Football: Northwestern faces questions ahead of spring season


Daily file photo by Nathan Richards

Pat Fitzgerald walks on the field. The coach said he did “a 360 of the program” during the offseason.

Bobby Pillote, Assistant Sports Editor

Spring football begins Wednesday for Northwestern, and after months of silence following a disappointing and season-ending loss to Illinois, coach Pat Fitzgerald seems ready to turn a page and get started on the 2015 season.

“You do a 360 of the program,” Fitzgerald said of the offseason. “You cut up every play. You do that in all three phases. You take a look at your strength and conditioning program. … We do exit interviews with every senior.”

Questions surrounded the program this offseason and rightfully so: The team has gone 5-7 each of the past two seasons and didn’t remove anyone from the coaching staff this December. But Fitzgerald has continued to tinker with his formula for winning, increasing emphasis on weight lifting over conditioning and making a few position changes to maintain “competitive depth” across the roster.

With the start of spring practices, the focus returns to the players. Here are three storylines to watch ahead of the Wildcats’ spring showcase on April 11.


Fitzgerald said several players, including notables freshman defensive back Parrker Westphal, sophomore defensive lineman Greg Kuhar and junior linebacker Drew Smith, will be injured for the duration of the spring season and unable to participate in practices.

Westphal in particular has faced a number of setbacks. He was expected to contribute as a freshman after joining the team as an early enrollee, but Fitzgerald said the defensive back has undergone multiple surgeries that have kept him out of the lineup. But the coach also said he expects all the injured players to be ready for training camp in August.

Junior safety Traveon Henry, senior defensive lineman Sean McEvilly and junior offensive lineman Geoff Mogus will also be out at the beginning of spring practices, Fitzgerald said, but may become healthy enough to participate in the final two weeks.

The three-way quarterback battle

The departure of senior quarterback Trevor Siemian leaves junior Zack Oliver, redshirt freshman Matt Alviti and true freshman Clayton Thorson to compete for the job, and Fitzgerald said all three are starting from the same position.

Oliver and Alviti failed to impress in limited playing time last season, while Thorson enters the fray as the completely unproven but highly touted recruit. Each has already been typecast into a role: Oliver the pocket passer, Alviti the mobile runner and Thorson the more traditional dual threat. But Fitzgerald said he expects the offense to be the same regardless of who’s under center.

“The quarterbacks are all going to run the same plays,” Fitzgerald said. “We’re just going to split the reps up into thirds.”

The coach also said he doesn’t expect to use a two-quarterback system and the preference of the coaching staff has always been to have just one signal-caller.

The offensive line

Another big question mark coming into the 2015 campaign is who will replace All-Big Ten honorable mention Brandon Vitabile at center. Fitzgerald said the battle will be between sophomores Brad North and Ian Park, and whoever emerges as the starter will have big shoes to fill.

The entire line was viewed as a weakness for NU in 2014, but Fitzgerald said he believes there will be competition for all five line spots this season. One of the position moves Fitzgerald mentioned was shifting sophomore Connor Mahoney from the defensive to the offensive line.

The coach harped on a lack of competitive depth as a major weakness for the Cats last season, but he now seems satisfied across the board with how players are pushing each other.

Overall, Fitzgerald is optimistic about a return to success this year, and for every aspect of the game he said, “We just have to be more consistent.”

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