We're T-three days until our first-round matchup against Minnesota in the Big Ten Tournament, and we're all nervously watching the NCAA tourney bubble landscape and trying to divine the latest bracketology implications. Naturally, my thoughts turn to football.
Yo, spring football practice started this week! For once, instead of spring practice being a hit of fresh air and something to renew our optimism in NU sports after yet another season of hoops disappointment, nobody is paying much attention because, hey, our basketball team is still doing relevant stuff!
But you know, it's a long time between now and Thursday, so let's talk some football. The Trib, Rivals and I'm sure a few other outlets have put out some spring football related stuff, which focus on the big questions that we have coming off a 6-7 year.
You know what these are: Can Kain Colter seize the starting quarterback spot, and if not, are Trevor Siemian and/or Zack Oliver ready to take the reins?
How good is this Kyle Prater kid anyway?
Will we finally have a running game?
Can our defense stop anything, including questions about whether they can stop anything?
So those are the known questions the Wildcats have as they try to gear up for the 2012 season. Because none of those will likely be answered by fall camp anyway, I'm more interested in some of the more under the radar questions. The questions that won't make the headlines and probably won't be asked of Fitzgerald in interviews.
Here are my five spare-me-the-usual-stuff questions entering spring practice:
1) Will NU finally be able to pull off a jaw-dropping, f***-yeah! trick play? Most of NU's attempts to pull off a trick play have been laughably bad. You had "fastball" in OT of the Outback Bowl. Sometimes the Wildcats try to run a double reverse, but it only goes for about five yards. I think we've had a couple of hook and ladder plays that have worked modestly well, but nothing that made you jump to your feet.
Well this year, we have all the tools in place, and I'm specifically talking about our arsenal of quarterbacks. You've got Colter, who can play anywhere on the field. Siemian in limited duty seems like a decent passer and scrambler. Watkins is now a superback. I drool over the possibilities here. There are a million option passes and laterals that could happen here. Make it happen, Fitz.
2) Will Fitz unleash the Budzien? Last year, NU attempted all of 10 field goals, all by Jeff Budzien, who converted six. That lack of production meant he wasn't even included on the NCAA's list of the top 102 kickers in FBS last year.
So here's what appears to be the deal. Based on usage last year, Steve Flaherty appears to have the stronger leg, since he handled kickoffs. But Budzien's accuracy is probably better, or else he wouldn't have won the place kicking duties. Given both of their lack of experience coming into 2011, it's not surprising that Fitz was a little hesitant to call them into action, and on some 4th downs around the 30-35 yard lines, he uncharacteristically chose to go for it, instead of attempt a field goal. In some cases, he frustratingly chose to punt.
So I hope to see in spring practice whether our kickers have progressed to be reliable enough from 30 yards in to convert at better than last year's 60 percent rate, and hopefully strong enough from 40 yards-plus to take the punt out of Fitz' consideration.
3) Will our stable of running backs be able to block? One-time walk-on Jacob Schmidt got a lot of flak in NU-fanland for his relative lack of speed and absolute lack of moves. Now that he's graduated, he won't be around to hate on, but what the haters usually didn't acknowledge was that Schmidt was a great blocker in the backfield, and also a pretty decent receiver. He was adept at spotting the blitz and giving Persa or Colter a bit more time to do their thing, and when his blocking skills weren't needed, he'd slip out of the backfield as a safety valve receiver, usually picking up decent yardage.
With his departure and Adonis Smith's transfer, our RB corps now consists of Mike Trumpy (injured and not suiting up in the spring), Trevyon Green, redshirt freshman Jordan Perkins and incoming freshman Malin Jones, among others. As much as we're hoping for an improved rushing attack from those guys, I think a key will be their ability to read oncoming blitzers and help with the blocking, especially with how porous the offensive line has been in recent years.
4) Will Fitz go with a 3-4 alignment on defense, or stick with the 4-3? A few years ago, Fitz said that he was recruiting with a 3-4 defense in mind, reasoning that it was a lot easier to find stud linebackers than stud defensive linemen. I'm not sure what has happened the last couple of years, but he's mostly stuck with the 4-3.
Maybe now's the time for a change. NU's pass rush was terrible last year, totaling just 17 sacks. The defensive line loses Vince Browne, Jack DiNardo and Niko Mafuli to graduation, so it'll have to be rebuilt. Meanwhile, at linebacker, the two seniors who graduated, Bryce McNaul and Ben Johnson, lost their starting slots to younger players. It seems to me that the personnel may be more well-suited for the 3-4 this year, fulfilling Fitz' vision of a quicker and more versatile defense.
5) Will Venric Mark develop some shake-and-bake moves? No doubt Mark is one of the most electrifying players on the NU roster, when he gets the ball. His speed has led to some awesome kickoff and punt returns, and he's a homerun threat in the backfield when he gets some space to run.
But puzzling to me is that Mark doesn't appear to have much in his arsenal in the way of moves, feints, dekes and general shiftiness. His strategy on kickoff returns seems to be to run as fast as he can in a straight line, even if it means he runs right into a line of defenders who pound him into the turf. I'd like to see him work on his vision, maybe waiting for holes to open up or his blockers to set up, and then making a few cuts, before turning on the jets full bore. To do that, he'll have to learn to use his right thumbstick and right and left bumper buttons, instead of just jamming down the sprint trigger.