but looked to be avoiding contact at times — perhaps only to preserve himself to be the stud on offense that game. If Miles was told (as I assume) he’d have a fair shot at RB at NU and I’m sure Godwin was told the same thing, speculation at this stage about them playing defense someday is unfairly premature.

      Let’s not forget how young these kids are at this stage. Their dreams matter.

  • Mark

    I think Odenigbo could end up at Will. At 220 I don’t think we’ll see him at RDE. Yes, I think Proby is the MIKE. Lowry showed a lot last year so the question is whether he or Scott moves to the right DE. Like the great pass rush right into the face of the QB by a tall guy (think Wootton) so maybe Scott changes sides? It will be interesting to see what happens on the O line. It was a real revelation last year how well they played, although having Mark and Colter makes the job easier as a little crease will work.

    • gocatsgo2003

      Odenigbo WAS at 220 pounds… after gaining 12 pounds over last summer before injuring his shoulder. The kid has the frame to be a REALLY big kid — probably in the 270-275 range.

      • Mark

        Agree. It will be interesting to see where he’s at in Spring ball. 230-245 LB, more than that and DE.

        • gocatsgo2003

          Why would you play him at LB if you knew all along that he’s destined to be a DE? That would simply stunt his growth at BOTH positions.

          • Chasmo

            Fans don’t really see players as real people — more like pieces on the chess board — and so it’s understandable that we want to see Odenigbo bulk up to 270 pounds for the sake of the team.
            Perhaps if gaining that weight allows the kid to play professionally for several years and earn millions of dollars, it’s not such a bad thing.
            But weighing 275 pounds makes you into a freak and that’s got to be a very hard thing to have to do to your body. Many NU footballers take off the weight they were forced to gain when their careers end but many do not and it’s always sad to see what these ex-players look like in their early 30’s.
            Once upon a time, about 40 years ago, a kid could play defensive end in the Big Ten weighing as little as 215 pounds. Those days are long gone. much to the detriment of many players’ health.

          • gocatsgo2003

            These kids gain weight under the supervision of numerous strength and conditioning professionals — strength coaches, nutritionists, etc. The weight gain is about as “healthy” as it can be. The weight is not the problem so much as the constant pounding inherent in the game of football

          • Chasmo

            Obesity is a major problem.