Northwestern is the first team in the Big Ten to open spring practice, hitting the fields on Tuesday morning.
Coming off a 10-win season and an appearance in the Outback Bowl, the Wildcats should have plenty of optimism for 2016. A very manageable nonconference schedule that includes home games against Western Michigan, Illinois State and Duke could help get Northwestern off to another good start this fall.
But that's still several months away. Let's take a closer look at what's in store for this spring in Evanston:
Spring schedule: Pat Fitzgerald likes two things when it comes to spring schedules: practicing in the morning and eschewing an actual spring game. Northwestern will hold an open practice at Ryan Field on April 2, and its final practice of the spring on April 9 will be televised on the Big Ten Network. But pomp and circumstance will be in short supply.
What's new?: Not a whole lot, actually. They change coaches at Northwestern about as often as England changes monarchs. Fitzgerald welcomes back his entire staff, which has been intact since 2011. That's unheard of in this era of coaching transition in college football. The Wildcats will lose double-digit starters off last year's surprising 10-3 squad.
Three things we want to see:
1. Improvement in the passing game: After starting all 13 games as a redshirt freshman, quarterback Clayton Thorson is looking to take the next step as a passer. It's not all on Thorson to improve the Big Ten's worst passing attack in 2015, however. The Wildcats' receiving corps has been inconsistent and disappointing for a couple of years in a row. That unit will get a makeover after the loss of graduated seniors Christian Jones, Miles Shuler, Cam Dickerson and superback Dan Vitale. Rising senior Austin Carr, a former walk-on, is now the greybeard of the group. Youngsters such as 2015 signees Cameron Green and Charles Fessler have to step up this spring and give Thorson more playmakers. Speedy former running back Solomon Vault also could help if he masters the position switch.
2. New pass-rushing forces emerging: No position was hit harder by graduation than defensive end, where the Wildcats lost two underrated and highly valuable starters in Dean Lowry and Deonte Gibson. They were integral to the defense's stout performance a year ago. Northwestern clearly is counting on senior Ifeadi Odenigbo to finally become a star. He had four sacks last year and is unquestionably skilled. He has to become a more complete player and stay on the field against the run. Similar questions exist about Xavier Washington at the other end spot.
3. Health and a nasty streak from the offensive line: Injuries kept the offensive line from gelling at times last season, and veterans Geoff Mogus and Matt Frazier are now gone. There will be some position battles in the middle of the line, including center. The line did a decent job of opening holes for Justin Jackson last season, but ranked 12th in the Big Ten in sacks allowed. Against some of the better defenses in the league, the line had trouble getting much going. Depth should be improved, as six players who started games last year return and some younger linemen start to push for more playing time. But this unit needs to stay healthy through the offseason, build chemistry and get a little tougher.