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Poor finish will spur Wildcats this spring

Pat Fitzgerald is ready for spring ball, for a fresh start to a new season, for a chance to look ahead.

But when Northwestern hits the practice field Monday for the first of 15 spring workouts, Fitzgerald might remind the players about their most recent performances. Needless to say, no one was pleased with the way the Wildcats wrapped up the 2010 season.

"The way we finished was completely and totally unacceptable, and that’s on all of us," Fitzgerald told ESPN.com on Monday. "If we’re going to fix it, we have to be the catalysts to do that."

Northwestern dropped its final three games by a combined score of 163-88. Quarterback Dan Persa missed the closing stretch after rupturing his Achilles' tendon in a Nov. 13 win against Iowa. Persa's injury seemed to rattle the Wildcats, who also were banged up on defense.

Was there an explanation for the late collapse?

"Nothing other than excuses," Fitzgerald said. "We’ve got to play better, we’ve got to coach better, we’ve got to play with a better attitude. We play team football here and we didn’t do a very good job of that. When we turned it over, we didn’t get off the field. When we did go down and score, we didn’t get a big stop we needed. And when we got a big stop, maybe we went three-and-out.

"We've got to pick each other up."

You always hear about competition in spring ball, but Northwestern's poor finish underscores the need to open up pretty much every job.

Fitzgerald notes the Wildcats' two-deep is loaded with players who have logged ample time in games. Several projected starters will miss part of all of spring ball -- Persa, linebacker Bryce McNaul, defensive tackle Jack DiNardo, guard Doug Bartels -- so there's opportunities everywhere.

A few positions to watch:

  • Defensive back: Northwestern needs a second starter to join Jordan Mabin, not to mention some safety help. Jeravin Matthews, a special teams standout who has struggled to find a permanent position, will compete for time at cornerback. "He’s always been spectacular in the kicking game for us, and he sees an opportunity," Fitzgerald said.

  • Running back: Mike Trumpy is expected to participate in all of spring ball after missing the final two games of last season with a fractured wrist. He'll wear a cast on the wrist for the spring and compete alongside rising sophomore Adonis Smith.

  • Linebacker: The Wildcats must replace two starters and the third, McNaul, will miss the spring following offseason surgery. Hopes are high for Roderick Goodlow, who missed all of last season with a knee injury but has been going through winter workouts. Goodlow was one of just three true freshmen to see the field in 2009. "It’s a heck of a free-agent pickup," Fitzgerald said.

  • Backup quarterback: With Persa limited, the coaching staff will turn its attention to Evan Watkins, Kain Colter and Trevor Siemian as they compete for the backup job this spring. Watkins boasts the most experience but Colter provided a spark in the bowl game.

Northwestern wraps up spring ball April 16 with its spring game.