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March 5, 2011

Northwestern sets sights on top of Big Ten

It's three bowls in a row for Northwestern under Pat Fitzgerald, 36, who is entering his sixth season as the Wildcats' coach.

How high can Fitzgerald, a College Football Hall of Famer, take his alma mater? With bowl games now the norm, Fitzgerald has his sights on contending for the Big Ten crown.

Northwestern will have a loaded roster that teems with potential. The Wildcats could have one of the Big Ten's top offenses if QB Dan Persa bounces back from an Achilles' injury that forced him to miss the last three games.

Persa, a senior, won't take part in spring drills, but the staff already knows what he can do. He was a revelation last season and may have been the top signal-caller in the Big Ten before his injury. Persa ranked ninth in the nation in passing efficiency while hitting 73 percent of his attempts for 2,581 yards with 15 touchdown passes and just four interceptions.

NORTHWESTERN AT-A-GLANCE
Quarterback Dan Persa ranked ninth in the nation in passing efficiency in 2010 before an Achilles' injury ended his season.
THE BASICS
Coach: Pat Fitzgerald
Last season: 7-6 overall, 3-5 in the Big Ten. Lost 45-38 to Texas Tech in TicketCity Bowl.
Spring dates: March 7-April 16.
RETURNING STARTERS
(minimum seven starts last season)
Offense (8): C Ben Burkett, TE Drake Dunsmore, WR Jeremy Ebert, WR Demetrius Fields, G Brian Mulroe, T Al Netter, QB Dan Persa, T Patrick Ward.
Defense (7): E Vince Browne, FS Jared Carpenter, T Jack DiNardo, CB Jordan Mabin, LB Bryce McNaul, SS Brian Peters, E Kevin Watt.
Special teams (1): P Brandon Williams.
A bigger issue will be tightening a defense that melted before Fitzgerald's eyes late in 2010, yielding 163 points in the last three games. The unit finished 10th in the Big Ten (426.2 ypg) and was especially bad vs. the pass (10th, 241.2 ypg with 25 touchdown passes allowed). More big plays are needed from a group that ranked 10th in the Big Ten in tackles for loss and sacks. Only Minnesota was more anemic in both categories.

Here's a look at the Wildcats heading into spring drills.

Positions of strength

The lines on both sides of the ball look good. The defensive front could be one of the Big Ten's best, as only T Corbin Bryant is gone from the starting group. E Vince Browne, who had a team-high seven sacks in 2010, is the key guy. T Jack DiNardo, the nephew of Gerry DiNardo, has a chance to be special, but he will miss spring drills recovering from shoulder surgery. The offensive line has four starters back and will be anchored by star T Al Netter. QB Dan Persa will have a good collection of pass catchers. Jeremy Ebert, a first-team All-Big Ten pick last season, is back after leading the team with 62 catches (15.4 ypc) and eight touchdowns. TE Drake Dunsmore is a formidable weapon on third downs and in the red zone.

Help is needed

CB Jordan Mabin and SS Brian Peters -- the team's top tackler in 2010 -- are good building blocks, but they need help in the secondary. Six players who saw action at safety last season are back. Jeravin Matthews could be a factor at cornerback. The staff also will begin looking for a replacement for K Stefan Demos. Jeff Budzien is in line for the job, but he will be pushed by walk-on Steve Flaherty. An anemic ground game needs to be juiced up. Northwestern hasn't had a 1,000-yard rusher (Tyrell Sutton) since 2006. Mike Trumpy has potential, but he needs help. Adonis Smith and Jacob Schmidt have the best chances to compete with Trumpy. The linebacking corps is looking for two new starters; one of the departed is standout Quentin Davie.

3 guys to watch

S Ibraheim Campbell: He impressed during offseason 7-on- 7 drills and could be poised for a breakout. Campbell flashed speed and athletic ability while redshirting as a freshman last season and should help a secondary that needs to improve.

LB David Nwabuisi: Nwabuisi, a junior, is the leading candidate to replace Nate Williams at middle linebacker. Nwabuisi (6-0/240) made one start in 2009 and played on third downs last season. The staff likes his athletic ability and speed.

RB Mike Trumpy: Trumpy, a 6-0, 210-pound sophomore, showed potential last fall by pacing the squad with 530 yards rushing. Trumpy, the nephew of former Cincinnati Bengals tight end Bob Trumpy, also caught 20 passes. The Wildcats need a consistent ground threat, and Trumpy may be the guy.

The pressure is on

LB Ben Johnson: Johnson, a senior, has good size (6-4/225) and is the favorite to take over for Davie at an outside linebacker spot. Johnson made 21 tackles last season, when he started two games. Johnson has the needed physical tools, but needs to show this spring he can play a big role on a defense that is in search of playmakers.

The buzz

Fitzgerald has become one of the nation's best young coaches and the object of other schools' desires, as Michigan courted him after last season. But "Fitz" isn't going anywhere. He will look to continue to build the program he loves. And with an improved defense and running game -- the biggest focuses of the spring -- the Wildcats could be a dark-horse contender in the Big Ten in 2011.

Tom Dienhart is a national senior writer for Rivals.com. He can be reached at dienhart@yahoo-inc.com, and you can click here to follow him on Twitter.


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