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.