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.