Spring ball position changes:
Solomon Vault: RB ➡️ WR
Marcus McShepard: DB ➡️ WR
Steven Reese: DB ➡️ WR
Ben Oxley: DL ➡️ OL#B1GCats
— #B1GCats Football (@NUFBFamily) February 23, 2016
Welcome to the offense everyone!
In a perhaps unsurprising development, Northwestern has announced that a host of defensive players have switched sides to join the offense. Solomon Vault is moving from running back to wide receiver, which should not be news, as Pat Fitzgerald alluded to such a move after the Outback Bowl.
Northwestern needs help at wideout. A unit that was probably Northwestern’s weakest in 2015 loses Cameron Dickerson, Miles Shuler, Christian Jones, and Mike McHugh, plus superback Dan Vitale is gone as well. Northwestern needs pass catchers, plain and simple. It shouldn’t be understated how much of an indictment on the current crop of wideouts this is. There are three returning wideouts who caught a pass last year (Austin Carr, and true freshmen Flynn Nagel and Jelani Roberts). Andrew Scanlan and Macan Wilson come back too, but it wouldn’t be shocking to see McShepard, Vault or Reese jump them. Redshirt freshmen Cameron Green and Charlie Fessler, as well as true freshmen Ramaud Chiaokhiao-Bowman and Ben Skowrownek have a shot to make an impact as well.
The offensive line is also a place that could use more bodies. Geoff Mogus is gone, and the only places where we’re pretty sure who’s going to start are the tackle spots, where Blake Hance and Eric Olson project to start. Ian Park will probably slot in the starting 5 somewhere, but he played both guard and center last year. Having another body in Oxley can only help.
But what is interesting about these moves, and Inside NU had an interesting feature on this about a week ago, is that every defensive player who’s switching to offense had legitimate experience at that position in high school. 247 Sports listed Steven Reese as a wide receiver out of high school. Ben Oxley was listed as an offensive tackle, and a highly rated one at that, with a composite score .8528. Marcus McShepard was listed as a wide receiver/cornerback. Pat Fitzgerald has always said that he lets players pick where they play, and all of these guys picked to play defense. But given the offense’s well documented struggle last year, the stockpile of defensive talent is moving back to offense.
The Marcus McShepard move is the most interesting. McShepard got serious run last year when Matt Harris went down with injury, playing opposite of Nick VanHoose in nickel situations while Keith Watkins, the projected starter alongside Harris for 2016, moved inside to nickelback. He’s not an exceedingly tall guy, listed at 5-11, but it looked like he had a fairly bright future ahead of him at corner.
More than anything, that move should signal that defensive coordinator Mike Hankwitz has to be extremely impressed with the depth at the corner spot. Harris and Watkins will start, and both should be great. Montre Hartage played on special teams as a true freshman and when the defensive backs got thin with Quiero and Harris out, he slotted into the depth chart. He, redshirt freshman Alonzo Mayo, and redshirt sophomore Parrker Westphal figure to slot in as backups.
Most Wildcat fans are probably rooting for Parrker Westphal to finally break through. He was the highest rated recruit of the decorated 2014 recruiting class, which includes current key players Clayton Thorson, Justin Jackson, Garrett Dickerson, Blake Hance, Solomon Vault, Nate Hall, and Xavier Washington. He enrolled early, the first Fitzgerald recruit to ever do so, but injuries have robbed him of a chance to crack into the defensive backfield just yet. He shouldn’t be considered the favorite for the first man off the bench after Hartage’s role as a true freshman, but the depth chart has opened up in front of Westphal.
Every spring brings position changes, but given how immensely Northwestern’s offense struggled last year, every shift will deservedly get extra speculation from Northwestern media and fans alike.