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Northwestern 2016 spring football preveiew

Pads are back to popping, helmets back to smacking and coaches back to yelling about fundamentals — it could only mean one thing — spring football is here.

Even though we are still in February, one Big Ten team is poised to get us all fired up for spring ball. The Northwestern Wildcats kick of spring football this season with their first practice taking place Feb. 23.

With that in mind, they’ll kick off our full spring previews, so enjoy away.

Key Dates:

1st Practice: Feb. 23
Spring Game: April 9

1 Big Question to Answer in Spring: Can Northwestern’s Offense Catch Up?

Northwestern was able to surprise some in 2015 thanks to easily the best defense of the Pat Fitzgerald era. However, the offense was far behind and ultimately it was that lack of offensive output that put the Wildcats behind the eight ball.

Breaking in a first-year quarterback and plenty of changing parts around him didn’t help matters. However, this spring has to be all about progression from quarterback Clayton Thorson and Co. — and it could hardly get worse than last in scoring offense (19.5 ppg), total offense (327.1 ypg) and passing offense (138.5 ypg).

Thorson and Co. will have plenty of the fundamentals to work on, with most of the wide receiver group new and Thorson needing to showcase an ability to beat teams with more than grit it will be the spotlight situation this spring.

Flynn Nagel showed plenty of promise before suffering a season-ending injury in his true freshman season, while other names like Charlie Fessler and Cam Green will get big looks. So too could Solomon Vault, who moved to receiver during Outback Bowl prep. If this group gets on the same page it could be the springboard to bigger things in 2016.

2 Reasons to Actual Pay Attention to Spring Practice (Or Not)

—  No player will be more under a microscope in Evanston than Thorson, and his accuracy will be the most talked about aspect of spring. Last season he completed just 50.8 percent of his passes and just seven touchdowns to nine interceptions. Those numbers need to be drastically improved and finding out how capable Thorson is of a turnaround will be very important to watch this spring.

— Those who don’t adhere to conventional wisdom will love Northwestern’s spring ball, as they simply do things differently. First off there are two scrimmages that will be open to the public instead of a regular spring game and the event that will be televised is also unconventional. Depending on the health of this Wildcats team we could be in for a lot of fun come April 9.

3 Positions Needing Most Work

— Defensive Line: Losing Dean Lowry and Deonte Gibson won’t be fun to say the least. Those were two of the biggest cogs in Northwestern’s successful defense last season, and what was behind them was inconsistent and youthful to say the least. In Northwestern’s 4-3 scheme, the defensive ends are more than place holders and in the rough and tumble Big Ten West this is a group that needs to hold up against some massive offensive lines.

— Wide Receiver: Cam Dickerson, Christian Jones and Mike McHugh are all gone from last season, and even that group was considered a disappointment. With that being said, there may not be a position with more playing time and opportunity available than that of wide receiver. Will anyone step up to the plate and help Thorson take the next step or will this group continue to disappoint and force another off year on the offensive side of the ball.

— Cornerback: It felt like Nick VanHoose was in Evanston for a better part of a decade, but alas he is gone and show is the leadership he showed to this group from the day he stepped on campus to graduation. Things will be different in the secondary this upcoming season and it will be up to senior Matthew Harris to get the leadership right in this group. Who wins the job next to him could be a two-man race between junior Keith Watkins II and Parker Westphal.

4 Players to Watch

Clayton Thorson, QB — Simply put, Northwestern needs way more than they got out of Thorson last season. The good news is there won’t be a competition happening and that means way more reps will be coming Thorson’s way. No doubt he’s been working as a true passer in the offseason and nothing will be fixed overnight. Spring is all about showing that progress is being made, otherwise this offense is going to continue to be way too one-dimensional to maintain a 10-game season again.

Ifeadi Odenigbo, DE — It’s time for the youngster to show up and become the star many believe he has in him. Last season Odenigbo finished the year with 33 tackles, 5.0 tackles for loss and 5.0 sacks. That was in duty spotting for two big time defensive ends, so lets see what he has when he has to be “the man” this season.

Garrett Dickerson, Superback — Dan Vitale’s loss is going to be huge, not only in leadership but also in terms of what he can add to the offense. One player whom I was very high on when recruited to Evanston was Garrett Dickerson, and now after two years of learning under Vitale, he’ll get the chance to shine. If the receivers aren’t totally stepping up, look to Dickerson as a nice release valve in the passing game. He’s also gotten much better as a blocker and is more versatile overall. He’s one of my favorites to break out for the Wildcats.

Marcus McShepard, WR — On Tuesday morning, Fitzy announced a few position switches and one of them was the 5 foot, 11 inch McShepard moving from a backup role in the secondary over to wide receiver. It’s a position he played in high school before focusing on the defensive side of the football. Given his speedy nature, this could be a move to help shake up what has been a stale group of receivers over the past few years. Northwestern’s receiver group could use a dose of speed, so watching to see how McShepard adapts to the change could tell us a lot about where the offense is heading come the fall.

Andy Coppens is the Founder and Publisher of Talking10. He’s a member of the Football Writers Association of America (FWAA) and has been covering college sports in some capacity since 2008. You can follow him on Twitter @AndyOnFootball

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