Long gone are the days when teams around the Big Ten could look at an upcoming game against Northwestern and pencil in a win at the beginning of the season. The Wildcats are coming off a second 10-win campaign in three seasons and the spring has once again thrown a question out into the wild; can Northwestern make a run at a division title in the Big Ten West this fall?
Time will tell, of course, but there is a reason to be optimistic about Northwestern’s chances of fielding a competitive team that will be ready to play 60 minutes once again in 2018.
5 Storylines to Watch During Northwestern’s Spring Practice
1. Clayton Thorson rehab updates
Northwestern’s starting quarterback is not expected to be seen this spring as he continues to rehab from an ACL injury suffered at the end of the 2017 season, but the good news is everything appears to be going according to plan in the rehab process. The focus will be on having Thorson (above, right) ready for the start of the season, so the attention on the backup quarterback position takes center stage this spring. T.J. Green, Aidan Smith and Andrew Marty will split duties this spring with the intention of impressing head coach Pat Fitzgerald enough to be given a start if needed in the fall.
2. Who carries the football now?
Justin Jackson leaves behind a storied career at Northwestern, which means somebody else needs to emerge as the reliable running back option this fall. Replacing the school’s all-time leading rusher is no small task, but sophomore Jeremy Larkin will be the most likely to give it his best effort.
3. Filling holes in the secondary
One area of the team that needs some retooling this spring is the defensive secondary. Two starters are moving on to the NFL and the depth this spring takes a hit with JR Pace and Jared McGee missing spring practices to focus on recovering from injuries. Those two will likely end up being the new starters in the fall, but the spring should present an opportunity for other options to develop.
4. Nate Hall out for the spring
Keeping in line with a theme this spring in Evanston, Hall also will miss practice time this spring as he recovers from an injury from prior to the Music City Bowl. A linebacker, Hall was Northwestern’s second-leading tackler last fall, with 49 solo tackles to his credit. Young players like Blake Gallagher and Nathan Fox could emerge this spring.
5. A few staff shakeups
Fitzgerald has benefitted from having some solid stability on the coaching staff, but there are a few new coaches in the mix on the sidelines this year. Lou Ayeni (RBs coach), Tim McGarigle (LB) and Jeff Genyk (special teams) could bring some new ideas to the coaching philosophy in Evanston. How much changes in either area of the team remains to be seen, but it should change things up a little bit within the program.
— Written by Kevin McGuire, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network and a member of the Football Writers Association of America and National Football Foundation. McGuire also contributes to College Football Talk and The Comeback as well as hosts the No 2-Minute Warning Podcast. Follow him on Twitter @KevinOnCFB and Like him on Facebook.