Five players to watch as Spring Practice approaches

Northwestern’s spring practice started today. It seems like just yesterday Northwestern was putting a bright purple bow on an incredible season with a victory over Mississippi State in the Gator Bowl. If you are still on cloud nine (or recently got off of it), this hour-long highlight reel from NUHighlights is incredible.

Unfortunately, it is time to move on. And I get the sense from LTP’s poll, that we are all raring to go.

With practice starting today, Northwestern announced several notable players who will not participate in spring practice as they recover from injuries and offseason surgery. All are expected to be ready to go for fall practice next July/August. That list again includes Nick VanHoose, Damien Proby and Jack Konopka.

These things can be blessings in disguise and as we fine tune our focus for the beginning of spring practice. Since LTP already took a look at 10 storylines for this upcoming spring, let’s take a closer look at five players to watch this spring:

Daniel Jones, Cornerback: With Nick VanHoose out for the spring, this will be a golden opportunity for Northwestern to develop some depth in its secondary with some of the cornerbacks returning to the roster. That was decidedly not a strength at all last year with the Wildcats giving up 250.5 passing yards per game and more than 11 yards per catch. VanHoose, a redshirt freshman last year, stepped in and took complete control of the number one spot. Opposite him was a revolving door of Demetrius Dugar (now graduated) and Daniel Jones and C.J. Bryant. Jones and Bryant likely get the first shot at filling in for VanHoose this spring.

I single out Jones particularly because he probably has the most potential and the most redemption available to him this spring. It was Jones who was caught in coverage and tipped that fated pass at the Big House that knocked Northwestern officially out of the Legends Division race.

Still there were a few things you had to admire from Jones on that play. Despite very little in-game experience and despite being thrown into the fire Jones was in the right position and made a hell of a play to get a hand on the ball and make the catch that much more difficult. That was just a great play from the veteran receiver, Roy Roundtree.

That moment will not define Jones though. Jones is in the competition for the spot opposite VanHoose and he really has the opportunity to take a big step toward getting it with the opportunity afforded to him in the next few weeks in spring practice. The competition will not be easy — and there are even some incoming freshman who may push for some playing time — with C.J. Bryant and Dwight White waiting in the wings.

Pierre Youngblood-Ary, Wide Receiver: Among the skill players, there is not a whole lot of mystery. Northwestern is returning virtually all the key players at the offensive skill positions. The intrigue here is not going to be too deep as NU knows about what it will get from all these players. It does not quite know what it can get from Youngblood-Ary.

Youngblood-Ary appeared in six games making just one catch for one yard. In high school, he was a speedy receiver until he tore his ACL late in his high school career. Northwestern stuck with him as they always do whenever they have made an offer. He will not be relied on a whole lot. He still has Rashad Lawrence, Tony Jones and Christian Jones ahead of him. When the season starts, likely Kyle Prater will be ahead of him too.

However, Northwestern always has had receivers step up all across the field from unsuspected players. That has always been the great part of Northwestern’s offense. A guy like Zeke Markshausen or Jeremy Ebert who are further down the depth chart can emerge any year within this offense. Is this Youngblood-Ary’s year? Let’s watch in practice this spring first.

Shane Mertz, Offensive Line: There is going to be a lot of shifting along the offensive line this spring. Northwestern is replacing three starters on the offensive line and will be without a few of the names expected to compete for spots on the offensive line. So in steps sophomore Shane Mertz who is versatile enough to play on numerous positions along the line. That versatility almost assuredly will get him into the offensive line rotation in the fall.

What will happen this spring is Mertz will be getting starter’s repetitions with Paul Jorgensen out, likely at left tackle. If any player on the offense has the chance to gain the coach’s attention this spring it might be Mertz. If he plays well enough it could mean the inside track to getting a starting spot somewhere along that offensive line. At least, it would mean security for Northwestern’s offensive line in the future. That might be more important than anything for NU building depth heading forward.

Collin Ellis, Linebacker: Ellis has been a bundle of potential and speed who has mostly plied his trade on special teams. With a lot of questions now at lineback after David Nwabuisi’s graduation and Damien Proby’s injury keeping him out for the spring, there will be a lot of opportunities within the linebacking group. Drew Smith and Timmy Vernon will take a majority of the reps at middle and strongside linebacker. Ellis though appears to have a very good opportunity at weakside linebacker.

That is what spring is really all about — opportunity. And few players, particularly on the defensive end, have the opportunity to make a last impact that can carry over into the fall. Ellis is going to be laying the seeds this spring to see if he has put everything together now in his fourth year in the program.

Treyvon Green, Running Back: Venric Mark is the starting running back. There is no doubt about that. He is going to be one of the key cogs in the offense. Mike Trumpy is behind him and might develop more into a between the tackles running back this year to try and get some of those yards up the middle. Still, Northwestern would like to have some versatility behind Mark when he comes out because of fatigue. And until the freshmen get in, like Godwin Igwebuike, there might still yet be a battle behind Mark.

Treyvon Green had a strong freshman year and seemed to be coming on toward the end of the year when Trumpy went out with a torn ACL. Last year though, behind Mark and Trumpy, Green struggled when he was on the field. His 3.7 yards per attempt dropped to 3.3 yards per attempt.

Now Green has the spur of competition to drive him. He probably will not pass Mark or Trumpy on the depth chart. But he has to fight off Malin Jones and, eventually, Igwebuike to keep his spot on the field. Green has the potential to be a good back that can run between the tackles and get to the outside. He does not have Mark’s speed, but he is capable in small stretches. This spring he has to prove himself all over again.

  • Scooter

    Thanks for the good write-up. Go ‘Cats!

  • PurpleHayes

    Agree a good post, but curious selection of photos. Daniel Jones may not be defined by the tipped ball in Ann Arbor, but thus far my most vivid memory is his being smoked by Texas A&M again and again, trying with no luck to replace the injured Jordan Mabin. (Don’t remember that receiver’s name, #25, but he must have had a dozen catches.) Thankfully, by the time Daniel next takes the field, he’ll be two seasons removed from that Houston debacle. My only other comment on the post is that I believe Mike Trumpy, while certainly workmanlike (and whose career-defining moment is also two years ago, providing the one bright spot on a cold, cold day at Wrigley Field), is vulnerable at the #2 RB position. Does anyone really think he is untouchable as Mark’s top back-up? I like Trumpy, but could see him taking some short-yardage carries, with one of the young pups taking some reps as the featured back to spell V Mark. Exciting prospects for 2013 (if we can shore up the O-line); go Cats!

    • DT

      In all fairness to Jones, Ryan Swope “smoked” numerous DB’s in his A&M career and having both a First Round NFL pick (and starter in his rookie season…) not to mention a Heisman Winner as his QB this year, just made him and that 4.3 speed that much more dangerous.. Last week, was the 3rd of 4th fastest 40 at The NFL Combine.. The Michigan scenario you suggest is much more difficult for me to accept months later.. How the kid was out on the island with no help against Roundtree remains the 3 million dollar question in the 2012 game file..

    • Indycat15

      Agree on Trumpy. Solid but if there’s a young stud coming up, he could lose some touches. For a strong back he gets ankle tackled more than you’d think. Kind of a gliding running style rather than getting his knees up.

    • Yeah, I was really struggling to find a photo of Jones. I like to think he is about to make this tackle for a short gain.

  • bandcat

    Four guys really impressed me after meeting them on the field last year after Spring Game..Colter and Mark had great seasons. Hope Treyvon Green and Mike Jensen get to shine this year. Go Cats!

  • I might add Stephen Buckley to this list. Fellow players and Fitz raved about him on last year’s scout team. With Jordan Perkins moving to DB, I expect Buckley to really compete for the third most reps behind Venric and Trumpy.

  • JM

    These are all good ones, but to me nearly all of the intrigue this spring surrounds the OL. It’s hard to imagine any other area on the team not being at least as good as it was last year, given the quality and experience of returning players and/or the talent of the guys stepping in. OL is the one area where a significant dropoff is possible, and, of course, that could have a wide and damaging impact on the entire offense, and even the defense if we can’t run as well and maintain possession. Then again, if the OL holds up, our offensive skill talent should be even better.

    • Mark

      I also think the Cats lost some very good players – Arnfelt and Williams – on the defensive line, although since there is a regular rotation there the Cats have players with a significant number of snaps. Also, defensively we saw an end to the years where the safeties rather than the linebackers led the team in tackles – a real plus. But agree that the three O line starters will be missed. Go Cats!

    • Chasmo

      With the only area of real concern for NU next season being the offensive line, it’s hard to disagree with JM’s point that the players NU fans should most be focused on during the spring are kids like Adam DePietro, Eric Olson, Ian Park, and Kenton Playko. All of these kids were highly rated recruits who have a chance — with three starters having graduated and three other offensive linemen sitting out the spring with injuries — to show they deserved the hype they received.
      If two of those four redshirt frosh can step up and prove they are ready to play this fall, perhaps it will ease the concern many of us have over NU’s rebuilt offensive line for 2013.

  • gocatsgo2003

    1) Youngblood-Ary never tore his ACL in high school — that was Christian Jones. Youngblood-Ary played in a predominantly option offense in high school (I believe he had something like 9 catches for 275 yards his senior year), but was extremely impressive in camp at NU.
    2) Based on initial reports, it looks like Drew Smith is taking reps at the Will spot.
    3) It appears to me that Green got passed by Tyris Jones last year, which doesn’t exactly position him well to beat out Buckley or Malin Jones (in addition to the incoming true freshmen, Godwin in particular).

  • gocatsgo2003

    1) Youngblood-Ary never tore his ACL — that was Christian Jones. He was mired in an option-heavy offense in high school (to the tune of 9 catches his senior year), but was extremely impressive in person at a NU camp.
    2) It sounds like Ellis’ main competition at the Will spot will be Drew Smith, who is taking reps at that position per early reports.
    3) It seems to me that Green got passed by Tyris Jones last season, which doesn’t position him well to beat out the physically superior Malin Jones or Stephen Buckley (or the incoming frosh, particularly Igwebuike).

    • gocatsgo2003

      Well that’s weird… the initial post didn’t come up so I re-typed it. Oh well.

  • JimGoCats93

    Nice post.
    OL lis going to be interesting, RB’s as well, but to me the receiver corps is my concern. Hats of to how they blocked, but we dropped more balls last year (it seemed) than the last three or four years combined.
    I will never call out one of the kids, but man I would like to see money hands again from the Cats!