Dienhart: Here's what I learned at Northwestern football practice

@BTNTomDienhart

Dienhart: Here's what I learned at Northwestern football practice

EVANSTON, Ill. — Northwestern is coming off a 10-win season, bolstering hopes for the future. Could the Wildcats make a push to win the Big Ten West? Perhaps.

There is a lot to like about the 2016 Northwestern squad, beginning with strong linebackers and running backs.

Here is what I learned watching the Wildcats practice.

1. This will be one of the top linebacking corps in the Big Ten. It all begins with Anthony Walker, a bellwether and future pro. Nate Hall and Jaylen Prater flank Walker, aka “The Franchise,” and bring a nice blend of speed and athletic ability to the table. This could be a breakout season for Hall. Joseph Jones is coming on.

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2. Clayton Thorson is making progress. And, that’s a good thing. The passing attack was lacking in 2015, ranking last in the conference (138.5 ypg). Thorson must do his part to improve the passing game after hitting a paltry 50.8 percent, although, to be fair, the receivers didn’t help his numbers much. He looks the part and has a nice arm. He is bigger and stronger, too, which will help. And you can tell this is his third year with NU, as he seems to read defenses better.

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3. The receiving corps has potential. This unit has struggled with consistency—especially when it comes to catching the ball. And more big-play ability is needed for an attack to all too often plods along. To that end, players like Solomon Vault was moved from running back to wideout and Marcus McShepard went from the secondary to wideout to add some juice. Austin Carr is the top option. Austin Flynn and Charlie Fessler also are vets with potential. And watch true freshman Ben Skowronek. Long story short, the wideout spot is the area of most concern on the NU roster.

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4. The secondary could be vulnerable. CB Keith Watkins was lost for the season with a knee injury suffered in camp; he was penciled in to take over for Nick VanHoose and was a top corner at a position where depth isn’t great. Now, who will start opposite CB Matthew Harris? Montre Hartage is slated to take over. And Trae Williams, a safety by trade, has potential. Alonzo Mayo also is on the radar.

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5. Keep an eye on the defensive line. Can it get a rush from the ends? Dean Lowry and Deonte Gibson are gone. Ifeadi Odenigbo and Xavier Washington need to step up. And the depth at end isn’t fantastic. Lowry and Gibson were part of front that played well enough to free the back seven to not have worry extensively about helping generate a pass rush. And that was big. The good news: The DT spot is strong. Tyler Lancaster, C.J. Robbins and Jordan Thompson are a nice threesome. Robbins and Thompson missed today.

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Tom Dienhart, BTN.com Senior Writer

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, and send him questions to his weekly mailbag.

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