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Fitzgerald's spring take: confidence boost for Cats
By Lindsey Willhite | Daily Herald Staff
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Published: 4/26/2009 12:00 AM

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Senior safety Brendan Smith didn't care that Northwestern's first-string defense didn't have four injured starters at its disposal for Saturday's spring game.

He didn't care that he and senior cornerback Sherrick McManis, two all-Big Ten candidates entering their fourth season as regulars, left the 70-play scrimmage early since they had little to prove.

All he knew is the Wildcats' offense overwhelmed the defense for 5 touchdowns, 2 field goals, 459 total yards and no turnovers in 70 plays at splotchy Ryan Field in Evanston.

"I think we were flat - and it starts with me," said Smith, the lone returning captain from last year's 9-4 Alamo Bowl team. "I'll take full responsibility. We can't have that. It's a sad way to end spring ball."

Not exactly. At least when viewed using a less narrow perspective.

"I think the whole spring has been a confidence boost for our football team," said fourth-year coach Pat Fitzgerald.

Northwestern entered spring's 15 practices with far more question marks on offense than defense - that'll happen when you lose your top passer, top two runners and top three receivers to graduation - but heads into off-season training with far fewer queries.

Answer No. 1: Senior Mike Kafka owns the quarterback job. He completed 12 of 21 passes for 134 yards on Saturday, including a 55-yard play-action touchdown where he lofted a bomb to Andrew Brewer just over McManis' leaping reach.

Answer No. 2: The Wildcats have multiple choices at running back, where the three healthy candidates (junior Stephen Simmons, sophomore Jeravin Matthews and redshirt freshman Alex Daniel) combined for 207 yards and 4 touchdowns in 32 carries on Saturday.

"I think we've got a really good problem," Fitzgerald said. "We've got three guys currently now that are healthy, that went through spring, that are capable of being Big Ten running backs."

Daniel (10 carries for 70 yards, 2 TDs), who's more of an off-tackle bruiser, flashed some nimble feet early and made safety Hunter Bates whiff at the line of scrimmage on a 15-yard run in the red zone.

Simmons (7 carries for 47 yards) plunged for a 1-yard touchdown on the first drive before calling it quits early, while the speedy 170-pound Matthews (15 for 95, 1 TD) provided the day's most intriguing carry when he bounced all the way from right guard to the left edge for a 22-yard touchdown against the first-string.

"I saw a D-tackle and I saw Nate Williams at middle linebacker just crashing through the hole," Matthews said with a smile. "I just let my instincts take over and swing it to the outside, try to make a play. (The coaches were) like, 'No, no, no, where is he going? Yes!' "

Matthews' unmatched burst suggests he'll have several chances to excite the NU coaches and fans this fall.

"We want to play to guys' strengths," Fitzgerald said. "We'll find new and creative ways to get the ball into guys like Jeravin's hands. He's a pretty dynamic athlete."