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2013 Fierce-40 Previews: #25

by DJ Boyer on Jul. 22, 2013

2013 Fierce 40 Previews

 

#25 Northwestern Wildcats

 

2012 Recap:

To say 2012 was a smashing success does not do justice for the Northwestern Wildacts. The team went 10-3 with a pair of road losses at Penn State and Michigan, while their only home loss came by 1 point to Nebraska. Notice I didn’t talk about a loss in their bowl game because Northwestern won the Gator Bowl with a 34-20 victory over Mississippi State. You were reading that sentence right. It had three important elements that seem very foreign…Northwestern…bowl game…and victory. Northwestern won their first bowl game since the 1949 Rose Bowl, ending the second longest curse in Chicago (behind those lovable Cubbies).

Coaching:

Pat Fitzgerald is now 50-39 in his seven years at Northwestern. It was rough start at Northwestern for the former star linebacker but he has turned the corner and the future is remarkably bright. Fitzgerald and his close connection with athletes can be seen by the way Northwestern is now recruiting, with their 4th consecutive season that their recruiting class ranking has risen.

 

Offense

Quarterbacks/Running Backs:

Often when you see a school using a two-quarterback system nowadays it has more to do with the school ultimately not knowing who to put as the #1 option. This is not the case with Northwestern. Kain Colter and Trevor Siemian are two quarterbacks with contracting styles, but Colter sees the field more (about 65%) with over 800 yards rushing and passing a season ago. Siemian has a big arm, and while he doesn’t have the polished mechanics, he gives the Northwestern team another dimension. There may not be a team in FBS right now using the two quarterback system better than Northwestern.

The best part is the quarterback play is secondary to the emergence on All America running back Venric Mark. Mark had nearly 1,400 yards last year, and at 5’8”, he is hard to see coming out of the backfield running with such a low center of gravity. Mark is a legitimate Heisman candidate, the first since the days of running back Darnell Autry (I might be showing my age with that reference). I currently have Mark with a 4th round grade for 2014 but that could rise, as before 2012 he wasn’t on the radar for any scout or draftnik. Mark also has some help in the backfield with h-back/fullback Dan Vitale who will be used more as a blocker or someone who will chip and sneak out of the backfield to make a reception. He is a dangerous player, just enough so that you have to account for his whereabouts at all times.

Best Draft Prospect: Venric Mark RB 4th Round 2014.

 

Wide Receivers/Tight Ends:

Northwestern changed their offensive style and are very run oriented. It’s no surprise that there are virtually no wide receiver prospects for the NFL on this current roster. While Northwestern may be short on NFL talent at this position they don’t lack experience. Last year Christian Jones led this team with 35 receptions while Rashad Lawrence was second at 34 and both are back in the mix for 2013. I already talked about Vitale who himself had 28 catches and a pair of touchdowns. I feel Vitale could lead this team with about 40 receptions when all is said and done. More emphasis has been put on the wide receivers to improve their blocking as the runners reach the next level downfield. Cameron Dickerson and Kyle Prater are valuable backups who also have experience and will be factors for the Wildcats.

Best Draft Prospect: N/A.

 

Offensive Line:

This is the only area on offense where Northwestern will have some concern as three of the five starting lineman from the 10-win 2012 team are no longer on the roster. Northwestern does have a legitimate NFL center prospect in Brandon Vitabile who I feel will be one of the top 5 centers available in 2015. The players next to Vitabile are where the concern lies as sophomores Matt Frazier and Geoff Mogus are both newcomers to the lineup. I have watched Northwestern and some of the training sessions and drills they run and at Northwestern it is all about being mobile and finding players in space. Northwestern has adapted this philosophy because some of the young recruits like Adam DiPietro, Ian Park, and Eric Olsen all excel in these aspects of their games. The change in offensive philosophy seems to be something that is not fleeting or passing for this offense as the players they are signing will fit very well into this scheme in the years to follow.

Best Draft Prospect: Brandon Vitabile C 5th Round 2015.

 

Defense

Defensive Line

Northwestern is known as a hard-nosed blue collar type unit and last season was no different with 28 sacks and 29 takeaways. Tyler Scott was the player who seemed to exceed all expectations after posting team highs in tackles for loss (12.5) and sacks (9). Scott will lead a team that shows aggression and the consistency to get into the backfield when they need to. Deonte Gibson showed a lot of promise in limited time as a freshman and he may have unseated fellow sophomore Dean Lowry as the starter opposite of Scott. Northwestern rushers seem to lack big time power and upper body strength but speed is at a premium and always on display. The defensive tackles are not the strongest at the point of attack and Northwestern is a little thin at the position. Sean McEvilly is back after starting last season but I see him losing too many battles along the line to be a difference maker for Northwestern. C.J. Robbins is a sophomore defensive tackle and it looks like Northwestern will groom him this year to take over and be the leader in the middle for a couple of seasons.

Best Draft Prospect: Tyler Scott DE 7th Round 2014.

                       

Linebackers:

The linebackers are solid but unspectacular and with the background of Fitzgerald you know he takes pride in the play of his field generals. Damien Proby was the leading tackler for this team last season with 112 stops and he is not a flashy player but he keeps his assignments and is seldom fooled. Chi Chi Ariguzo is back as a starter on the outside and last year he showed his value with 2 sacks, 2 forced fumbles and 4 fumble recoveries. He is one of those players who just seems to make things happen when he is around the football. The other outside linebacker spot does not have a clear-cut favorite to start at this time and we could be seeing a platoon between Collin Ellis and Drew Smith. I expect Timmy Vernon, a senior linebacker, to be a backup at a number of positions, but he will also be counted on to be one of the special teams aces for the Wildcats.

Best Draft Prospect: Damien Proby UFA 2014.

 

Secondary:

The secondary is easily the strength of the defense and it shows how the focus on speed is shaping the team. Northwestern is deep, dangerous, and they have several formations that disguise where blitzing members from the secondary are coming from. Nick VanHoose had one of the most impressive freshman seasons for any Big Ten freshman with 33 tackles and 3 interceptions. Daniel Jones will be the other starter at cornerback while newcomer Dwight White is someone the program is very excited about and Big Ten teams will come to know very quickly. Ibraheim Campbell is another player, who like VanHoose, is currently rated as a third round prospect. Northwestern will team Campell with the hard hitting sophomore Traveon Henry, who may be a future NFL prospect himself, although we have to give him a year as a starter before we project him. This secondary may be the deepest and fastest in the Big Ten. The secondary will be even more effective if Northwestern gets to the quarterback at the rate they did a season ago.

Best Draft Prospect: Ibraheim Campbell S 3rd Round 2015 and Nick VanHoose CB 3rd Round 2016.

 

Special Teams:

Jeff Budzien was 19-20 in field goals in 2012 and was on the all conference team. Budzien could be drafted if he shows he has the leg strength and does a better job with getting his kickoffs deeper and scoring more touchbacks. Venric Henry was an All-American last season averaging over 18 yards per return and bringing one back for a touchdown.

Best Draft Prospect: Jeff Budzien K 7th Round/UFA 2014.

 

Schedule:

Northwestern gets Michigan State and Michigan late in season back-to-back but both games are at home. Big road tests come against Wisconsin and Nebraska. Nebraska plays Ohio State early in the schedule and they get them at home. Ohio State did not face Northwestern a season ago and they have a defense that has problems with mobile quarterbacks. If there are any national games that scream upset early in the season it is Northwestern against Ohio State, a game that would vault them right to the top of the conference standings. Northwestern with double digit wins in consecutive seasons isn’t that crazy when you take a close look at the team and the schedule if the line holds up and Mark stays healthy.

 

Draft Outlook:

Northwestern doesn’t have any prospects in the first two rounds of the draft but with the recruiting classes getting better and Northwestern getting faster secondary players we will see more players drafted from this school in the future.

 

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