March 30, 2006
EVANSTON, Ill. -- With temperatures approaching 70 degrees, Northwestern held its third day of spring practice, once again outside on the Wildcats' FieldTurf practice field. NUsports.com takes a look at the Wildcats' 2006 defense and special teams today.
Perhaps the one unit where Northwestern wants to improve the most this off-season is on the defensive line. Injuries and the loss of Loren Howard (who transferred to Arizona State) left the Wildcats with a young and inexperienced front four last year.
The silver lining for the 'Cats is that a number of players earned extensive playing time while learning on the job. With a solid off-season in the weight room, coupled with the bowl and spring practices, Northwestern anticipates to field an improved defensive front.
"Our returning players have really bought in to working hard and doing all the things they need to become better football players," says Walker. "Time will tell how much we can improve here."
The new leader of NU's front four is sophomore end Kevin Mims, who made some important strides as a redshirt freshman. He capped his rookie year by earning honorable mention freshman All-American honors and then being named the Sun Bowl's lineman of the game. Mims totaled 41 tackles, 4.5 TFL's as well as an interception for TD against UCLA.
Other players competing at the end position are Corey Wootton, who missed most of 2005 with a neck injury, as well as juniors Mark Koehn and David Ngene.
At the interior positions, John Gill, Keegan Kennedy, Warren Anderson and Matt Clark will be battling for starting positions at tackle. Gill played the most snaps for Northwestern in 2005 and totaled 26 tackles. Clark, a redshirt sophomore, has been slowed by ankle problems his first two years, but appears to be ready for full-time duty this year.
The Wildcats return all of their linebackers except for one player. That one player, however, is Tim McGarigle, the NCAA's all-time leading tackler with 548 hits. Like Basanez on the offensive side, Northwestern cannot to expect to replace McGarigle initially.
Northwestern, however, does have some young talented linebackers waiting in the wings, ready to take over for McGarigle. Senior Demetrius Eaton will be a factor at the position, along with sophomore Mike Dinard and redshirt freshman Chris Jeske, who sat out his rookie year with a back injury.
Returning starting linebackers Nick Roach and Adam Kadela provide the Wildcats with a solid one-two punch on the outside. Walker is expecting big years from both players. Roach and Kadela are Northwestern's top returning tacklers with 77 and 71 tackles, respectively.
Other players in the linebacking mix include Campbell Black, Eddie Simpson and Prince Kwateng.
"We have some talented linebackers and we're excited to see who steps up and wants that starting job at our mike position. Nick and Adam both were coming off injuries last year and could really be special players for us if they're 100 percent healthy."
Eaton and Roach displayed their big-play potential last year by scoring defensive touchdowns.
Senior cornerback Marquice Cole, who ranked second in Big Ten interceptions last year and earned honorable mention all-Big Ten honors, is back and joins senior strong safety Bryan Heinz as the leaders of Northwestern's secondary.
The Wildcats were forced to play several young players at the safety positions during the 2005 regular season due Heinz's preseason knee injury. He did return for the Sun Bowl and picked off a pass for his seventh career interception.
"The loss of Bryan really took a toll on our secondary," says Walker. "He's a great leader back there and very intelligent. Having him around for another season is a huge asset for us."
Cole had a solid season, but Walker says the Wildcats' speedster could take his game to another level this year and really become a special player at the college level.
"After sitting out a year with his injury, there was a lot of pressure put on Marquice last year, and it didn't help that we lost Bryan. With a year of starting experience under his belt and the return of Bryan, that should benefit our entire secondary."
At free safety, Brendan Smith and Reggie McPherson return and will give the Wildcats some experience there. Smith blossomed as a true freshman last year, but he was slowed midway through the year with a knee injury, as well. Reserve safety Ben Rothrauff is also in the mix.
Cory Dious and Deante Battle, who is not with the Wildcats this spring but could return later this summer, are candidates for the other corner position. Also in the mix are two offensive players from last year who are going to get their chance to help the Wildcats in secondary: sophomore Eric Peterman and redshirt sophomore Gerard Hamlett. Both players will compete at a cornerback.
The 2006 spring season will be an important one for Northwestern's special teams. The Wildcats need to replace their punter, long-snapper and holder -- three key positions.
Senior place-kicker Joel Howells, who went 9-for-11 on field goal attempts inside 40 yards, returns and will be pushed by Amado Villarreal and true freshman Stefan Demos. At punter, Slade Larscheid, Kyle Daley and Villarreal will get a shot to replace Ryan Pederson.
Northwestern has several options with its return game. Brandon Roberson and Gerard Hamlett are back as kickoff returners, while Marquice Cole, Shaun Herbert and Jeff Yarbrough are candidates to return punts.
Sophomore Phil Brunner gets the nod as the Wildcats' long-snapper.