Where does North West football stand at the end of spring training?

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After stringing together its second Big Ten West title in three years with a tough 3-9 season where the team struggled on both sides of the ball, Northwestern entered spring training with plenty of unanswered questions.

The Wildcats only fired eight starters from that 2020 division-winning team for the 2021 season, and the inexperience was on full display.

While coach Pat Fitzgerald said he was still finalizing the depth chart, he said the youth position groups had shown significant improvement over the 34-day spring training period, which ended completed April 15.

One of NU’s main areas of concern is the quarterback. In 2021, the Cats have started three different quarterbacks — graduates Hunter Johnson and Andrew Marty and junior Ryan Hilinski. Junior Carl Richardson also saw action on the pitch. Despite that, no quarterback has solidified as next year’s starter.

Fitzgerald said the competition is primarily between Hilinski and second Brendan Sullivan, with second Cole Freeman and Richardson also in the mix.

“There are four young guys in this room,” Fitzgerald said. “Their leadership and ability to influence others was quite strong. But I would say we’re dating (Sullivan and Hilinski) fighting for that number one job before training camp.

New cornerbacks coach Ryan Smith comes into the program this year after an overall weak defensive year for the Cats, giving up 29 points per game and 429.5 yards per game, second-worst in the Big Ten.

But the group of defensive backs was one of NU’s strongest units, allowing 216.5 passing yards per game, eighth in the Big Ten. With former All-American safety Brandon Joseph transferred to Notre Dame in January, the group lost one of its most experienced players, but senior defensive back AJ Hampton Jr. believes the depth of the group is still there.

“We have a lot of healthy young guys and older guys, so it’s really good for competition,” Hampton Jr said.

Senior lineman Adetomiwa Adebawore broke last season, with 4.5 sacks and 8.5 tackles for a loss for 65 yards, leading the team in both categories. Defensive line coach Marty Long said Adebawore was “the leader of the group”. But NU struggled again last year on the defensive line, allowing a Big Ten-worst 213 rushing yards per game, more than 50 yards more than the next-worst team.

To solve this problem, the Cats brought in transfers of graduates Henrik Barndt from Indiana State, Taishan Holmes from UMass and Ryan Johnson from Stanford to bring more veteran experience to the group.

Fitzgerald also said he’s seen improvements in the young wide receiver room and expects to see senior Malik Washington and junior Bryce Kirtz play big roles.

The loss of graduate linebacker Chris Bergin the year after losing Paddy Fisher leaves NU without a standout linebacker, but Fitzgerald said second Mac Uilhein and junior Greyson Metz raised their games at Spring Ball. Those two, along with returning players like junior Bryce Gallagher, senior Khalid Jones and junior Xander Mueller will compete for spots in the fall, Fitzgerald said.

Prior to 2018, NU had attended a bowling game in eight of Fitzgerald’s 12 years as head coach, and had only lost less than six games on three occasions, with their worst season a season 4 -8 in its first year.

Since then, volatility has defined the NU schedule, with two Big Ten West titles and two 3-9 seasons. Fitzgerald said he thinks developing the roster this spring will help restore that consistency.

“There are times when you’re like, okay, once we hit the fall, the road is going to start either this way or this way,” Fitzgerald said. “Sometimes you try to turn the dial, and it doesn’t work. I’m responsible for that… It drives you up the wall, but I think there’s been a pretty high level of consistency in my approach.

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Twitter: @gablcarroll

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