Northwestern University and Evanston's Only Daily News Source Since 1881

The Daily Northwestern

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Northwestern University and Evanston's Only Daily News Source Since 1881

The Daily Northwestern

Northwestern University and Evanston's Only Daily News Source Since 1881

The Daily Northwestern

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Approaching the opener, Cats have a mouthful of questions

With its season opener a little more than three weeks away, the Northwestern football team held its Media Day on Thursday after an open practice. Here are five key observations:

Hankwitz making presence felt

The players are the ones out on the field, making – or not making – plays. But that doesn’t mean a coordinator can’t have an impact, and new defensive coordinator Mike Hankwitz’s track record speaks for itself. The man has coached a national title-winning defense as well as a handful of top-10 units.

“Mike’s been there and done it,” coach Pat Fitzgerald said. “He brings a confidence to our defense. He’s run just about every scheme that you possibly can, so his ability to adapt to what our players do best I think is exciting for our players. And he brought an attitude. He brought an attitude that we’re going to be a good defense.”

While it might not be wise to expect radical changes in Hankwitz’s first season with the Cats, there has been a lot of buzz that NU will take a more aggressive approach this season. Say goodbye to Greg Colby’s read-and-react style.

Hankwitz talked after practice about his intention to implement a more aggressive game plan that will include more zone blitzing and defensive line stunts than NU has used in previous years. The players appear to be buying into the scheme, and considering the way the defense flew around the practice field making plays on the ball, it’s already having an effect.

“I’m really excited. I think this year could be something special for the team and the university,” starting safety Brendan Smith said. “Coach Hankwitz does a great job putting us in the position that we need to be in and giving us the opportunity to make the most of it.”

Offensive line in flux

Three starters from last year are gone, throwing the line into a state of flux at a time when the team has solidified itself at the skill positions. Whether the line comes together well enough to keep quarterback C.J. Bachér upright and open holes for tailback Tyrell Sutton will be crucial.

Though he said the line wasn’t “ready to go out and get into a street fight yet,” Fitzgerald’s tone was hopeful. He concentrated his praise on redshirt freshmen Ben Burkett and Al Netter. Burkett figures to start at center and Netter at left tackle, with senior Joel Belding and junior Kurt Mattes figuring to earn starting spots as well.

“I’m encouraged with that group,” Fitzgerald said. “We’ll come together and have a starting five, but I think we’ll have six, seven, eight guys that we’ll feel really good about.”

Bachér to contain gunslinging ways

As a junior last year in his first full season of starting, Bachér showed flashes of brilliance. In consecutive mid-season wins against Michigan State and Minnesota, he completed 79 of 106 passes for 990 yards, tossing nine touchdowns and no interceptions. On the other hand, he threw multiple interceptions in seven of the Cats’ 12 games, with NU losing six of those contests.

Bachér, with the help of his coaches, is attempting to address the erratic numbers. A lot of it, he believes, comes down to resisting the temptation to always try for the big play.

“(Offensive coordinator Mick McCall) has talked to me a lot about checking down and not making the great throw, just making the good throw,” Bachér said. “A lot of times to make great throws you have to go through small windows, and a lot of times you shouldn’t be taking those chances anyway.”

Bachér admitted that it can be difficult to control his “gunslinger” mentality. But he said he is learning to have more discipline, coupled with faith in his receivers to make big plays after the catch.

Superbacks should be more super

In recent years, the Cats have ditched the traditional tight end and fullback positions in favor of a hybrid position, the superback. That will continue this season under new coordinator McCall.

What may not continue is the position’s lack of contributions. In the receiving game, NU’s superbacks made little impact last season, combining for 17 catches, 185 yards and a touchdown.

How much that changes this season depends largely on how McCall uses the position, and the coaches declined to offer specifics. But based on Thursday’s practice, there is reason to believe the superbacks will be more involved.

Sophomores Drake Dunsmore and Josh Rooks figure to battle for the starting spot, and both looked impressive. Rooks in particular stood out, displaying impressive speed for his 6-foot-6, 265-pound frame in making a couple of nice grabs over the middle.

“I try to be the big athlete the best I can, try to use my size and as much speed as I can to move guys around and help out the run or even go out for passes,” Rooks said. “With McCall, we’ve been doing a lot more passing and catching drills and trying to focus on that as well as blocking.”

Smith provides safety to defensive unit

Excluding Hankwitz, Smith could be the most important man in deciding the Cats’ defensive fortunes in 2008. NU’s defensive line has loads of talent but also features some inconsistent performers. The linebackers must fill the void of departed leader Adam Kadela and his 125 tackles. That puts pressure on the team’s secondary.

Smith, a redshirt junior, is the cog of that unit, and his health will go a long way toward determining how well it plays. The 6-foot-1, 205-pound safety missed all but three games in 2007 due to a shoulder injury and earned an extra year of eligibility for medical hardship. The season before, he played in all 12 games, recording 68 tackles, two fumble recoveries and three interceptions and breaking up seven passes.

To increase his chances of staying on the field this season, Smith started paying more attention to his nutrition in the offseason.

“I always knew how to eat healthy, but when I actually cracked down and said, ‘OK, no carbs, none of this,’ and started doing it right, my body has felt better,” he said. “My shoulder is stronger now, and my body is starting to get back in shape. I’m really excited about what’s going to happen.”

The veteran is also working to create some team unity by spreading his new Mohawk hairstyle. Disappointed to have nearly reached the age of 23 without having one, Smith got the ‘do and has since convinced fellow safety Brad Phillips and defensive end Kevin Mims to join him.

He hopes others will follow but doesn’t expect everyone will. “Quarterbacks are too pretty to do it,” Smith quipped, aiming his comment at Bachér, who was sitting nearby.

Additional notes: Sutton sat out practice Thursday with a minor leg injury but said it wouldn’t keep him out more than a few days and that he wasn’t concerned. … Wide receiver Andrew Brewer is in line for significant playing time after a solid offseason recovering from his arm injury. He made one of the best catches of the practice, a leaping grab at the sideline in which he used his 6-foot-3 frame to shield cornerback Sherrick McManis from the ball. … Smith, on playing the season opener without defensive tackle John Gill, who was suspended for one game for violating team policy: “It’s never good to see one of your best players and such a good kid like John not playing, but one person doesn’t win a game, so we’ll need his backup to step up.” … Fitzgerald said junior Marshall Thomas or sophomore Corbin Bryant will probably start in Gill’s place against Syracuse.

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Northwestern University and Evanston's Only Daily News Source Since 1881
Approaching the opener, Cats have a mouthful of questions