The folks who run the Northwestern fan site, Lake The Posts, were kind enough to participate in a question and answer session following the conclusion of spring football. Their questions and our answers can be found here. (Spoiler alert: Their readers apparently don't feel Cal is "academically-minded." Wait, what?)
It is unknown how many of their writers required treatment for carpal tunnel, blisters, or antibiotic-resistant flesh-eating bacterial infections, but they heroically managed a response to our questions:
1. After a 4-0 start to last season, what in the world happened to you?
Where to begin with this one? There was something of an emotional letdown after the defeat to Ohio State with all the attention and pressure that went on that game. Then there was the bad luck turning into worse luck turning into WHY GOD DO YOU HATE US DID WE REALLY SELL OUR SOULS FOR ONE MEASLY BOWL WIN?! At least it felt like that.
Really the story was injuries to key players. There are certain players on every team that if they get lost to injuries, the team is kind of sunk. For Northwestern they faced injuries to at least two of those kind of players and maybe even a third. Kain Colter never quite recovered from that concussion he suffered on the second play of the game against Cal. A lingering ankle injury followed him throughout the season after the Wisconsin game and the offense could not find its rhythm with Venric Mark also missing time. Throw on top of that a lingering heel injury to Trevor Siemian and you are without your two quarterbacks and your running back at 100 percent.
Northwestern is not a team that can take those kinds of losses and be successful. At least not when the breaks are not falling their way.
2. What spring football developments have encouraged you the most? Which area of the team do you feel the most confident in going into next season?
Undoubtedly the responsibility the older guys have taken for last season and the step up in leadership. It came out shortly after the season ended that the team never really had any leadership and that no one took responsibility to get the team back in stride. It was always a woe-is-me attitude it seemed.
The guys that suffered through that season expect bowl games as a minimum and are deeply disappointed that they failed in that basic goal last year. They do not want to let that happen again.
In this sense, maybe the whole union thing was a good thing. It did force the players to come together and make a collective decision. It became a bit clearer who the team leaders were and who was going to take that mantle. There is a responsibility now to care for this team and help them achieve their goals. Hopefully they are stronger for it now.
3. What spring football developments have discouraged you the most? Which area of the team do you feel the least confident in going into next season?
There are still a lot of questions on both lines and depth prevented Northwestern from really working on it in the spring as there were injuries along both lines.
Last year, a big problem with the offense was the offensive line just could not protect the quarterback. You cannot do a whole lot when the defense is living in your backfield. This was where the leadership issues on offense really showed their face and there were injuries all across the line to go on top of bad depth.
The same happened on defense as the defensive line just could not get a consistent enough push to allow the team to be aggressive. Thus you have sometimes embarrassing finishes. Again, there were injuries on the defensive line in the spring and that prevented them from becoming a unit.
4. Which players excite you about the upcoming season? Which newcomers stood out to you during spring practice?
Obviously, Northwestern fans are really excited to see Venric Mark back after he missed almost all of last season and received a medical hardship to get a fifth year of eligibility. He barely played at Cal and really only contributed for the Ohio State game. He is a game changer coming out of the backfield and a guy who can break any play for a touchdown. Having him back brings a lot of hope for this team.
The newcomer to watch from this team is Rutgers transfer Miles Schuler. He was a standout in practices last year and was probably the star of spring practice. The reports were that he was a guy who could do it all for the Wildcats offense. With a pass-first quarterback under center, it is going to be a much bigger deal to have a good wide receiver. And the Wildcats have a few of them. Schuler just adds to the riches.
5. What are the fans' opinions on the Northwestern players moving towards unionization? With Coach Fitzgerald speaking out against it, does this become a distraction for the team?
It is definitely mixed. There are political issues and political leanings that get tied up into the union. There are the groups that believe this is a necessary step for student athletes to assert their rights. There are others who believe unions have no place in this setting and that they are primarily students. No matter who you talk to though, everyone sort of agrees Northwestern does everything as much by the book as they can and that this whole ordeal unfairly drug the program through the mud in the end. Everyone -- Northwestern included -- agrees changes have to be made to look out for the academic and health of the student-athletes but the fight is against the NCAA and not the university.
For the most part now, the fight has left Northwestern. The players voted on whether to have a union in the spring and by all accounts and reports, the answer was "No." So the union question is likely to die down among the current crop of players throughout the season. The university will continue to fight the ruling on appeal, but that should happen away from the football field and the practice field. Pat Fitzgerald is probably the only one that will have to deal with the questions and fallout the rest of the season. The team made its vote and made its decision. . . at least until and if the union decides to try again.
6. Have your coaches been working on conditioning to cut back on all the brutal cramping?!
Haha, I was kind of surprised Northwestern did not push for the 11 a.m. kickoff after last year as some small sort of revenge. They certainly will be working on their conditioning. And I suspect Northwestern's offense will have a little more ball control with Venric Mark returning to full strength and a quarterback that will stand in the pocket and sling it around a little more. Of course, nothing can prepare you for that fast offense. It might just depend on whether it is an unseasonably cold day in Evanston in August.