Dienhart: What I will be watching at Northwestern practice
Pat Fitzgerald has Northwestern on a roll coming off a 10-win season. And the Wildcats look poised to keep thriving. But some issues needs to be resolved. Will the pass game improve? Are there any pass rushers in the house?
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Here is what I’ll be watching for at NU practice.
1. Defensive line. Two big holes at end with Dean Lowry and Deonte Gibson gone. Lowry helped NU rank No. 6 in the Big Ten in rushing defense (126.2 ypg). He was a consensus second-team All-Big Ten selection after ranking second on the team in tackles for loss with 13.5. Lowry also had 52 tackles and three sacks. Gibson was a third-team All-Big Ten choice by the media and was honorable mention by the coaches. Gibson paced the squad with nine sacks and had 12.5 tackles for loss to go along with 39 tackles. Guys like Ifeadi Odenigbo and Xavier Washington need to step up.
2. Receiver. This spot disappointed last season for an offense that too often plodded along. Who will step in to fill the gaps at wide receiver and create some big plays? From a group that was bad last year almost across the board, Cam Dickerson, Christian Jones and Mike McHugh are moving on. Austin Carr is the No. 1option. Can a healthy Flynn Nagel continue to improve on the promise he showed to play as a true freshman last year before a season-ending injury? Will RB Solomon Vault and Marcus McShepard, who moved to receiver from other spots, be difference makers?
3. Quarterback. Last year Clayton Thorson won the job. But it took a while before he got used to being “the quarterback. What type of progress has he made and how comfortable is he? Thorson needs to take the proverbial next step in his development. To the point: He needs to complete more than 50 percent of his passes.
4. Is the offensive line strong? This unit made a big move last year. And, it must continue to show toughness and get a push in the ground game. Guys like guard Ian Park, tackle Blake Hance and center Brad North need to keep the Wildcat line moving forward and block for star RB Justin Jackson.
5. Are the linebackers as good as I think? Anthony Walker could be an All-American in the middle. And he has some good partners in Nate Hall and Jaylen Prater along with Queiro Cameron. For NU to reach last year’s heights, this unit needs to thrive.
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