Football Notebook: End of the superback position and early enrollees headline start of Northwestern spring practice


Daily file photo by Joshua Hoffman

Pat Fitzgerald looks at the replay screen. The head coach heads into the 2020 season one win away from 100 career wins at Northwestern.

Charlie Goldsmith, Sports Editor


Northwestern had a number of stars at the superback position during former offensive coordinator Mick McCall’s 12-year tenure with the Wildcats.

Now the superback position is extinct.

“(Offensive coordinator Mike Bajakian) said, ‘Can we call them tight ends?’ and I said sure,” head coach Pat Fitzgerald said. “There was not a deep psychological decision.”

NU’s superbacks have been a tight end-fullback hybrid for the last twelve seasons, but now that group of players will simply be referred to as tight ends. Cam Green, Garrett Dickerson and Dan Vitale earned all Big Ten recognition at the position over the last decade, but in 2019 the Cats struggled at that spot.

Starter Charlie Mangieri finished the year with five receptions for 21 yards, and backup Trey Pugh had just two receptions for nine yards.

New offensive coordinator Mike Bajakian said he expects those two players to line up at the line of scrimmage more in 2020 than they did last season.

“The skills of what the superbacks were previously is constantly changing. They’ve had at the history of the position here at Northwestern, they’ve had some really good guys with some dynamic skill sets,” he said. “We definitely need guys with those skills sets, but we’re trying to broaden their horizons a little bit, ask them to do some more inline things that maybe they weren’t doing before.”

Early enrollees off to strong start

Seven new faces joined NU’s returners at the start of spring practice Tuesday. The newcomers are skipping the second semester of their senior years of high school to begin practicing with the football team and taking classes in Evanston.

“It’s a big group, seven. It’s the biggest we’ve had, so that’s exciting to me,” Fitzgerald said. “They’ve attacked early enrolling as best as (any) we’ve had.”

The group is headlined by three-star quarterback Carl Richardson, who adds depth to the offense but isn’t expected to be the starter in September.

NU also adds defensive linemen Jordan Butler, Jaiden Cameron and Te-Rah Edwards, offensive linemen Josh Priebe and Ben Wrather and tight end Hunter Welcing.

“They came ready to attack,” Fitzgerald said. “It doesn’t mean that they’re doing anything spectacular, but they’re attitude is awesome.”

Notable positional assignments

In the Cats’ season finale last year, converted defensive back Coco Azema rushed for 123 yards on just seven rushing attempts. But despite the redshirt freshman’s standout performance in the backfield to end the season and the Big Ten Freshman of the Week award that came with it, Azema will be listed as a defensive back again this season.

One other notable player on the official roster was Jason Whittaker, who was listed as a quarterback.

Whittaker opened the 2019 preseason as a quarterback before being moved to superback at the start of the season. Then after graduate quarterback TJ Green suffered a season-ending injury, Whittaker switched back to quarterback.

He’ll play quarterback during spring practice, but NU has more depth at the position than the team had last year and a move to tight end remains a possibility.

Injury report

The Cats have eight players who will miss the entire spring practice slate: running backs Jesse Brown and Isaiah Bowser, offensive linemen Sam Gerak and Gunnar Vogel, quarterback TJ Green, wide receiver Braeden Heald, safety JR Pace and tight end Hunter Welcing.

A previous version of this story stated that Mick McCall introduced the “superback” position to college football. The position existed at Northwestern before McCall joined the Wildcats’ staff in 2008. The Daily regrets the error.

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