We know nothing.
Northwestern coach Pat Fitzgerald is notoriously cagey with the media, hostile towards questioners, and given to hockey- and baseball-speak, with talk of “lower-body injuries” and weird metaphors about pitch counts (that are bad and dumb). Shit, even basic coverage of the program—gauging InsideNU running through the same 10 questions everyone has about Northwestern (that we’ll ask below!), Teddy Greenstein’s annual pilgrimage to Augusta National, and not even a word from Skip Mylenski in over a week—is basically at naught.
Honest. We don’t even know if there’s a Saturday spring practice like the half-assed open practices of years past. Meanwhile, the @NUFBFamily account is just posting motivational :30 clips about “Trust” and “Family” and dear God, this off-season is terrible.
Of course, there’s not a ton to “look for” in the early stages of Northwestern’s practice schedule. Per the Daily Northwestern, a number of players—Trey Pugh, Paddy Fisher, Blake Gallagher, JR Pace and Charlie Kuhbander—were ruled out for the entirety of spring ball, which...I mean, it would seem like having three of your starting defensive back seven out is bad, but...
...sure, whatever. Add to that the retirement of superback Cameron Green, the graduation of QB Clayton Thorson and security blanket WR Flynn Nagel, three offensive linemen (JB Butler, Blake Hance, and Tommy Doles) and two interior defensive linemen (Jordan Thompson and Fred Wyatt), and you could feel like there’s cause for concern.
But really...it’s Northwestern football, marching on through another mystifying off-season as expectations mount to repeat as Big Ten West champions in the face of a resurgent Nebraska and always-tricky wisconsin. We won’t know anything.
And yet, like impetuous children on Christmas Eve, we shake the spring practice presents under the tree-that’s-actually-a-gorgeous-lakeside-fieldhouse, hoping to hear a rattle of...
1. Hunter Johnson, right?
Me: It’s gotta be. The Clemson five-star-recruit-turned-transfer QB is the odds-on, media-favorite, best-guess replacement for Thorson. We won’t know a damn thing until he leads the Cats’ offense onto the field at Stanford on August 31, but this is the A-topic for all conversations of NU returning to the Big Ten Championship game. It’s gotta be Hunter.
Pat Fitzgerald, Overbearing Parent: Now, son, you don’t know that. Hunter and TJ Green will split reps with the first team through the summer. We like what we see out of both these young men. It won’t be easy to replace Clayton, but we want a leader who knows the offense at the helm, and we won’t rush anything.
Me: Shut up, Dad, it’s a new Hot Wheels, I know it is.
2. Restored running back depth
Me: The bruising Isaiah Bowser is a fan favorite for his should-be-discussed-as-more-central role in reviving the flagging 2018 campaign, but counting on a true sophomore to carry the entire load seems...unwise.
Thankfully, there’s still speedster John Moten IV in the backfield with Bowser, and running backs coach Louis Ayeni appears hell-bent on reminding redshirt freshman Drake Anderson both that he has “hands like a snake” (I’m still not sure if that’s good or bad, but I’m 95% confident snakes don’t have hands) and that his dad played well in the 2000 Michigan game.
Pat Fitzgerald: [/runs draw play to...Jesse Brown?...on 3rd-and-8 in a big-play situation at wisconsin, because it worked once (hi, Iowa) and damnit, why won’t it work again?]
Me: dad i just wanted to know if i could stay up and watch for santa
3. Is the defense...alive?
Me: There’s very little depth at cornerback, notably not a problem since I think the DBs handled Ohio State just fine and there’s no way they’re on the schedule in some big-spot game in 2019.
I mean, if you wanted names, I’d give you Trae Williams and Cameron Ruiz as the bookends, with prayers that we get to practice and learn that Alonzo Mayo has been turned into a cyborg CB with rockets for legs. Really, it would be interesting just to see who was lined up alongside Williams as the other starter, and if youth like Greg Newsome II were getting looks. The ‘Cats have gotten by with some makeshift secondaries over the last couple years, and it looks like it’s all hands on deck again.
Fitz, nodding: Concur. Lower body injury. Next man up. Bryce Jackson looks good in shorts.
Me: Uh...anyways... We mentioned earlier that starting LBs Paddy Fisher and Blake Gallagher are out for spring ball, which will at least give us a nice chance to see how their backups are developing. And Joe Gaziano on the defensive line, along with the Alex Miller and Samdup Miller, make up 3⁄4 of a really strong run-stopping unit. Whether there’s much around them, though, remains to be seen.
Fitz: And you won’t see any of that in my spring practices, but now, here are linemen catching punts and doing a dizzy bat challenge.
Ed. Note: We have not actually seen footage of any dizzy bat challenges from 2019, but it’s out there. It’s always out there.
4. A healthy and competent offensive live
Me: Former Michigan OL Kurt Anderson joins the paid coaching ranks as the new offensive line coach. [Because thank God, somehow Eastern Illinois wanted Adam Cushing to be its head coach! If this was some brilliant Pat Fitzgerald scheme to talk up Cushing and get him off the Northwestern books, I take back all the fun I made of Fitz in this bit.]
Anyways, Anderson’s got...uh...Gunnar Vogel and Rashawn Slater, who as true juniors at the bookend spots will hopefully continue to spoil the ‘Cats with their talents for two more full seasons. But this was a crew that still couldn’t keep Clayton Thorson top-side in big-spot moments, and we’ll look to Anderson to build a competent offensive line.
Pat Fitzgerald: We’ll play the best 5 guys at the position.
Me: That doesn’t make sen—
Pat Fitzgerald: Did YOU win 9 games last year, including a bowl game, and appear in the Big Ten Championship?
Me: I don’t think that’s my job—
Pat Fitzgerald, with a smug smirk literally dripping with whatever the physical manifestation of disdain for journalists and bloggers is: I think we’ll be able to handle it.
Note: Like the true non-journalists we are, we really don’t know if NU is hosting an open spring practice. Our intrepid non-reporter LincolnParkWildcat has reached out to @NUFBFamily for comment, and this post will possibly be updated if we learn anything
LPW UPDATE: There will be no outdoor spring practice, according to a conversation I had with Northwestern’s football program over twitter. :(
No. Now that everything is centralized in the new facility, transporting the whole operation back to Ryan Field is a haul. Plus, we've turned the locker room over to @NUSBcats for their season.— Northwestern Football (@NUFBFamily) April 11, 2019
Darn. I was looking forward to seeing the team this spring, but I completely understand.— LincolnParkWildcat (@LPWildcat) April 11, 2019
You will be the first to know! Problem is Ryan Fieldhouse is not set up to handle many spectators during practice. We were excited to be able to host a free youth clinic for 500+ after practice in there last Saturday!— Northwestern Football (@NUFBFamily) April 11, 2019
Possible for sure, if we can get outside we will always take advantage. But...(looks outside)...it's always dicey this time of year.— Northwestern Football (@NUFBFamily) April 11, 2019
Well, this is disappointing, but not surprising.
For the past few years I’ve (weather permitting) looked forward to seeing our current reigning B1G West Champs (it feels so satisfying typing this) host their die-hard fans (such as yours truly and MNW) and have a spring practice. Not a spring game, but just a practice, and later on some kind of special event for children).
For those of you who do not know, Northwestern’s football program is not on the lakefront campus proper: the stadium and the old practice facilities are a mile and half off campus in a suburban neighborhood.
Northwestern recently moved the non-gameday football facilities on campus to the brand new Walter Athletics Facility
Ok. I get it. The team moved into a new facility, which is __amazing__.
Yes, it’s the best practice facility in the country.
(Nevermind the jokes about the lack of yacht docks causing consternation for the billionaire donors named Ryan and whatnot).
And Pat Fitzgerald is very secretive about injuries and everything else.
And every year, there were maybe 500-1000 of us who went to the spring “game”.
I just wish I could rely on my own observations on this team in person on a freezing “spring” day in Evanston as a long-time non-alum season ticket holder with family connections to NU instead of relaying the helpful hints from the team’s awesome official twitter account.
Also: The QB's are splitting reps...Moten/Brown working to push Bowser....Williams/Newsome/Ruiz/Campbell at CB...McIntryre/Jones have taken advantage of available LB reps...Talented OL like Gerak/Stovall/Urban been waiting patiently...Watch Kent/Brown/Leota/Saunders on DL.— Northwestern Football (@NUFBFamily) April 11, 2019
Dammit! The offseason is too damn long.
Kickoff can’t come soon enough