As Northwestern goes through its annual preseason practices, including its traditional visit to Camp Kenosha, fans understandably have a handful of questions that may be answered during these sessions and will definitely be resolved once kickoff comes around on September 3. There are plenty of other questions to be answered around the field, particularly who will be the opening game starters at multiple positions on defense as well as a key position like running back, but here are some of the even more critical overarching questions that face the Wildcats.
This is one that fans have been asking ever since those fateful moments after he tossed the game-winning TD over Iowa. Starting off from the moment he had surgery the night following the injury, he has been living up to his billing as a hard worker by tediously rehabbing in order to make it back on the field when the 2011 season kicks off. Through the winter, reports were that he was on track, and when spring practice came around, he was throwing and still on schedule.
The real progress report came at the Big Ten Media Days, which he attended, and where both he and Fitz reported that it was healed 100 percent. The only remaining step was to build back the strength lost and also get some live practice for the first time since that day in November 2010. And that he did on August 8, when NU started its preseason practices and he trotted out on the practice field.
Even with all that, nobody will know the true effects until he gets on the playing field against Boston College and we see him move around the pocket and run with the football. The coaching staff is also still being somewhat secretive about how he will be used (i.e. will he continue to average over 13 carries per game, especially considering he suffered 3.4 sacks per game last season?) and how Kain Colter will be used (after coming on with 105 yards and two TDs in NU's bowl game).
We should find out a lot against BC, a legitimate BCS conference foe that the 'Cats will be facing on the road. Until then, as long as there are no visible setbacks, expect to hear the party line about his recovery.
After upsetting Iowa, NU had a respectable 7-3 record going into the Wrigley Field game against Illinois, and while losing Persa definitely hurt the offense, nobody realistically expected a complete defensive collapse at the same time.
It's been rehashed many times over, but NU gave up 54.3 points per game over the final three games of the year and 848 rushing yards over the final two regular season games. That was after allowing just 21.4 points per game over the first 10 games of the year. And all of that without sustaining significant injuries on the defensive side of the football.
Yes, the loss of Persa put a huge dent in NU's ability to compile sustained, time-consuming drives on offense, hence putting the defense on the field more often. Even so, it's not like NU couldn't put points on the board in Persa's absence (in fact, NU averaged more, 29.3 points per game with him out, compared to 25.5 with him playing, although NU did have three non-offensive scores over the final three games). The fact is that the defense was just plain bad all around over those final three contests; after getting demolished on the ground against Illinois, Wisconsin could do whatever it wanted (in addition to 300-plus yards on the ground, quarterback Scott Tolzien completed almost 80 percent of his passes and had four TDs), and Texas Tech did its stereotypical thing through the air (369 yards, four TDs).
Defensive Coordinator Mike Hankwitz, the senior leadership (defensive end Vince Browne, linebackers Bryce McNaul and Ben Johnson, safety Brian Peters and cornerback Jordan Mabin), and the rest of the defense must step up and make the physical and mental adjustments to change that trend in 2011.
After Stefan Demos' graduation, for the first time in years, there is actual competition for the placekicker spot. Many fans loved to hate Demos, but the fact was that he helped win quite a few close games, and, looking at his overall performance, he was a respectable collegiate kicker with good range.
Now, NU is almost back to square one with redshirt sophomore Jeff Budzien (1-of-1 on XPs in college) and former walk-on redshirt junior Steve Flaherty (also 1-of-1 on XPs). There's also a true freshman on the roster, but it is clear that the battle is between these two: the younger more highly recruited Budzien against Flaherty, who has put more time into the program.
Thus far, Fitz hasn't tipped his hand as to the starter on opening day, and we may have to wait until his Week 1 depth chart (or even kickoff at BC) to find out who will be the guy. And even then, it will take some time (at least a few weeks) to see how much trust Fitz has in that kicker and how consistent the kicker is. After a string of relatively consistent kickers who didn't face much competition under Fitz (Joel Howells, Amado Villarreal and Stefan Demos), it will be interesting to see how a more competitive environment on special teams goes.
As documented in a commentary last season, Fitz has had his share of issues in the fourth quarter, and added to that was NU's late season collapse last year (after Fitz put together some pretty solid Novembers in 2008 and 2009). It is clear that the team needs to improve that killer instinct in order to close the door earlier in games where they have a significant lead (also something they were unable to do much in 2010 even against lighter competition) while also pulling out wins on a consistent basis in those close games (of which there are many). Fitz has acknowledged as much and has tried to build that into the Wildcats' preparation for this season.
What does this have to do with camp? First, an under-the-radar staff change, as Jay Hooten was given a promotion to director of football performance, while 30-year veteran Larry Lilja (who captained NU's 1974 squad and whose son, Scott, coincidentally just graduated after being a four year walk-on) left the program. Players have already noticed the difference in the conditioning program.
Also, Fitz will reportedly change up how hard he pushes the team, particularly the upperclassmen, in camp and early in the season in order to keep some "in the tank" later in the year. Finally, it's a pretty sure bet that Hankwitz and OC Mick McCall will change some things up later in games as well, which will likely be introduced during preseason practice. It will be interesting to see if this has an effect on the 'Cats late-game performance, something that must become consistently solid for NU to continue to be successful in the conference.
NU brings in six offensive linemen with starts and significant playing time under their belts, including fourth-year starters at arguably the two most important offensive line positions: center Ben Burkett and left tackle Al Netter. Fellow senior Doug Bartels and juniors Neal Deiters, Patrick Ward and Brian Mulroe also come in with large amounts of playing time.
Despite that, though, both guard positions and maybe even center are up for grabs with a few younger guys, including redshirt freshman Brandon Vitabile pushing hard for playing time and maybe even a starting spot. This should all be a recipe for a solid OL, but as we saw last year, that may not be the case.
Despite being highly touted recruits with a lot of experience, the current crop of offensive linemen has underwhelmed, including last year's 3.08 sacks per game allowed (112th nationally, and that was for the most part with Persa's fleet feet on the field). Fitz is clearly trying to light a fire under this unit by allowing some of the younger members to play their way onto the field, but it will be interesting to see if that will work this year.
In addition to poor pass protection, this unit hasn't exactly consistently opened up holes for the running game under Fitz (there was a drought of a few years between the departure of Tyrell Sutton and another NU RB who ran for more than 100 yards in a game, something Mike Trumpy did twice late last season). The groundwork for a successful OL will definitely be laid during camp, and we'll see what the starting lineup looks like coming out of Kenosha.
In summation, despite returning a plethora of starters all over the field, NU does have a handful of significant questions that should be answered during Camp Kenosha and the rest of the preseason practices in August. If the Wildcats manage to successfully address all of these in camp, this season could really be special, and a trip to the inaugural Big Ten Championship game isn't out of the question (especially given a relatively favorable schedule for NU). But, we'll all have to wait until the season kicks off to get a true idea of where the 'Cats stand, and fortunately, that's not too far away!