99.9999 percent of the time when you hear the words quarterback rotation you tend to cringe, right? Well, at Northwestern those cringes have been turned into smiles of joy amongst the purple clad alums and fans and that's because it worked wonders in 2012.
We talked about the history making 2012 season earlier this week and as we focus our attention forward instead of backwards there are these things called expectations in Evanston and no we aren't talking about the usually low brow expectation of losing most of their football games. Instead we are talking about playing for conference championship kind of expectations.
As we turn the page to 2013, the two-headed monster at QB is back. Can that system work for a second year and if so, why? We'll explore that question and why this offense could have even more in store than what they put together last season as we look at the offense of the Wildcats today.
Like we said up front, the two-head monster at QB is dreaded across the nation (hell, just ask a Purdue fan and see what happens) but it isn't in Evanston and that's a major credit to the players – Kain Colter and Trevor Siemian – and to the coaching staff, especially offensive coordinator Mick McCall who clearly is completely trusted by head coach Pat Fitzgerald.
The tandem combined to throw for 2,184 yards with 14 touchdowns to 7 interceptions. Put those numbers up against the likes of Braxton Miller or any other QB in the same kind of system and they are comparable. However, if you begin to break down 2012 and break apart this group you realize that the hype around the group doesn't quite match it's production.
Colter (No. 14 in our Preseason Top 25 Players list) was very accurate in short to mid-range routes, resulting in a 67.8% completion rate last season, but he struggled going deep more often than not, hence the need for a bigger arm at times in Siemian. Problem with that was that Siemian's longest pass of the season only went for 42 yards and he wasn't exactly an accurate passer, completing just 58.7% of his passes last year.
So, for as good as this combo was and how versatile this offense is because of the yin/yang relationship between the two heads of the QB monster there is some good room for improvement from the two of them. Knowing the personalities and pure drive of the two one would expect them to be vastly improved heading into 2013 and that's scary stuff for opposing defenses.
O.k, so we're going to talk some Venric Mark, but first let's acknowledge the need to talk about what QB Kain Colter also brings to the table, shall we? After all, he did rush for 854 yards (2nd most on the team) and tied for the lead in rushing TD's with 12, all while managing to average 5.3 yards per carry. Not bad for a QB, huh?
Now on to the main attraction and another member of our Preseason Top 25 Players list (No. 12) in Venric Mark. He rushed for 1,366 yards and 12 touchdowns while averaging an impressive 6.0 yards per carry last season and enters 2013 as the leading returning running back in the conference.
In total this was the 4th best rushing attack in the Big Ten last season and it could be even better this year as Mark will be in his 2nd season as a full-time running back. He's easily the most explosive back in the Big Ten and his ability as a returner is where he began to make his mark two years ago and continues to do so today. For our money, he's the Wildcats' best offensive weapon.
Behind him is a nice veteran option in Mike Trumpy, who as a change of pace back had 76 carries for over 300 yards last season. The name you should really be watching for is youngster Malin Jones – he was one of the prized gets in the 2012 class and after creating some buzz on the scout team last season he showed well this spring. He could end up getting 30-50 carries and that may be just enough to make people stand up and take notice for his future. It'll be needed with Mark and Trumpy both being seniors this season.
Wide Receivers/Tight Ends:
As loaded as the quarterback position is and as explosive as Mark is as a running back the deepest and most intriguing position group on the offense is easily at wide receiver. The name of Christian Jones should be a household name and by the end of 2013 it very well could be.
Jones ended up at Northwestern over other big school options in part due to an ACL tear in high school. He's made other teams pay for passing him up that's for sure. Last season Jones rattled off team highs in receptions (35), yards (412), per reception average (11.8), and the longest catch of the season (42 yards) and he didn't even come close to reaching his ceiling. Now entering his junior season the big (6-3, 225lbs.) and potentially speed burning Jones has a chance to really break out.
There is another starter back from last season and that's scary news for opposing defenses. Back at the X position (outside WR) is Tony Jones, who led the team in TD receptions last year with 4. He had 29 catches for 335 yards in total. At the Y receiver position are two names with vastly different levels of hype behind them. It appears that the once USC five-star stud Kyle Prater is finally going to get some significant time and potentially live up to the hype surrounding his original recruitment. Last season Prater only had 10 catches for a whopping 54 yards – not exactly what you'd expect from someone with his pedigree and his own personal expectations.
If he can't catch on full-time then expect rising sophomore Pierre Youngblood-Ary, a 6-3, 185lbs shifty guy to make an impact. He's easily the best leaper of the bunch too and that's something this team could use if they want to stretch the field more in 2013.
Of course one can't count out the 2nd leading receiver from a year ago in Rashad Lawrence. That's the beauty of the system for wide receivers in Evanston – while you may not start you'll get plenty of chances to see the field if you earn it. Lawrence ended last season with 34 catches for 321 yards and averaged 9.4 yards per reception.
As long as the QB's are more accurate and this group grows with them this team is going to put up some major points through the air for a change.
In order for all of this talent to work there needs to be an offensive line in place that gels and works as a unit. That's the big question for the 2013 season, mainly because three-fifths of the offensive line are a complete unknown as we sit here in early July.
Luckily the other two spots are rocks for this team in center Brian Vitabile and left tackle Jack Konopka. Vitabile is one of the best centers in the Big Ten and he'll need to get a young group of guards around him to shape up quick. Speaking of the guards look for the names Geoff Mogus (left guard) and Matt Frazier (right guard) to be the guys with the first cracks at their spots.
One of the things that is valued along this offensive line is versatility and that's a good thing for Adam DePietro, who could play guard or tackle and I'd expect that he would see extensive playing time wherever he ends up. His future for the Wildcats is great.
Opposite of Konopka the best option is likely junior Paul Jorgeson, but don't be surprised if DePietro takes some major snaps there as well. Jorgeson has the athletic ability to play left tackle and his future is likely there as his best option to help this team, but that won't be for another year anyway – so he'll have to earn it by being versatile and playing right tackle.
The one thing you can't say about this offensive line is that they are very physical up front, however that's more by design to allow this fluid and fast offense to work. On the flip side though, it seems that this line breaks down too fast against the bigger D-Line's in the league and in 2013 this group's challenge, besides staying healthy, is to find a way to wear opponents down versus them being worn down when it matters most – late in games.
Questions to answer in fall camp:
– There's speed at RB, but is there a bruising back that can get the tough yards?
– Will Kyle Prater finally step up?
– Will youth gel with experience on the offensive line?