Spring practice can be make-or-break for some coaches, players and even programs. Yet each program takes a different tack in how it deals with the annual tradition.
However, there is one thing that plays a coach's hand each and every year—injuries. Some coaches look forward to spring as a chance to see their teams fully healthy while others are forced to deal with major injuries that put the best-laid plans to rest before they ever get going.
While injuries—like the recent ACL tear of Michigan tight end Jake Butt and a shoulder injury to teammate Erik Magnuson—have been garnering headlines, one team is going to have to alter its plans more than any other in the Big Ten this spring.
As Northwestern opens up camp on Wednesday, the Wildcats will start camp down 11 players already, according to Teddy Greenstein of the Chicago Tribune.
OUT for spring practice: Venric Mark, Sean McEvilly, Brad North, Ifeadi Odenigbo, Ian Park, Daniel Jones, Deonte Gibson, Max Chapman (cont)— Inside Northwestern (@insidenu) February 24, 2014
Stephen Buckley, Terrance Brown and Cermak Bland. Hey, at least there are some o-linemen available this year, right?— Inside Northwestern (@insidenu) February 24, 2014
The number is high, but it's also the names on that list that matter most. Chief among the 11 names is running back Venric Mark, who received a medical hardship to return for the 2014 season in the first place.
According to Greenstein's article, Mark is still recovering from surgery on his left ankle.
Head coaches generally let the media know about injuries entering camp, but the details of injuries and where players are in the recovery process is a whole different story. When asked about the possibility of Mark's issues lingering into the fall, NU head coach Pat Fitzgerald responded with a simple: "I hope not."
However, Mark isn't the only big name being ruled out for the spring due to surgery issues.
On the other side of the ball, the big name is defensive lineman Ifeadi Odenigbo. He had nine tackles, 6.5 tackles for loss and 5.5 sacks as a redshirt freshman last season.
Odenigbo is just the tip of the iceberg on the defensive side of the ball, though, as Fitzgerald announced that no fewer than six D-linemen will be held out of spring drills. That means a lot of reps for some players to impress, but it could also lead to fatigue given the number of practices that go on in spring drills.
This isn't a new issue for Northwestern, either, as a rash of injuries and offseason surgeries left the offensive line completely depleted during spring practices.
Fitzgerald and Co. are old pros at dealing with a lot of players missing spring thanks to that experience, and with six defensive linemen amongst the group being held out, it means a change in how they will do things in Evanston once again.
“We’ll get in the reps,” Fitzgerald said, via Greenstein's article, “but we’ll tweak the structure of practice so there won’t be so many in a row.”
What should be worrisome to Fitzgerald and his team is what happened last year. After suffering through major injury issues along the offensive line during spring, that unit—which was expected to be a strength—struggled during the season.
The good news is that the defensive players who are now missing saw the after-effects of what took place last spring, and the hope is that they won't repeat themselves in 2014.
“Hopefully those (defensive linemen) learned the lesson that the sense of urgency, once you are cleared, has to go up,” Fitzgerald said, via Greenstein's article.
It's on this year's players to prove history won't repeat itself at Northwestern, especially if the players getting additional reps in their stead shine in the spring.
*Andy Coppens is Bleacher Report's lead writer for Big Ten football. You can follow him on Twitter: @ andycoppens.