With Spring Football practices wrapping up, it’s time for our first 3-on-3 of Spring Quarter, a three pack of questions about spring practice and the football team moving forward. Three of our staffers (Austin Miller, Nick Scoliard, and John Beers) answered three questions in this edition of 3-on-3.
Northwestern’s offense and especially its receivers struggled mightily last season. While Austin Carr looks to be the No. 1 wideout on this team, there’s certainly no clear No. 2, especially with Solomon Vault and Marcus McShepard now in the mix after changing positions. Looking forward and based on their performance in the spring, who will be Northwestern’s No. 2 WR heading into the Fall?
Austin: I really like Solomon Vault. I think he’s a very athletic player who will be a big part of NU’s passing game going forward. That said, there will be a lot of opportunities for a number of different players at wide receiver next year. Though he’s not technically a wide receiver, I think Garrett Dickerson to play the biggest part in NU’s success, or lack thereof, in the passing game.
Nick: With this receiver corps, I’m not even sure that Carr will be the No. 1, but he obviously comes in with the most experience. I think that Dickerson will really break out and be the Vitale replacement this offense needs: a reliable, get open guy. I really want to see Jelani Roberts be more than just an end-around receiver – he can be deadly on go routes if he has some separation (and Thorson can launch it far enough). The most important thing is Thorson’s chemistry with his receiving corps, which he had last year with the now graduated Christian Jones. If he can find a favorite target in camp where they just click, that’ll be the real No. 1 option for this team.
John: I think that depends on what your definition of No. 2 WR is. If there are only two wideouts on the field I expect those to be Carr and sophomore Flynn Nagel. After giving Nagel a decent amount of time on the field as a true freshman, it seems that Pat Fitzgerald has a good amount of trust in the jewel of his 2015 class. Nagel would seem to profile the best as that Z-type wide receiver that could join Carr on the outside. However, as the season progresses I expect that Solomon Vault will emerge as Thorson’s No. 2 target, if not his primary weapon in the passing game. I expect Vault to operate mostly out of the slot, where his abilities in the open field can be best utilized. Thorson hasn’t shown a consistent ability to push the ball down the field, and could thus find comfort in throwing to a WR like Vault who can take a five-yard completion and turn it into a 15-yard gain.
The Wildcat defense looks to again be one of the best in the Big Ten this season, but with Dean Lowry and Deonte Gibson graduating, the ‘Cats have some holes to fill along their defensive line. Xavier Washington, Joe Gaziano and Ifeadi Odenigbo have all worked with the first team defense at DE, trying to fill the void left by Lowry. But the question is, who, if anyone, will best be able to fill Lowry’s shoes in the fall?
Austin: Look, replacing Lowry won’t be easy, and NU may struggle a bit more against the run without him, but this team is really going to be able to get after the quarterback. Washington and Odenigbo are really good pass-rushers, and their speed off the edges will make it very difficult for opposing teams to have the time necessary to throw the ball against Northwestern. While those two may initially struggle against outside runs, they’ll more than make up for it with their ability to pressure opposing quarterbacks.
Nick: I don’t think anyone can outright replace Lowry and Deonte Gibson. Odenigbo has his work cut out for him to transition from a 3rd down passing specialist to an every down end. The senior hasn’t shown much improvement in that regard the previous three seasons, but he was never asked to be the starting end like he is now. While I would love to see Gaziano perform well, we just don’t know if he’s ready to step into the starting position. I am very high on Washington, though, and I think the flashes he’s shown the past two seasons (mainly the Wisconsin game in 2014) are enough to show he’s the best candidate for the end position. Ultimately, I expect a lot of rotation on the line, with Ifeadi getting in for more pass-expected downs, but I think Washington’s poised to break out.
John: To start the season, I think the defensive end pairing that coach Fitzgerald and defensive coordinator Mike Hankwitz will trot out onto the field most often is Odenigbo at RDE – the spot formerly occupied by Deonte Gibson – and Washington at LDE replacing Lowry. The book on Odenigbo has always been that he’s a tremendously talented player (as the best recruit in Northwestern history) that has often failed to show that talent on the field, even with 12.5 career sacks. Pat Fitzgerald owes it to this team to try and give Odenigbo the opportunity to dominate on a consistent basis, at least for the first half of the season. Neither Odenigbo or Washington can realistically be expected to replace the production of Gibson and Lowry from 2015, unless they experience unexpected growth over the lead up to the 2016 season. However, Fitz has shown a willingness to rotate on the defensive line more than in any other position group, and I think that will be the story even more this coming fall. Yet, if any one player is going to become the force that Lowry was last year, Odenigbo would seem to be the most likely candidate.
While a number of Wildcats have impressed this spring, including Andrew Scanlan and John Moten, September’s still a long way away, and there’s still a lot of work to do. Who’s the one Wildcat you think has the most work to do between now and Sept. 3 when the ‘Cats take on Western Michigan?
Austin: Northwestern struggled punting the football last year, which can make it tough for the ‘Cats to play their defensive-based game. If Hunter Niswander can develop into a threat punting the football, NU will be able to flip field position against teams, and allow their defense the opportunity the give the offense short fields to work with. A little more leg strength, and a little more accuracy, and Northwestern’s defense will get even stronger.
Nick: On the defensive side, it has to be Odenigbo. With all the hype and expectations that surround him, and him finally being put in the starting role, he has a lot to work on to be a dependable every down end. Almost everyone besides the DEs has played a lot of meaningful gametime, so it really seems like Odenigbo has the most to do in order to even try and replicate Dean and Deonte. Offensively, I think Marcus McShephard making the leap to WR from the other side of the ball will take a lot of work. With the receiving corps as barren as it is, McShephard can break out and be Thorson’s top target, but he’ll have a lot of work to do in the spring.
John: The expectation heading into this season is that the defense will once again be strong and the offense will have even more question marks than last year. While it’s not unreasonable to expect that Clayton Thorson could take a big leap and make up for the lack of established weapons, more than likely the defense will have to replicate or improve on their performance from last season. If that is going to happen, new starting safety Kyle Queiro will have to play a big part and thus needs to make big strides between now and the season opener. Replacing departing senior and three-year starter Traveon Henry, the 6’-3” Queiro should bring an increased level of athleticism and range to the Wildcats’ defensive backfield. With the ascension of Queiro to full-time starter status, the entire starting defensive backfield in 2016 will be made up of members of the 2013 recruiting class