EVANSTON, Ill. (AP) — No college football program spent more time in the spotlight in the offseason than Northwestern. Now, the team hopes the headlines center on victories.
The Wildcats are ready to move on after a disappointing season and an offseason at the center of the debate over unionization.
A regional director of the National Labor Relations Board ruled in March that Northwestern’s full scholarship players can bargain with the school as employees, sending shockwaves through the sports landscape.
Whether the Wildcats support unionization is unclear. They voted in April, but the result is not known because the NLRB impounded the ballots pending an appeal by the university.
No matter how the vote went, quarterback Trevor Siemian and coach Pat Fitzgerald said the discussion helped bring the team closer.
“I think it gave us an opportunity to discuss and connect on things at a little bit of a higher level than … ‘what are you getting for dinner?'” Siemian said. “In doing so, you establish these relationships with guys maybe you wouldn’t have established with, and it was good for us. I think it unified us and I think we came out better after it.”
How that translates to the field remains to be seen.
The Wildcats were hit with two major blows Wednesday when the school announced running back Venric Mark, who was recently suspended for the first two games of the season, will transfer and receiver Christian Jones will miss the season with a knee injury.
Those are two big losses for a team that fell far shy of expectations last year at 5-7 overall and 1-7 in the Big Ten.
The Wildcats were aiming high coming off a 10-win season and their first bowl victory since the 1948 team won the Rose Bowl, but things fell apart after a promising start. Northwestern was 4-0 and leading Ohio State by 10 at home last season, only to bow 40-30 to the Buckeyes and start a seven-game losing streak. The first game is at home against California on Aug. 30.
Here are five things to look for this season:
NO MARK: The Wildcats will have to regroup without Mark. That means Treyvon Green likely becomes the No. 1 tailback.
That’s not a bad alternative considering Green ran for 736 yards and 5.4 per carry as a junior. Still, Northwestern was counting on a healthy Mark once he served his suspension.
He would have sat out the first two games against California and Northern Illinois for violating an unspecified team policy. Instead, he hopes to play closer to his family this season.
Mark, who is from the Houston area, missed most of last season with a broken ankle and was granted another year of eligibility. As a junior in 2012, he ran for 1,366 yards and scored 15 touchdowns, including two on punt returns and one receiving. He ranks fourth all-time at Northwestern with 4,271 all-purpose yards.
ONE MAN, ONE QB: No more sharing. Siemian is the quarterback after sharing the job with Colter the past two years.
“(He’s) really starting to lead from the way he addresses the guys and taking over the complete ownership of our football team,” Fitzgerald said.
A senior, Siemian has thrown for more than 3,700 yards in his career, and he ranked sixth in the Big Ten in completion percentage (59.7) last season.
TAKE IT AWAY: One thing Fitzgerald has been harping on is takeaways. The Wildcats led the league with 19 interceptions but tied Nebraska with a league-low four fumble recoveries last season.
“The 10-3 season we had, we recognized that the biggest correlation to winning games is turnovers,” safety Ibraheim Campbell said. “They stress nonstop in practice, ‘Make sure in practice every opportunity you get to go after the ball, you’re going after it.'”
TARGET CHOICES: Losing Christian Jones, who caught 55 passes for a team-high 668 yards, leaves Siemian without one of his top targets. He still has Tony Jones (no relation) back after finishing with 630 yards and leading the Wildcats with 55 receptions.
EXPERIENCED STOPPERS: Northwestern has experience on defense with nine starters back, including Campbell and linebacker Chi Chi Ariguzo. There is one big hole to fill with defensive end Tyler Scott gone.
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