Last season was historic for Northwestern Wildcats everywhere. Pat Fitzgerald led his alma mater to its first bowl win since the 1949 Rose Bowl. The Wildcats won 10 games for just the third time in the history of the program and the first since the famous 1995 Rose Bowl run. This team has been to 11 bowl games all-time and Fitzgerald has taken the Cats to five straight postseason appearances. Needless to say, it's a good time to be Northwestern fan. But expectations might be higher in Evanston, Ill., than ever before, so what can Coach Fitz do for an encore in 2013?
Northwestern Wildcats 2013 Spring Preview
2012 Record: 10-3 (5-3)
Spring practice dates: Feb. 27-April 13
Returning Starters: Offense – 8, Defense – 7
Passing: Trevor Siemian, 128-of-218, 1,312 yds, 6 TD, 3 INT
Rushing: Venric Mark, 226 car., 1,366 yds., 12 TDs
Receiving: Christian Jones, 35 rec., 412 yds, 2 TD
Tackles: Damien Proby, 112
Sacks: Tyler Scott, 9
Interceptions: Nick VanHoose, 3
Redshirts to watch: DE/LB Ifeadi Odenigbo, OL Adam DePietro, OL Ian Park, OL Kenton Playko, DL Connor Mahoney, DL Greg Kuhar, CB Dwight Wite, S Joseph Jones, SB Jack Schwaba
Aug. 31 at California
Sept. 7 Syracuse
Sept. 14 Western Michigan
Sept. 21 Maine
Sept. 28 Bye Week
Oct. 5 Ohio State
Oct. 12 at Wisconsin
Oct. 19 Minnesota
Oct. 26 at Iowa
Nov. 2 at Nebraska
Nov. 9 Bye Week
Nov. 16 Michigan
Nov. 23 Michigan State
Nov. 30 at Illinois
Offensive Strength: Playmakers. Kain Colter is essentially a running back under center. Venric Mark is the best tailback to take hand-offs in Evanston since at least Tyrell Sutton. And a deep collection of wide receivers dot the offense.
Offensive Weakness: The offensive line. Three starters are gone from a unit that led the Big Ten in sacks allowed and finished 19th nationally in rushing a year ago.
Defensive Strength: Linebackers. With Damien Proby and Chi Chi Ariguzo both earning honorable mention a year ago, Coach Fitz's favorite position should be strong in 2013.
Defensive Weakness: Star power in the secondary. This team ranked last in the Big Ten in passing defense last fall and Jared Carpenter, Demetrius Dugar and Quinn Evans are gone. Ibraheim Campbell and Nick VanHoose need some help on the back end.
Spring Storylines Facing the Wildcats
1. Coping with injuries. Pat Fitzgerald will be without at least three starters and a host of other important contributors this spring. Starting cornerback Nick VanHoose, middle linebacker Damien Proby and offensive tackle Jack Konopka will miss all of spring ball. Offensive tackle Paul Jorgensen, wide receiver Kyle Prater, defensive tackle Will Hampton, defensive end Deonte Gibson and guard Matt Frazier are other key reserves looking to earn starting spots who won't get a chance to compete this spring. It will give Coach Fitz a long look at the deeper parts of his roster.
2. Plugging holes along the O-Line. All-Big Ten performers Brian Mulroe and Patrick Ward have moved on from the offensive line as well as Jack Deiters (11 starts). And without Konopka on the field this spring, the Wildcats will be focusing on the new faces blocking up front. This team is stacked with offensive skill talent and will only go as far against big, powerful Big Ten defensive lines as the offensive line takes it. Ironing out a rotation up front on offense has to be a top priority.
3. Do the Cats need to pick a QB? Coach Fitz believes that he has two quarterbacks who can lead Northwestern to a Big Ten championship. Both Kain Colter and Trevor Siemian did a lot of good things a year ago and each brings a different skill set to an already creative offense. Fitzgerald has stated his focus this spring is more fundamentals-based rather than scheme or depth chart, so he has no desire to tab a starter this early. However, most coaches prefer to have one quarterback and how each signal caller develops this spring will go a long way to determining playing time come the summer.
4. Find star power in the front seven. Much like the offensive line, the defensive front seven has to deal with departures and injuries this spring. There are a lot of bodies up front, namely All-Big Ten performer Tyler Scott and his nine sacks, but this coaching staff needs to find players. Dean Lowry and Deonte Gibson could start at end opposite Scott while Chance Carter, Sean McEvilly and Max Chapman will battle on the inside. With Proby out for the spring and David Nwabuisi graduated, Chi Chi Ariguzo is the only linebacker with any extended experience at the key position. Fitzgerald won't have a good view of his front seven until summer once all of the injuries heal up, but finding playmakers up front on defense will be important this spring.
5. Will timing impact spring practice? It isn't a huge story but it is worth noting that Northwestern is breaking spring camp earlier than any other Big Ten team has in years. Starting spring practice in February has given Fitzgerald a variety of advantages. Essentially, he has been able to stretch his calendar to better help with balance, lifting, injuries and timing. Undoubtedly, Fitzgerald feels the extended spring schedule will help his team deal with the pressure to build on a 10-win season and help keep them grounded in the face of growing preseason expectations.
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