For the last 17 days, I've spent my time working on the summer tan that college hockey kept me from getting during its shakeup in the month of July.
Unfortunately, it wasn't the tan I was originally hoping for, but it will have to do.
Instead of tossing a Frisbee around on the sandy shores of Lake Superior with my dog Roxie, I spent the last two-plus weeks armed with my iPhone, a pen and a notebook on the other side of Lakeshore Boulevard, watching Northern Michigan University football practices day-in and day-out.
My polo shirt, cargo shorts and tennis shoes created tan lines that may seem weird to some, but it's nothing compared to the tan line NMU first-year wide receivers coach Rob Erwin has from wearing a whistle around his neck since Aug. 11.
The last 17 days have not been about sitting back in the sun and enjoying a little football as if I was hanging around Green Bay Packers' training camp, however. This was work and possibly the most studying I had done since college.
It has been nearly five years since I last watched an NMU football game. As the Mining Journal beat reporter for Wildcat football, I wasn't going to walk into the Superior Dome on Sept. 1 and blindly try to begin covering the team.
I also knew from Day 1 there was no way I could write legitimate season previews on the players and their positions by showing up for the final 10 minutes of practice.
On the defensive side of the ball, NMU coordinator Randy Awrey may appear to be running your basic 3-4 defense at first glance, but that isn't the case.
Linebackers aren't always linebackers, safeties aren't always safeties and opposing quarterbacks should think twice before releasing the ball from their hands because there's a good chance its going to be snatched up by someone wearing green and gold.
The offense is where I directed the bulk of my concentration, for two reasons:
First, there's nothing more boring than watching a defense work against a scout offense that isn't hitting, throwing or even taking the ball anywhere near the line of scrimmage.
Secondly, offensive coordinator Chris Ostrowsky's offense makes what most teams run in the NFL seem like a Pop Warner playbook. I give every wide receiver, quarterback, running back and whatever position it is that Jared Buss and Brent Parrett line up in a lot of credit for knowing what to do even 50 percent of the time on the field.
Besides research, I also wanted to know if the Wildcats could live up to the hype coming out of 1401 Presque Isle Ave.
My answer: Maybe.
Northern's most reliable areas are on the defensive side of the ball and at running back. Those are areas fans should have no concern about.
The concern - and at the same time excitement - should come on offense, where the most most potential and questions lie.
Senior quarterback Carter Kopach is as talented and as intelligent as they come, but what happens to the Wildcats if he goes down to injury again? Talented backup Cody Scepaniak is still learning the offense. At times, he has struggled to get rid of the ball and make the quick decisions required.
The Wildcats' wide receivers may be the most talented athletes on the team and the position with the most potential. However, maturity is an issue with this young group of men, many of whom are stepping on the field as starters for the first time.
The same can be said for the offensive line, which features three sophomore starters.
Northern possess a lot of potential, most notably on offense. Admittedly without much of an in-depth knowledge about the rest of the GLIAC, I'd say eight wins is not too much to ask from the Wildcats this season.
The 2011 schedule favors NMU with Minnesota State-Mankato, Wayne State, Grand Valley State and Michigan Tech all coming to the Superior Dome. Those four games will be the Wildcats' toughest of the season.
If Kopach can stay healthy and players like redshirt freshman Julian Gaines can live up to their potential, this has the makings of a special season at Northern.
I'll be hedging my bets, however, until after Thursday's opener at the Superior Dome.
For the last 17 days, I've watched the Wildcats practice like they play. Now the questions is, can they play like they practice when the pressure is on?