5 things Tom Dienhart learned at Northwestern practice

@BTNTomDienhart

5 things Tom Dienhart learned at Northwestern practice

The sixth stop on our annual summer trek across the Big Ten brought us to Kenosha, Wisconsin, where we watched the Wildcats practice Monday morning.

[ MORE: Fun notes from NU practice | See our team’s NU practice tweets ]

Before we turn our attention to Michigan State, which we will watch Tuesday in East Lansing, Michigan, here are five things I learned at Northwestern practice:

1. The quarterback spot remains interesting. The position was a disappointment last season and needs to improve if NU wants to rebound from consecutive 5-7 seasons after a 10-win 2012. It’s a three-man clash between senior Zack Oliver, sophomore Matt Alviti and redshirt freshman Clayton Thorson. Oliver did not practice today as he attended to class work. Regardless, this job may come down to Alviti and Thorson. Each has a similar skill set, running and passing with equal aplomb. (Oliver is the best passer.) Because of that, I don’t expect a two-QB system as Pat Fitzgerald has used in the past. Look for Alviti or Thorson to be the guy in the opener vs. Stanford. This battle will tell the tale of the 2015 season for Northwestern.

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2. The o-line has something to prove. The struggles here are a big reason why NU was No. 104 in the nation in offense last year (353.1 ypg). The key word in recent years has been “shuffle,” as players have come and gone and moved around. No continuity. The struggles have limited play calls by OC Mick McCall. More toughness and grit are needed for a group that yielded 34 sacks in 2014. A big revelation has been the fact senior Geoff Mogus will stay at left tackle after being a guard since his prep days. That move means junior Ian Park is now at left guard. Sophomore Brad North is playing at center. Senior Shane Mertz is the right guard with senior Matt Frazier at right tackle, but he continues to battle back from a staph infection, so junior Eric Olson is at right tackle for now.

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3. The secondary could be pretty good. This might be the Big Ten’s most underrated secondary, in fact. NU has returning starters at corner in junior Matthew Harris and senior Nick VanHoose. Harris may be a pro, while VanHoose can cover and stop the run. Senior Traveon Henry is almost like a linebacker at safety, but he has lost 15 pounds and gotten quicker. The new starter is sophomore Godwin Igwebuike, who has a nose for the ball and may be a star of the future. In fact, he could be the best of the bunch for a veteran Wildcat secondary that has four players who have combined for 64 starts the last three years. VanHoose paces the group with 32. Henry has 20, and Harris 17. Igwebuike has five starts.

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4. Playmakers are needed at receiver. The ultimate success of this group likely hinges on the health of Christian Jones, who did not practice today as he tended to a class. He missed last year with a left knee injury and tweaked it again the spring. Jones continues to recover but has not played since 2013. At 6-3, 210, Jones is a physical mismatch and a legit NFL prospect who may be the lone wideout on the roster who has No. 1 ability. He can run good routes, has nice hands and can block. Senior Cameron Dickerson is a big target with speed and muscle who may have to be the “the guy” if Jones can’t be. Inconsistency dogged him in 2014. Junior Miles Shuler is a speedy option in the slot for a unit that has an intriguing true freshman in Flynn Nagel among myriad other options. This offense will go four-wide using Superbacks and/or running backs split wide, if needed, for a unit that had too many drops last year.

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5. The biggest issue on defense is linebacker. Pencil in sophomore Anthony Walker in the middle and senior Drew Smith on the strong side. Walker is gonna be good. But who will start on the weak side? Junior Jaylen Prater? Sophomore Brett Walsh? Redshirt frosh Nate Hall? Junior Joe Jones?

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About Tom Dienhart BTN.com senior writer Tom Dienhart is a veteran sports journalist who covers Big Ten football and men’s basketball for BTN.com and BTN TV. Find him on Twitter and Facebook, read all of his work at btn.com/tomdienhart, and subscribe to his posts via RSS. Also, send questions to his weekly mailbag using the form below and read all of his previous answers in his reader mailbag section.

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