Saturday, March 31, 2007

One down, three to go

Week One of Northwestern's four-week spring football session is done and, according to senior wide receiver T.J. Jones, the word of the spring is "competition."

There's competition at wide receiver (which could go a whopping 10 deep), superback/tight end (where sophomore Mark Woodsum and others are battling, even before NU's three freshmen show up for camp), offensive line, linebacker and nearly every other position.

"We're competing well," coach Pat Fitzgerald said. "And that's what spring ball is all about."

But, as usual in the spring, all that competition only adds up to ... more competition, once summer camp starts up in Kenosha, Wis.

So, according to Fitzgerald, NU likely won't lock down its starters until the week leading up to its Sept. 1 matchup with directional rival Northeastern.

Still, although no competitions have been settled, a few things emerged from the first week of practice.
  • Despite strong competition and a good attitude, Fitzgerald said he left the field feeling a little uneasy about NU's concentration. "We’ve got to really start to sharpen up our focus," he said. "The smallest attention to detail is the most important thing, and we’re just too sloppy. I’m just not happy with where that’s at right now, and that’s why you practice. You come back out, you get back to work at ’em. The key thing for me is, if our attitude’s in the right place, and we want to get better, we will. And that’s where I feel our guys are at right now."

  • Junior quarterback C.J. Bacher (toe) and junior safety Brendan Smith (shoulder) sat out all four practices. Fitzgerald said he expects Bacher to run soon and might be in drills as soon as late next week. Smith also is on schedule for a quick return, but Fitzgerald still said the safety won't participate in contact drills all spring.

  • Fitzgerald, on NU's Saturday board drill (which pits an offensive lineman against a defensive lineman): "That might be the best board drill we've had in a couple years."

--Patrick Dorsey

Thursday, March 29, 2007

No slow Cole (report from Pro Day)

For years, buzz about cornerback Marquice Cole's exceptional speed spread throughout the Northwestern program.

At NU's annual Pro Day on Thursday, the former Wildcat finally showed it off for NFL scouts.

Word around the Pro Day was that Cole ran a 40-yard dash in 4.35 seconds. Cole, meanwhile, claimed he clocked in at 4.33.

A little slow, by his standards.

"It was OK," Cole said, "but I could have run faster."

Even so, he might have run fast enough to place himself back onto draft boards for next month's NFL Draft.

Considered a possible mid-round selection heading into 2006, Cole instead struggled on the field and with his health -- eventually being supplanted by freshman Sherrick McManis at the right cornerback position. But, with scouts and general managers placing high value on raw numbers, Cole's 40 time clearly had the scouts in attendance impressed.

Even if it was only 4.35, not 4.33.

At the NFL Scouting Combine in February, only one of the 55 defensive backs invited to Indianapolis ran faster than Cole. That was Arkansas cornerback Chris Houston (4.32), who is ranked by Scouts, Inc., as the 27th best prospect in the Draft.

Also, only one player at the combine even matched the 4.35 figure: LSU safety LaRon Landry, considered the No. 7 prospect by Scouts, Inc.

And even if the rumored time was a hundredth of a second or two on the kind side, only eight defensive backs ran 40s in the sub-4.4 range, and five of those were 4.39s.

That bodes pretty well for Cole, who can use coaching changes, a struggling offense and injury woes as excuses for a sub-par 2006, especially after he snagged five interceptions and earned honorable mention All-Big Ten honors during his junior season.

Plus, despite his (possibly coaching-strategy-induced) lack of numbers as a punt returner, he also has a reputation as a strong special teams player, and ranks as the No. 5 return specialist, according to Scouts, Inc.

These all might not add up to having his name called next month, as his durability and on-the-field production bring up a number of questions. But one thing's for sure: That dazzling 40 time, be it 4.33 or 4.35, certainly didn't hurt his chances.


He pushed and pushed to rehab his broken leg in time for the Draft.

NU even scheduled its Pro Day a little late, one coach said, so he could have the chance to work out for scouts.

But after all that preparation, linebacker Nick Roach's draft prospects remain in jeopardy after he pulled up lame about 10 yards into his first 40-yard dash.

The prognosis: not further injury to the leg he broke last year against Michigan State, but a reaggravated injury to his left hamstring, which he said he tweaked less than three weeks ago.

"I had a feeling that it might give me trouble today," Roach said. "I was just kind of crossing my fingers and praying and hoping it wouldn't go bad.

"It's not a complete tear or pull or anything, it's just a strain that will keep me out of workouts."

Naturally, Roach was disappointed, scowling in frustration as he limped away from his failed 40 attempt. Coach Pat Fitzgerald was saddened, too.

But, Fitzgerald said, he's not worried about Roach getting down on himself.

"He's a fighter," Fitzgerald said. "For the last two years he's been battling injuries that are just freak injuries -- they're not because of anything else besides that's just what's happened. He's dealt with them great. He hasn't pouted, felt sorry for himself. He just keeps competing, so who knows where he could be if he didn't have these little dings and injuries over his career."

The problem is, these injuries could be his downfall -- at least in terms of draft position. While he's been productive on the field (he averaged a team-high 7.75 tackles in eight games last season), he hasn't been on it that much. It's these durability issues that might prevent a team from taking a chance on him with a late-round pick.

Still, Fitzgerald and nearly everyone else raves about his character -- something that's becoming more and more important in the new NFL.

Also, Fitzgerald had another perspective on Roach's injuries.

"I that's why the NFL is in love with him, is because he's got a great upside," Fitzgerald said. "He hasn't hit the ceiling of where he's going to go."


  • Other ex-NU players who participated in Pro Day were offensive linemen Ryan Keenan and Joe Tripodi, running back Terrell Jordan, wide receiver Shaun Herbert and fullback Erryn Cobb. Of that group, Keenan appears the most likely to be drafted.

  • While most players trained at NU after the season, Cole in December moved to Redondo Beach, Calif., and spent two months training and living in the Los Angeles area with a few other NFL Draft hopefuls, including former Washington State defensive end Mkristo Bruce, a second-team All-American. "We formed together like a brotherhood and we helped each other out," Cole said of the group.

  • Remember me? Two years after being dismissed from NU's football team after a series of violent incidents, tight end Braden Jones participated in the second half of Pro Day, featuring players from nearby non-Division I-A colleges. Jones spent the last two seasons at Southern Illinois, last season catching 32 passes for 521 yards and seven touchdowns.

    --Patrick Dorsey

Wednesday, March 28, 2007

McGee avoids DUI, still under microscope

After initially being charged with misdemeanor driving under the influence, stemming from an incident on Dec. 24 of last year, Northwestern offensive coordinator Garrick McGee pleaded guilty on March 21 to reckless driving, according to Tulsa (Okla.) County court documents.

Punishments for this conviction, along with McGee's guilty plea for driving 16 to 20 miles per hour over the speed limit, according to the court documents, include $635 in penalties and 24 hours of community service.

As for school-related punishments, a spokesman for the NU athletic department Wednesday said all punishments (or the lack thereof) are undisclosed, per university policy. But, considering McGee was on the sidelines for the first two days of practice and even participated in a video interview for on Tuesday, it appears the university will not reprimand McGee significantly.

With the plea, both NU and McGee dodged a potential bullet, each avoiding the ugly (if slightly overblown) stigma of a DUI conviction and stopping the further spread of negative press the university has seen in recent years.

Still, the second-year offensive coordinator will carry another dubious distinction into next season, this one coming on the field: McGee was in charge of last season's 92nd-ranked offense, down 88 spots from the Wildcats' No. 4-ranked unit in 2005.

Whether another poor offensive performance this season would put McGee's job in jeopardy is pure speculation. And while 32-year-old head coach Pat Fitzgerald might need some more experienced assistants around him (nobody on the offensive coaching staff has been with the university more than four years), letting McGee go would be highly unlikely, given NU's utter reluctance to fire assistants -- especially ones with only two years on the job and a strong track record leading up to 2006.

But it's something to keep an eye on, considering NU's recent reputation as an offensive powerhouse. Also, with perennial All-Big Ten candidate Tyrell Sutton at running back, a slew of wide receivers in tow and C.J. Bacher seemingly the answer at quarterback, the talent is close to the level of 2005.

And, while McGee was not convicted of the DUI charge, and while DUI charges are relatively easy to come by, those three letters never are pretty in the public eye -- especially at a university still in the shadow of a few recent scandals.

--Patrick Dorsey

Monday, March 26, 2007

Wake up, time for spring football

Northwestern's first spring football practice didn't start with a bang Monday. It started with a wakeup call.

A 4:30 a.m. wakeup call, according to Eddie Simpson.

"Coach (Pat) Fitz(gerald) is a morning guy," the senior linebacker said.

And so goes the story of NU football this spring. Practices that used to take place in the afternoons now start at 7:25 a.m.

"It takes a little bit of getting used to," Simpson said.

"I was against it at first, you know, (because) that means I have to go to bed at like 8 o'clock," junior running back Tyrell Sutton said.

But now, Sutton said, he likes it. And Fitzgerald claims there's a method to his morning mindset. Or maybe a motto.

"My way of thinking is, you go to bed thinking about football and you wake up thinking about football," Fitzgerald said, speaking in his usual upbeat manner after a practice that Simpson could only sum up in one, not-so-unexpected word:


But more shook out than just a little rust Monday.

Here are some items of interest from Monday's session, one of just four open to the media this spring (none is open to the public):

  • Junior quarterback C.J. Bacher, who stared NU's last five games (for a 2-3 record) in 2006, sat out practice while trying to recover from offseason toe surgery. Fitzgerald said he's optimistic Bacher will perform in some drills next week and might be ready to go full-speed in the spring's final two weeks.

  • Fitzgerald also said that, unlike last spring, defenders will not be able to hit quarterbacks. "(We need to) make sure to keep these guys healthy," Fitzgerald said.

  • With Bacher out, sophomore Mike Kafka and redshirt freshman Joe Mauro were NU's only available quarterbacks. Like the rest of NU's incoming freshmen, quarterback Dan Persa won't join the team until the summer.

  • Where's Andrew Brewer? The sophomore who started three games last season under center has made the full transition to wide receiver. He now is listed atop the depth chart at one of NU's four listed wide receiver positions.

  • Several other players sat out Monday, most notably junior safety Brendan Smith (offseason shoulder surgery). Smith, who recorded 68 tackles and three interceptions last season, could be back sometime this week, according to Fitzgerald, but likely won't parcticipate in full-contact drills all spring.

  • With the absences also came some returns. Players who finally made it to the practice field after undergoing injury troubles include once-touted linebacker Chris Jeske, now a sophomore, and defensive end Corbin Bryant, who played in two games last season as a true freshman before sustaining a broken leg in practice.

In addition to its practices, NU will hold its yearly pro timing day Thursday, where former cornerback/punt returner Marquice Cole, linebacker Nick Roach, offensive lineman Ryan Keenan, wide receiver Shaun Herbert and other 2006 seniors will participate.

--Patrick Dorsey