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Bigger, stronger Wildcats show progress during spring drills

Ifeadi Odenigbo gets inpositiduring Northwestern spring football practice Lakeside Field Athletic Complex EvanstIll. Saturday April 13 2013. | Andrew A.

Ifeadi Odenigbo gets into position during Northwestern spring football practice at the Lakeside Field Athletic Complex in Evanston, Ill., on Saturday, April 13, 2013. | Andrew A. Nelles~Sun-Times Media

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Updated: May 15, 2013 7:09AM



Ifeadi Odenigbo lined up opposite Shane Mertz. The defensive end and offensive tackle have played a handful of snaps between them, but this was Northwestern’s final spring-football practice, and it’s been a spring like no other under coach Pat Fitzgerald.

On a cold, gray, blustery day at Lakeside Field, with the Chicago skyline gleaming in the distance, this matchup between Odenigbo, one of the most sought-after recruits in school history, and Mertz, who at 6-8, 295 pounds is one of the largest players to don the ­purple and white, was as interesting as any.

Players such as these have convinced Fitzgerald that his training-camp roster will be his deepest yet.

“We had some breakthroughs even as late as Thursday,” Fitzgerald said when asked how young players such as Mertz and Odenigbo were progressing. “Those ‘aha’ moments. ‘Now, I get it.’ But I’d rather have it now than the second week of camp.”

It was a strange spring at Northwestern because 13 players were sidelined after undergoing postseason surgeries. Several key players didn’t participate in the practice, which was held in the lacrosse stadium, near where the team’s new practice facilities will be.

But several young players made significant strides and should be better prepared to compete for playing time when camp begins.

Plus, the team looks deeper to the naked eye. Some 150 ex-NU football players watched practice, and several said these Wildcats are bigger and more athletic than teams they played on.

“You can tell [the young players] really want to learn,” junior linebacker Chi Chi Ariguzo said. “They really want to learn the defense. They just have to trust themselves and trust their keys.”

Fitzgerald saw something else that gives him confidence. The chemistry that played a major role in the Wildcats winning 10 games last season for the first time since 1995 remains.

When he expressed concerns about giving players three-day weekends during summer workouts, members of his leadership council immediately told him not to worry about players getting into trouble, which he considers a sign of a mature team.

“I felt like we learned a great lesson a season ago, and that carried over to this year,” Fitzgerald said. “Hopefully, we’ll take the next step that we need to take between now and when we get to Kenosha.”

This spring served as Odenigbo’s first real taste of college football after injuring his shoulder early last season. ESPN rated the defensive end from Centerville, Ohio, as the top prospect in the Midwest. He chose NU over Alabama, Michigan and Ohio State, among others.

He weighed 205 when he reported to camp last season, weighs 235 now and hopes to pack on 10 more pounds before training camp.

“The spring game was pretty much the closest thing to high school I’ve had,” he said. “When he said we were going live and we could hit people, it unleashed something. It was a lot of fun.”



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