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Northwestern Spring Preview 2015: Can Fitz’s crew get over injury bug?

(Over the next few weeks we’ll be digging in to each Big Ten team as spring football gets closer to a reality)

It’s an interesting time to be around the Northwestern football program, not nearly as interesting as last spring was. After all, there is no ongoing player union vote or constant media attention on everything going on off the field.

Previous Previews: Illinois | Michigan

Head coach Pat Fitzgerald may be thankful for that this spring, as his team needs to focus on what is going on on the field and not off it more than ever. After coming off a 5-7 season and 3-5 Big Ten year, it’s time for Fitz’s team to regroup and come out with a new identity.

Could it be that the Wildcats are a run-first team? Given an established 1,000-yard rusher returns and an unsettled situation at quarterback it’s going to be a fun situation to keep an eye on.

After all eyes were on Northwestern in 2014, the more low-key atmosphere may be exactly what this team needs. Let’s take a look at what is up with Northwestern spring ball in 2015.

 

Spring Football Starting Date: Feb. 25th

Spring Football Game Date: April 4th or 11th

Key Returning Players: Justin Jackson, RB; Zack Oliver, QB; Matt Alviti, QB; Dean Lowry, DE; Godwin Igwebuike, S

Key Losses: Trevor Siemian, QB; Tony Jones, WR; Kyle Prater, WR; Brandon Vitable, C; Chi Chi Ariguzo, LB; Ibraheim Campbell, S;

 

Wolverines Spring To-Do List:

– Stay Healthy: For the love of all things holy the Wildcats need to go one camp or season without big time players dropping like flies. It will be especially important given all the departing starters on defense at at wide receiver as well.

The only good news about having sustained a lot of injuries over the last few years is that players who may not have had a lot of experience have it in spades coming in to the 2015 spring camp. Still, Northwestern isn’t an overly experienced football team and injuries could really kill the potential to build depth at certain spots (offensive line and defensive line) and settle some battles at others (quarterback and linebacker).

If Northwestern can get through a spring without any major injuries happening it could finally be time for the Wildcats to be the contenders we thought they were going to be over the last few years.

– Find a Quarterback: Northwestern will have a legitimate quarterback battle on its hands for the first time in a few years. That could be considered a good thing considering the disaster that was quarterback play over the last few years. Still, Northwestern won’t have a quarterback with any real experience returning, and the fresh slate means a fair fight for the starting job.

oliverThis is likely a three-way battle for the job between Matt Alviti, Zack Oliver, who actually started the season finale against Illinois, and Clayton Thorson.

Oliver completed 23 of 38 passes for 221 yards and a touchdown in his lone start, so the experience was a good one. Technically, he was also the most efficient of the quarterbacks last season too.

Still, Alviti was perhaps the most hyped quarterback to ever come to Northwestern and he has been brought along slowly, appearing in the final four games last season and doing so primarily as an option-based quarterback. He’ll have to showcase more in the passing game this spring to overtake Oliver, but the potential is certainly there.

One can’t forget about Clayton Thorson either, as the 4-star signal caller from the Chicago area redshirted last season and was even more highly thought of out of high school than Alviti. He could end up being the favorite to win this job if reports out of fall practice equal his production in spring ball.

Northwestern will go as far as this battle’s winner takes them and the sooner someone takes control the better.

– Finding a replacement for Chi Chi Ariguzo: The Wildcats are facing life without it’s best linebacker for the first time in three years, as Ariguzo is off to the NFL draft. Not only is his production going to be missed, his leadership up front is perhaps the hardest to replace.

It’s especially more difficult with Jimmy Hall gone at outside linebacker as well. That leaves redshirt sophomore Anthony Walker as the lone returning starter at the position, and it leaves him with the leadership responsibility as well.

Walker could end up moving outside like Ariguzo did in his career, but it will depend on the development of now-junior Jaylen Prater and now-senior Drew Smith (who was the primary backup at both outside linebacker positions by the end of last season). There will also need to be some major jumps by young players for there to be any real depth at the position overall.

The good news is that position coach, Randy Bates is back and he’s proven to be a great coach on this staff. He’s developed talent and leadership quickly in the past. Look for him to play a huge role in figuring out the make up of this position group as spring camp goes along.

– Finding a dynamic wide receiver: Not only will the Wildcats lose two starting wide receivers, they’ll be losing both of the top pass catchers from last season at the position too. With Kyle Prater and Tony Jones gone, so goes the bulk of Northwestern’s production from the group.

Even then, Northwestern never really got its passing game going. It was easy to dink and dunk last season. Only one of the three starters ended last season averaging over 11 yards per reception, and that should tell you all you need to know about the “production” from the group.

Luckily, potential star receiver Christian Jones is returning after missing all of last season with a knee injury suffered in fall camp. Yet, it remains to be seen if Jones will be the same receiver we saw previous to the injury.

So, as a new era begins at quarterback, it would be helpful if a new era emerges at wide receiver as well. Cameron Dickerson is the leading returning receiver, hauling in 24 receptions for 318 yards and one touchdown. In fact, he’s got half of the returning TDs caught by a wide receiver last season.

No doubt there will be plenty of opportunities for the likes of Mike McHugh, Austin Carr and Pierre Youngblood-Ary to prove they can stretch the field. Look for Youngblood-Ary to possibly break out, but someone needs to do it or this offense is going to be in serious trouble heading in to fall camp.

Andy Coppens is the Founder and Publisher of Talking10. He's a member of the Football Writers Association of America (FWAA) and has been covering college sports in some capacity since 2008. You can follow him on Twitter @AndyOnFootball

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