Tom Dienhart, Senior Writer, February 25, 2014

Entering 2013, Northwestern was coming off a 10-win season that saw the program win its first bowl game since the 1948 season, ending a nine-game postseason losing skid. But the Wildcats are ready to turn the page on a 2013 season that opened with great promise but morphed into a season to forget.

The Wildcats started strong, racing to a 4-0 start. But the wheels fell off from there, as Northwestern lost seven in a row before ending the campaign with a win over Illinois.

The 5-7 mark ended NU?s five-season bowl streak, as the Wildcats finished last in the Legends Division with a 1-7 mark. NU struggled in close games, falling in overtime at Iowa and vs. Michigan. It also lost to Minnesota and at Nebraska by three points.

But hope springs eternal in Evanston for the Wildcats, who kick off spring drills Wednesday. NU welcomes back a veteran offensive line that must continue to improve. There also is lots of skill-position talent led by running backs Venric Mark and Treyvon Green and the top three pass catchers from 2013 in Tony Jones, Christian Jones and Dan Vitale. The defense is loaded with veterans, including a strong secondary led by safeties Ibraheim Campbell and Traveon Henry and linebacker Chi Chi Ariguzo.

[ MORE: Read all of Dienhart's spring football previews ]

Here?s a look at three key questions this spring for Pat Fitzgerald, who begins his ninth season at the helm.

1. Who will play middle linebacker? Damien Proby was a steady force on the inside for this defense who will be missed after pacing the squad in tackles. Staffers will look at options like Jaylen Prater to fill the yawning void. The good news: The Wildcats have starters back at the other linebacker spots in Chi Chi Ariguzo and Collin Ellis from what was just the No. 9 defense in the Big Ten last season (423.4 ypg). This unit continues to improve its athleticism.

2. Is senior Trevor Siemian the guy at quarterback? With Kain Colter gone, Siemian would appear to be the guy under center. But keep an eye on Matt Alviti, a 6-0, 185-pound Chicago-area product who redshirted as a freshman last season. Siemian is more of a passer than runner, a proven commodity with lots of reps under his belt who dealt with a heel injury last season. He has three career starts and has thrown 542 passes for 3,717 yards with 20 touchdowns and 13 interceptions in his career. Alviti has a similar skill set after arriving amid hype after picking NU over the likes of Notre Dame and Nebraska. He brings an athletic dimension but can throw well. In fact, he has a much better arm than Colter.

3. How will competition at cornerback play out? NU has three nice options in Nick VanHoose, Matthew Harris and Daniel Jones. The staff has to like its options at safety with Ibraheim Campbell and Traveon Henry back. If the corner spots settle, NU could have one of the better secondaries in the Big Ten as it looks to improve a pass defense that ranked 10th in the nation (255.8 ypg). Like the linebacker spots, the secondary has continually improved its athletic quotient under Fitzgerald. But this group will miss the pass-rushing skills of Tyler Scott.

According to a Northwestern release, these 11 players will be held out of spring drills: WR Cermak Bland, SAF Terrance Brown, RB Stephen Buckley, DL Max Chapman, DL Deonte Gibson, CB Daniel Jones, RB Venric Mark, DL Sean McEvilly, OL Brad North, DL Ifeadi Odenigbo and OL Ian Park.

Key losses: K Jeff Budzien; QB Kain Colter; DT Will Hampton; WR Rashad Lawrence; LB Damien Proby; DE Tyler Scott; P Brandon Williams

Spring drills begin: Feb. 26

Last practice: April 12 (NU doesn?t conduct a formal spring game)

About Tom Dienhart senior writer Tom Dienhart is a veteran sports journalist who covers Big Ten football and men's basketball for and BTN TV. Find him on Twitter and Facebook, read all of his work at, 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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