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Cornerback Keith Watkins II to miss 2016 season with knee injury

Cornerback Keith Watkins II to miss 2016 season with knee injury
(Daily file photo by Jacob Swan)

In a major blow to Northwestern’s secondary, junior cornerback Keith Watkins II will miss the 2016 season with a knee injury, the program announced Tuesday.

As the No. 3 cornerback on the roster last year, Watkins II was a valuable fill-in player in the secondary. He tied for ninth on the team with 41 tackles and tied for third with six passes broken up.

“I’m really disappointed for him, he’s worked so hard, but we’ve got great depth at that position (and I’m) excited about the guys that now get that opportunity from somebody else’s tough situation,” coach Pat Fitzgerald said via a video on the team’s Twitter account.

Watkins II said via the video that he twisted his left knee in practice last week but played through it until it swelled up after practice. He will have surgery next week.

He had nine tackles, including eight solo tackles, in a breakout performance against Iowa before following it up with eight tackles the following week against Nebraska. With cornerback Nick VanHoose injured for the Outback Bowl against Tennessee, Watkins II recorded a career-high three pass break-ups.

The injury will leave NU more shorthanded than expected at cornerback after VanHoose’s graduation and junior Marcus McShepard’s spring position transfer to wide receiver. Fitzgerald named sophomore Montre Hartage, redshirt freshman Trae Williams and redshirt freshman Alonzo Mayo as possible replacements for the cornerback spot opposite returning starter senior Matthew Harris.

Ex-Wildcat QB Trevor Siemian named Denver Broncos’ “co-starter”

Ex-Wildcat QB Trevor Siemian named Denver Broncos’ “co-starter”
(Daily file photo by Nathan Richards)

A former Northwestern quarterback has (sort of) locked down an NFL starting job heading into the preseason.

Ex-Wildcat Trevor Siemian, who played QB for NU from 2010-2014, has been named “co-starter” for the Denver Broncos, according to the team’s first depth chart. Siemian shares the starting job with former New York Jets quarterback and 2009 No. 6 overall draft pick Mark Sanchez.

In his Cats career, Siemian threw for 5,931 yards, fourth-most in NU history, in addition to 27 touchdowns and 24 interceptions. He was drafted in the seventh round of the 2015 NFL Draft by the Broncos and spent almost all of his rookie season on the bench, though he did play one snap in 2015 — a kneel-down to close out the first half in Denver’s Dec. 20 loss to the Pittsburgh Steelers.

The Broncos defeated the Carolina Panthers the Super Bowl in February and, following the retirement of Peyton Manning and departure of Brock Osweiler in free agency, have been searching for a quarterback. Denver traded for Sanchez in March and drafted ex-Memphis QB Paxton Lynch in the first round of April’s draft (26th overall) but so far no one has run away with the job.

Sanchez started his NFL career with the Jets, tagging along at QB as coach Rex Ryan’s defense led them to two straight AFC Conference Championship appearances. He underwent shoulder surgery during the 2013 season and, after being released following that season, spent the last two years as the Philadelphia Eagles’ backup.

At Memphis, Lynch passed for 8,865 yards over three seasons, tossing 59 touchdowns against 23 interceptions. In 2015, his 28:4 TD:INT ratio helped boost his draft stock and was the third quarterback taken, following Cal’s Jared Goff by the Los Angeles Rams and North Dakota State’s Carson Wentz by the Eagles.

Denver begins its preseason schedule on Thursday against the Chicago Bears at 7 p.m.

Northwestern football ranked No. 50 in all-time AP Top 100

by Tim Balk 0 Comments

In the first ever AP ranking of the top 100 all-time college football programs, Northwestern came in at No. 50.

Big Ten peer Ohio State topped the list, and Nebraska and Michigan clocked in at No. 6 and No. 7 respectively. Seven Big Ten programs made the list’s top 25, including Penn State, Michigan State, Wisconsin and Iowa. Rutgers was the lowest ranked program from the conference at No. 86.

The ranking is based on a formula taking into account the AP’s rankings going back to the poll’s creation in 1936. Ohio State has appeared in more than 77 percent of all AP polls since the ranking’s inception and has topped the ranking 105 times. The Wildcats hold an all-time record of 14-60-1 against the Buckeyes. 

NU finished last year ranked No. 23 in the AP poll having peaked at No. 12 before its bowl loss to Tennessee. The Cats landed ahead of academic peers such as Duke (No. 53), Boston College (No. 57) and Vanderbilt (No. 89) in the all-time ranking. They also finished one spot ahead of in-state rival Illinois.

NU kicks off its season Sep. 3 against against Western Michigan. The AP will release its preseason rankings on Aug. 21.

Class of 2017 wide receiver Jace James commits to Northwestern

Pat Fitzgerald pulled in another recruit for the class of 2017 on Sunday, as local product Jace James committed to Northwestern.

James has played both as a wide receiver and in the secondary in high school, but will play on offense for the Wildcats. He had scholarship offers from several mid-major Division I teams, with NU’s offer being his first from a Power 5 school.

James’ commitment is the Cats’ first from a wideout out of 14 overall for 2017. He has decent size for the position, and his highlights show his ability to win one-on-one with fluid breaks and by catching with his hands.

James will play his senior season this fall at Glenbard North, the alma mater of current NU junior running back Justin Jackson.

Miles Shuler signs contract with Carolina Panthers

Another Wildcat has found an NFL home.

Wide receiver Miles Shuler signed a contract with the Carolina Panthers after participating in the team’s rookie minicamp on a tryout basis, the team announced today.

In Northwestern’s anemic passing offense last season, Shuler caught just 13 passes for 132 yards, but the Panthers saw something they liked in the tryout and inked him to a deal. His potential as a returner likely helped him — as the team’s primary punt returner last year, Shuler averaged 10 yards per return on 11 returns.

Shuler is one of four Cats who are currently on NFL rosters for next season, joining Green Bay draftee Dean Lowry, Tampa Bay draft pick Dan Vitale, and Lions undrafted free agent Deonte Gibson. Safety Traveon Henry signed with the Buccaneers as a free agent as well, but was reportedly cut recently.

Northwestern set to face Indiana for Homecoming game

Northwestern set to face Indiana for Homecoming game
(Daily file photo by Daniel Tian)

Northwestern fans can begin making Homecoming plans, as the Wildcats announced Wednesday the date and time of next season’s Homecoming game.

NU will take on Indiana on Saturday, Oct. 22, with the Homecoming game’s kickoff set for 11 a.m . It’ll be the first time the Cats have faced the Hoosiers since 2012.

Other Big Ten teams have announced their Homecoming game dates and times as well, bringing more clarity to NU’s schedule next season. The Cats are slated to face Iowa on Oct. 1 at 11 a.m. and Michigan State on Oct. 15 at 2:30 p.m. for both schools’ respective Homecomings.

NU supporters will hope for a better outcome than last season’s Homecoming game. That day, the Cats were run over by then-No. 17 Iowa, 40-10.


Dan Vitale’s new role with Buccaneers evokes throwback term

Dan Vitale’s new role with Buccaneers evokes throwback term
(Daily file photo by Jacob Swan)

When the Tampa Bay Buccaneers selected Dan Vitale in April’s NFL Draft, it guaranteed a shot at a professional career for the former Northwestern superback. But his role as a professional was still very much in the air. Vitale was best known for his pass-catching work throughout his career and was the Wildcats’ leading receiver last season, but he spent the pre-draft process highlighting his willingness to block out of the backfield as a fullback.

With a player so versatile, it’s impossible to know how the Buccaneers will use Vitale until the pads are on. But an article on the Buccaneers’ team website gave some insight into the possibilities, including dropping a term that will make fans of retro football proud.

You won’t hear the word “wingback” on many NFL broadcasts these days. Those familiar with football history are most likely to use it in order to evoke memories of players like Johnny Rodgers, the Heisman Trophy winner at Nebraska in 1972.

Though the term wingback originated out of arcane offensive formations like the single-wing, today it is used to describe a hybrid role like the one Vitale is projected to play for the Buccaneers.

The story goes on to explain that the modern “wingback” role will involve much greater responsibilities in the passing game than it would have back in the day, and Vitale is currently listed as a tight end on the Buccaneers roster. After serving as the archetype of one unique position at NU, it would only be fitting for Vitale to bring back another one in the pros.

Northwestern football to get two prime time games

Northwestern football to get two prime time games
(Daily file photo by Nathan Richards)

Two of the Wildcats’ September games will be slotted for prime time, the program announced Monday morning.

On September 17, Northwestern will host Duke at 7 p.m., and on September 24 the Cats will kick off their Big Ten schedule against Nebraska at 6:30 p.m. Both games will be shown on the Big Ten Network.

In 2015, NU defeated Duke in Durham, North Carolina, 19-10 and narrowly escaped from Lincoln, Nebraska with a 30-28 victory.

Analyzing the NFL homes of Northwestern’s latest draft picks and signees

Analyzing the NFL homes of Northwestern’s latest draft picks and signees
(Daily file photo by Nathan Richards)

Defensive end Dean Lowry and superback Dan Vitale on Saturday became the latest Northwestern football players to be drafted, and joining them in the pro ranks as undrafted free agents are defensive end Deonte Gibson and safety Traveon Henry.

With the dust settled on the NFL’s rookie class, we can take a closer look at which Wildcats have a chance to be contributing performers for their new teams.

Lowry, selected in the fourth round by the Green Bay Packers, seems to have landed in an ideal situation. The Packers are a stable organization, and as a fourth round pick Lowry is very likely to make the cut for the 53-man roster. Green Bay also only has two true defensive ends currently on the team, meaning Lowry should have an early chance at cracking the defensive line rotation and seeing some playing time outside of special teams.

Vitale, drafted in the sixth round by the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, is much more likely to make an impact on special teams than he is on the offensive side of the ball. The Buccaneers list him at fullback, and being able to play special teams is a big part of the job description for the few fullbacks left in the NFL. Special teams play was also a big part of Vitale’s pitch to teams during the pre-draft process. If he does see the field on offense, it will most likely be whenever Tampa Bay decides it needs an extra blocker out of the backfield.

Gibson and Henry have much more tenuous futures in the NFL as undrafted free agents, as making the 53-man cut is far from guaranteed.

The Detroit Lions, who signed Gibson, drafted two other defensive linemen this year and currently list another 11 on their roster. It simply isn’t likely there will be a spot left for Gibson come the end of August. The same goes for Henry, who will have to climb past four safeties and eight cornerbacks on the Buccaneers’ roster.

It’s possible, but Gibson and Henry will each need a very impressive training camp — along the willingness to play special teams — in order to stick around.

Northwestern to play Ohio State in prime time

Northwestern to play Ohio State in prime time
(Daily file photo by Susan Du)

Northwestern’s game at Ohio State on October 29 will be played at 5:30 p.m. eastern time and will be broadcast nationally on ABC, ESPN or ESPN2, the Big Ten and ESPN announced Monday.

The Wildcats and Buckeyes last met on October 5, 2013 in Evanston, when ESPN’s College GameDay show visited campus for the first time since 1995. NU narrowly lost that game, 40-30, and went on to lose another six straight and finish the season 5-7.