Northwestern Football Preview: Offensive Line

I’m sure you’re noticing a theme running through all of these positional previews – “uncertainty”.                                                             090713Northwestern-football_2-300x200

And while there is still a lot of mystery on the other positions we’ve covered on offense, at least there are specific players we can turn to and anticipate what their role might be or what we can expect to see. But when it comes to the Northwestern offensive line, there are absolutely no guarantees.

As much as we’vr covered how important the decision at quarterback is going to be, the overall effectiveness of the position will only be as successful as the line protecting him.

For the past four seasons, the offensive line was anchored by center Brandon Vitabile. Vitabile started every game of his career at Northwestern, and even when linemen around him struggled, Vitabile was solid and reliable. Undrafted initially, Vitabile signed a free agent contract with the Indianapolis Colts in May, leaving a big hole in the middle for Northwestern this season.

It should not be understated how important the offensive line is going to be for the Wildcats this season, not only in protecting the quarterback, but in the run game as well. There is no question that they are going to depend on the ground attack early and often this season, but unless the protection up front is solid, the offense is going to have difficulty moving down the field.

Brad North is being projected right now as the starting center, Matt Frazier and Eric Olson are returning from last year, and red shirt freshmen Blake Hance and Tommy Doles will certainly have opportunities after being highly recruited, but be prepared to see a game of offensive lineman musical chairs that should extend into the first few weeks of the season.

Player to Watch – Geoff Mogus

In losing Vitabile, the Wildcats are not only losing their best and most dependable lineman, they are losing one of their leaders. A team captain in his junior and senior seasons, Vitabile was someone they could depend on to guide younger players along. The team is going to miss him well beyond the depth chart.

It should be noted that for Mogus, it is his experience that puts him in this position more than his past production as a player. And it remains to be seen whether he’ll be moved to tackle or not. Every spot on the line is open, and coach Pat Fitzgerald has said that he intends to put the best five guys out there.

His leadership will be the quality they will need to turn to most as they open practice this month, no matter what position he ends up with on the field. With so many underclassman on the line this year, Mogus will have to be the one to fill the leadership void left by Vitabile, and anchor the line for whoever is taking the snaps behind him.

Mogus has seen time at guard and tackle, but took the majority of the snaps in spring practice at left tackle, leading me to believe that is where they want to see the red shirt senior this season. In fact, as much as I built up the loss at center, left tackle is arguably a more important position on the offensive line, and a spot where they are going to want to put their best player.

The offensive line will be one of the most interesting positions to watch over the next few weeks with so many moving parts. And while Mogus is the most obvious player to watch, there is no guarantee how he’ll take to a move to tackle.

While the focus will remain on the battles at the higher profile offensive positions, its hard to feel good about an offensive line with a lack of experience both individually and as a unit.

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Northwestern Football Preview: Wide Receiver

For all of the questions surrounding who will be under center for Northwestern this fall, the group of guys catching the passes may be an even more unknown group. E7T5430-300x275

The wide receivers are one of the position groups that were hurt most in the off season with the losses of their top two targets from last year, Kyle Prater and Tony Jones. And with these two gone off of a group that really struggled even with them last year, the Wildcats could be in for another very rough showing from their receivers.

With only a few returning starters and a lot of unknowns and incoming freshman, the depth chart at wide receiver may be one of the most fluid heading into camp.

Christian Jones, Miles Shuler and Cameron Dickerson highlight the returning starters, and with Jones and Dickerson both coming off of injuries, its hard to predict at this point what we’re going to see from them. Jones has top-receiver potential, but has struggled to stay healthy and Dickerson has the physical build for the role, but has a bad habit of dropping passes. Both will likely be thrown into bigger roles by necessity alone.

But spots are no doubt going to be up for grabs, and guys like Mike McHugh and Pierre Youngblood-Ary are going to have opportunities in camp to vie for a bigger role in the offense.

These questions are all underlined by the uncertainty at quarterback, which was covered in last week’s positional preview. Because none of these guys are proven, consistent big-play receivers, their success will live and die by the quarterback’s ability to get the ball to the right spot and make plays.

This could also play into coach Pat Fitzgerald’s decision at quarterback. With so many questions surrounding how much production they could even have through the air, he may opt to go with someone like Matt Alviti, who could keep defenses off balance with his legs when there is nothing available down field. Alviti’s ability to run could also create opportunities for receivers if he can become a threat.

While Northwestern will likely depend primarily on the running backs on offense, an ineffective passing game will hinder their ability to run the ball. If they are not able to be a threat down field and keep linebackers and defensive backs on their heels, they are going to have a very hard time moving the ball and scoring on offense. Only truly elite wide receivers are able to compensate for or overcome weak quarterbacking or offensive line play, and it doesn’t appear Northwestern has any of those on their roster as of now. The best they can hope for is a balanced attack and it is unclear if they have the personnel or the talent right now to do that.

The best they can hope for at this point is to find the best combinations in camp, and that will be on Fitz and the coaching staff. They’ll need to evaluate which quarterback has the best feel for the offense, and based on that, see which receivers find the most chemistry with that quarterback. And since the three guys competing for the quarterback job are so different, it opens the door for any one of these receivers to step into a larger role.

Player to Watch: Christian Jones

The big question is whether or not Jones will be healthy and able to return to form from two seasons ago. Jones missed all of last season with an ACL injury and has had lingering knee issues since then. Jones is #1 receiver material but it is yet to be seen if he can live up to that potential. His health will be one of, if not the most important factors when it comes to the success of the receiving corps in this offense.

In 2013, Jones led the team with 668 yards and 4 touchdowns in a season that was capped off by a 182 yard, two touchdown game in a win against Illinois in the last game of the season.

If he can get back to that kind of production, he could be a very dangerous offensive threat.

Northwestern Football Preview: Quarterback

With only eight weeks until the start of the Northwestern Wildcats’ 2015-16 football season, there are far more questions than there are answers about the roster going into this year. The offensive side of the ball saw graduating seniors Trevor Siemian, Kyle Prater and Brandon Vitabile go and there are no sure fire answers as to who is going to take those vital starting positions.

While there will be position battles all around, football teams live and die at the quarterback position. And while Siemian was never a great quarterback, he was experienced, comfortable in the system, and will not be easy to replace.

Now with Zack Oliver the only returning QB with a start under his belt, which came in the final game of the year against Illinois and saw him throw three interceptions and lose two fumbles, the position is officially up for grabs with no clear favorite in the bunch.

Vying for the position with Oliver will be 4-star recruits from the past two years,  Matt Alviti and Clayton Thorson. While it is possible that coach Pat Fitzgerald will try a tandem quarterback scheme at times to start the season, ideally one of them will step up and become the consistent man under center.

Here is a bit about each player, what to expect to see from them this year and why each has a case to be the starter.

Zack Oliver:

What to expect – Oliver is most likely to be the starter when the Wildcats open the season against Stanford, though that distinction is primarily due to him being a senior who has a bit of experience coming in for the oft injured Siemian last season. But if he wants to remain the starter, he is going to have to earn it. Oliver may have the best arm strength of the three, and his familiarity with the system is a plus, but he hasn’t shown enough to make a strong enough case for himself as the regular starter. He’ll have to take care of the ball, and with Prater gone and wide receiver still being a position with as many question marks as quarterback, he won’t have a reliable weapon down field to make big plays or bail him out of poor throws. He could see three or four starts to start the year while he becomes more comfortable in that role, but that may be as far as his leash goes.

Why he should start- There is a lot to be said about a player who is a senior, familiar with the system, and has real college game experience. If he can limit his give aways, he could be a good game manager in a “run-first” offense.

Clayton Thorson: 

What to expect – On the other end of the spectrum is the least experienced of the three, Clayton Thorson. Thorson is a big bodied pocket passer who comes in at 6’4″ and 200 pounds. And for his size, his footwork is solid and he does have the ability to run the ball. At Wheaton North High School he showed that he was a good situational passer with a high football IQ. I believe Thorson has the biggest long-term upside of the three quarterbacks with the potential for the most complete, all-around game. His size and ability to take a hit makes up for some of his lack of speed, and if he earns Fitzgerald’s trust early on, could see himself starting games and taking the majority of the snaps sooner rather than later.

Why he should start – Thorson may very well give them the best combination of winning games now and investing in the future. He has all of the tools to be a very good quarterback, and with no outright starter in place and so many questions at every other position but running back, the future is now, and that means starting Thorson.

Matt Alviti: 

What to expect – If Oliver has the arm and Thorson has the size, Alviti has the speed. In fact, his quickness and ability to run the ball is the best argument for him seeing time at quarterback. While Alviti likely doesn’t have enough of an all-around game to be an every down player, he could give them flexibility to run the bootleg. Alviti may be the most exciting of the three to watch, with a reputation as a “gunslinger”, but his height is in issue as a pocket passer. And while he did not see much time last season, knowing the offense and having some experience could help him to be more confident and comfortable going into this year.

Why he should start – If Northwestern is looking to “get off the bus running”, Alviti is their guy. He can take some of the pressure off of Justin Jackson, keep defenses guessing, and being a threat to run could open things up for his receivers.

No doubt quarterback will be the position battle to watch heading into the fall. Coach Fitz will have a lot of decisions to make, but this one will be the most important. It will be interesting to see if anyone emerges as a favorite out of camp, or if this  remains a tight race heading into the first game of the season and beyond.

The Story of Midway Madness

One summer day in the dugout of Columbia College Chicago’s baseball team, Midway Madness creators Mackinley Salk and Chris Gasper saw the writing on the wall. If they wanted to do what logolong2they loved and cover sports, they were going to have to take things into their own hands.

“Not wanting to get paid nothing for years while not covering the teams we wanted to, we decided to do our own thing on our own terms,” says Salk. “We saw the sports journalism world was starting to change, so we jumped on the opportunity to do it our way. ”

They started working on the site in 2008 and finally launched MidwayMadness.com nearly three years later, a website that covers Chicago sports and offers an opportunity for young aspiring writers to hone their craft and get real-world experience writing about sports.

But it was a challenging road for Salk, who had wanted to be a baseball player coming out of Hinsdale Central High School. He spent two years at Western Michigan University. When a back injury kept him from being able to continue to play, he found broadcasting as an extracurricular activity that allowed him to follow his passion for sports. Even though this was a big transition for Salk he was no stranger to sports journalism.

“My father owns a bar (Justin’s at Southport and Roscoe) in Chicago. When I was a kid, I would be there and many sports writers hung out in there. I became friends with these people and eventually many of them encouraged me to get into the field. ”

After graduating from Columbia, he worked for WCRX, Columbia’s on-campus radio station, and lined himself up with a few broadcasting internships. But it became apparent to Salk that it was going to be a struggle making a living and also covering the teams he loved.

“Starting my own business in this field was tough. Trying to separate ourselves from the “blogs” of the world was tough. Also, dealing with media relations directors who don’t allow a level playing field was a battle. The biggest thing was just getting people to take us seriously. ”

And they did. Midway Madness was covering everything from the pro teams to Northwestern sports and the website was putting out content at an increasing rate.

But the workload and the competitive field was starting to take its toll on Salk, Gasper and the others running the site. They started to realize that it was becoming more about fighting to post recaps first than it was about their love of covering sports.

On Jan. 16, 2014, Gasper passed away after losing control of his car in Ohio on his way back from the Rock ‘n’ Roll Hall of Fame. Before he died, Gasper expressed to the group that he wanted the site to give students the same opportunity it gave him and the Midway Madness staff, to cover sports and learn how to do it right.

“Since Chris passed away, we have changed some things. It’s not about our love for sports journalism. It’s about showing young students how to do this the right way. The game is changing and with it, journalists are getting lazy. We want to make sure our students get it right and move on into the working world with a clue. ”

Since then, Midway Madness has seen a lot of its writers go on to paying jobs and careers in the industry, including Lauren Comitor, another Columbia graduate who is now the digital news editor at the Chicago Tribune.

Lauren was raised in a Chicago sports family and found her passion for journalism in high school. She started her career with an internship with TribLocal and heard about Midway Madness from the internship coordinator at Columbia. She covered Northwestern football and basketball for Midway Madness, and wrote columns on some of the pro teams as she prepared herself for a job in the real world.

“Through my experience at Midway, I focused a lot on networking,” Comitor said. “Going out and covering games and events gave me the opportunity to meet, interact with and get advice from many reporters I admired. Some of these reporters were nice enough to let me shadow them, read my stuff and even tweet it out from their accounts.”

Now Salk runs and oversees the site with fellow contributors Pat Sheehan, Jamie Bradley and Ryan Miesch, but he has transitioned into the role of “mentor”.

“It’s the coach in me,” said Salk.

The world of journalism is always changing, but Midway Madness continues to fulfill the vision Salk and Gasper hoped for – a platform for young journalists to write about the teams they love and learn the skills needed to pursue their careers.

“You really have to love it,” Salk said.

As the person who is seeing the site he created bringing so many opportunities to his writers, it’s obvious that he does.

 

 

A First-Hand Look at Draft Town and the Bears Picks

Chicago played host to the  NFL Draft this weekend for the first time since 1963 and Grant Park was transformed into Draft Town, a football fan’s dream.

While everyone filed into the nearby Auditorium Theatre Thursday night for the draft itself, fans were treated to to a three day event which can only be subscribed as Disneyland for football IMG_1753lovers. There, fans could participate in combine-style events, visit tents hosted by their favorite NFL teams and get autographs from NFL players past and present.

The Bears’ fan base was the most present this weekend, but there was an undeniable camaraderie amongst fans of other teams. Fans from all 32 teams were represented and there was a lot of love shared as they connected in matching jerseys and hats.

There was electricity in the air all weekend. It was palpable. The city of Chicago and the NFL really got this one right. It was a fun, safe, family-friendly event with something for everyone.

A few current Bears were present and held Q&A sessions with fans, including Kyle Long, Martellus Bennett, Robbie Gould and Eddie Royal. They were all smiles and excited to be there repereseting the host franchise. And while the questions remained understandably light-hearted, it was clear this new regime has already been a welcome change.

“The new GM and new coaching staff has a new philosophy on drafting,” Long said in his Q&A.

When asked if he would rather the Bears go offense or defense in the first round he answered, “I just want a badass football player with a “C” on his helmet.”IMG_1737

The current Bears players who spoke at Draft Town were not only energized by the outpour of support from fans, but also by the chance to start over in a new year with a new GM and coaching staff.

“Attitude”, Long said, is the one word that stays on the board in the back of their locker room. One of many areas that will hopefully see drastic change this season.

If the selections the Bears made in the draft this year looked familiar, its because they were. In both 2014 and 2015, the Bears took a defensive tackle in round 2, a running back in round 4 and a safety in round 5.  A look at the picks the Bears made this weekend:

Round 1: Kevin White, WR, West Virginia

What it means: It means the Bears are still more concerned with finding Jay Cutler weapons in an attempt to save face on their “franchise” quarterback than they are with fixing their defense. White will attempt to fill the void left by Brandon Marshall.

Round 2: Eddie Goldman, DT, Florida State

What it means: The Bears are not confident they have the personnel to transition into a 3-4 defense, but confident enough to pass on a potentially better player at the position in the first round. It also means Ryan Pace and Co. are not confident in Ego Ferguson, last years big, run stopping second round draft pick.

Round 3: Hroniss Grasu, OT, Oregon

What it means: Two offensive players in the first three picks tells me the Bears are still invested in Cutler. It also tells me that Will Montgomery, who was signed in the offseason to replace Roberto Garza, will have competition for the starting job.

Round 4: Jeremy Langford, RB, Michigan State

What it means: The Bears already have depth at this position, but it appears Matt Forte’s days in a Bears uniform may be numbered. With Forte’s contract expiring in a year, and John Fox being a fun-first head coach, this could be a look into a future where the Bears are once again defined as a bruising force in the run game.

Round 5: Adrian Amos, S, Penn State

What it means: The Bears have not had luck finding a safety in free agency the last few years, so perhaps they see Amos and last year’s selection Brock Vereen as their young safety core of the future.

Round 6: Tayo Fabuluje, OT, TCU

What it means: Hard to say with a sixth round pick, but it does mean the Bears spend four of their six draft picks on offense. Hey, at least it wasn’t a punter!

I don’t think it makes sense to grade a draft because its impossible to know if these picks pan out until you see them play, but I did not like that the Bears focused so much more on offense than defense. I was surprised, actually, since the defense has been in such shambles and John Fox is a defensive coach. What it does say to me is that Ryan Pace stuck to his guns and went for the best available player instead of stretching for need. Or so it appears. I am more than willing to give Pace the benefit of the doubt in his first draft, if for no other reason, because it couldn’t possibly get worse. Right?

 

Review: 30 for 30 – “I Hate Christian Laettner”

laettnerChristian Laettner is one of the greatest and most maligned college basketball players in NCAA history. His legacy as a hero to Duke fans and a villain to most everyone else is what made him such an intriguing centerpiece for the latest 30 for 30 documentary, “I Hate Christian Laettner”, directed by Rory Karpf.

Growing up a die-hard NBA basketball fan myself, I was only peripherally aware of Laettner at Duke. The only real memory I had of him before watching this documentary was his big shot against Kentucky, and his stint as 12th man on the 1992 “Dream Team” and his overall lackluster NBA career. What I did not know was the hatred of Laettner that goes all the way back to his high school days and still lives on to this day. The documentary focuses on the “Five Points of Laettner Hate” – Privilege, White, Bully, Greatness and Looks – but what really stood out to me about the story was the focus on the perception of Laettner not being reality.

The truth is that Laettner is a blue collar kid from Buffalo, NY. The perception of him as a priveledged white kid came from him going to Nichols High School, a predominantly white college prep school. The reputation was further perpetuated when he went to Duke, a school known for having privileged students from rich families and a basketball program known for solid fundamentals and winning. The fact that he played for one of the all-time great programs in college basketball along with his background, his sometimes dirty play and his exceptional skill made him an easy target for hatred.

This documentary does a great job of focusing on both what made him great and what made so many people angry about him. He wasn’t an innocent player who received his reputation unfairly, but he was far from the image that was built by his reputation. The interviewees gave honest depictions of their relationships with Laettner, be it as a teammate, opponent or family member. Typically a documentarian has an opinion on the topic that they are trying to impose on the work, but I really appreciated that Karpf didn’t appear to be trying to push one opinion over another. It was neither an attack piece nor a glamour piece. The depiction of Laettner was as honest as the man. My only criticism of the documentary was that they talk about how Laettner’s repuation followed him through the pros and to this day, and yet we saw very little between college and present day. I would have liked to hear and see more about his NBA career and why he never became a star at the pro level.

Even though Laettner never became the NBA star that he was in college, his legacy lives on. In four years at Duke he led his team to four Final Fours and two National Championships. His game-winning shot against Kentucky will be engraved in the minds of college basketball fans forever, and this documentary is proof that his reputation has the most hated player in NCAA history will never be forgotten.

 

 

Tillman Departure Marks the End of an Era

 

Charles TillmanThe Charles Tillman era has come to an end in Chicago as the creator and master of the “Peanut Punch” made his windy city departure official, inking a one-year deal with the Carolina Panthers. The signing marks the end of Tillman’s 12 year stay in Chicago, which included two Pro Bowls and a Super Bowl appearance in 2006. The move will reunite Tillman with Panthers coach Ron Rivera, who ran the defense in Chicago from 2004-2006. 

While Tillman will go down as one of the best defensive backs in franchise history, the last two seasons have been frustrating for the veteran. A torn right tricep two seasons ago kept Tillman out eight games and he went on to miss all but two games of last season after suffering the same injury.

Tillman, Lance Briggs and Roberto Garza were the only remaining starting position players left on the roster from that 2006 team (kicker Robbie Gould still remains), and with Garza’s release and Briggs all but gone, this marks the end of an era for the Bears and their most successful defense since the 1985 “Monsters of the Midway”.

The truth is, everything started to change when Lovie Smith was fired at the end of 2012. That season was also Brian Urlacher’s last, whose tenure with the Bears came to a rocky end when his agents proposed a two-year, $11 million contract to the Bears, and Bears management came back with a “take-it-or-leave-it” offer of one year at $2 million which he decided to leave. To call the break up between Urlacher and the Bears unfriendly would be an understatement, and with the hiring of Marc Trestman in 2013, the Bears marched out two of the worst defenses in franchise history in consecutive seasons. The defense never truly believed in Trestman or defensive coordinator Mel Tucker, who failed to provide the team with any kind of defensive prowess or identity.

And while it is easy to focus on the bad ending with Urlacher, the unrest with Briggs last season and the injuries that have plagued TIllman the last couple seasons, it is important to not only acknowledge but to celebrate the great Bears teams on which they played significant roles. The defense carried the team during Tillman’s time in blue and orange, with the defense priding themselves on forcing turnovers and scoring points. It wasn’t just a strength of the team, it was necessary. With struggling offenses led by Rex Grossman and Kyle Orton, the Bears relied on the defense to win them games and they consistently came through, often scoring more points on defense than on offense. This defense was not as good as the ’85 Bears or even the ’63 Bears, but they did lead a team to a Super Bowl. It was a special team and Tillman will  no doubt be remembered as one of the pillars of that group.

Through all of the drama of the last couple seasons, Tillman has remained a consummate professional. He was not only a hero on the field, but in the community as well. The Charles Tillman foundation has given more than $1 million to families in need. Tillman won the NFL Salute to Service Award in 2012, and in 2014 received the Walter Payton NFL Man of the Year award.

Letting Tillman walk was probably the right decision for the Bears as they try to  remake their defense, but his leadership will be missed. As of right now there is no clear leader on the Bears, something they’ve been lacking of late. A new era is starting in Chicago. How this next chapter will look is yet to be seen and who will lead them forward is still a question mark – but hopefully they can learn from someone like Tillman, who always led with passion, dedication and class.