Spring practice for the Northwestern Wildcats opened with promise. The team was coming off a 10-win season, their second in three years, and a bowl win. Things have never seemingly looked better for Northwestern.
The team was losing a lot in production last year — Justin Jackson, most notably — and Clayton Thorson is still out recovering from a torn ACL. New leaders will have to step up on defense too. It is probable Northwestern will not reach that win total again thanks to a tougher schedule and the random whims of the games NU plays.
Yet, undoubtedly the Wildcats are more optimistic than they have ever been. Their expectations are as high as they have ever been. And the team is trying to keep the hunger of a team still trying to prove itself in every conceivable way.
Northwestern started their spring practice in one place and ended it in another. That place being Ryan Fieldhouse, officially open now for the Wildcats to practice. To much fanfare, the athletic department’s vision for transforming the athletic facilities is realized.
The proclamations about the new facilities changing the program will get put to the test now. All the reviews about Wilson Field and Ryan Fieldhouse have been strong.
Coach Pat Fitzgerald recognizes he will have to keep the team’s hunger going now that the program is experiencing sustained success and now has the facilities to support them. He continually stresses the history of the program and how the team has to pay back the school for all this financial and material support.
Fitzgerald even turned to the fans and asked for more of them. With the university providing the facilities, it is up to the students to fill Ryan Field moving forward. Yes, that is a coach challenging his students, and who is not ready to run through a wall for him?
Where does that leave Northwestern on the field though?
Spring practice was completed with the team’s final practice this weekend. The open practice and clinic at Ryan Field was canceled Saturday because of inclement weather.
It has been an oddly quiet spring practice. Maybe it is because the program has never made a big deal of its spring game — it operates more as a practice than an actual game.
Media coverage has focused on the opening of the new facility and the opportunity it brings to improve Northwestern. And the program’s perception.
But who has stood out and where Northwestern needs work entering next season are still a bit unclear.
It is not clear who is winning the early quarterback battle between T.J. Green and Aidan Smith to hold down Clayton Thorson’s spot (odds are on Green)l There is no indication whether Jeremy Larkin has played to expectations as he tries to replace Justin Jackson. No word if the defense is picking things up or if the offensive line is gelling.
Fitzgerald has never used spring practice to decide any of these things. Most of the time it is more about getting some initial reps in and keeping guys healthy. There is time in August — with the advantage of not having classes until a few weeks into the season — to get everyone prepared for the season.
Those position battles will sort themselves out in the summer ahead of the opener at Purdue on Aug. 30.
This spring proved to be an exciting time for the Wildcats. An extremely exciting time. The new facilities will make a difference for the program moving forward.
What this team looks like in 2018 remains a seeming mystery.