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    Checkin' In: Spring Practice -- For Real

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    LET THERE BE THUDS: Saturday, in their final practice before breaking for exams, the 'Cats were in full gear, which meant they could play football again for the first time since their January bowl game in Dallas. "It's always fun to be in pads," defensive end Quentin Williams would later say. "It's always fun to go live and really get after it. To get the feeling of taking someone down, it's satisfying."

    "It feels awesome," echoed safety Brian Peters, who was smiling broadly as he said that. "Defensive-minded people, we're ready to bang every day. It was fun to be able to smack some offensive guys around. They got a little too comfortable in the offseason."

    IN CASE YOU MISSED IT THE FIRST TIME: Asked how he felt to see his team playing football again, 'Cats coach Pat Fitzgerald said, "I'm really glad we didn't play Boston College today. We got a long, long, long, long, long, long, long way to go. But I think, what's more important, is for the guys to realize these fundamentals and techniques we're talking about, how critically important they are. Especially when we start pushing the tempo. The first thing to go is your mind, and if your mind goes, there goes your body. And we got sloppy as the team period went along. So a lot we can clean up and correct."

    Can that happen in practice?

    "Oh, yeah. I think that mental toughness comes from being in great physical condition. It's not a chicken-and-egg deal. You've got to be in great shape to be mentally tough. The tempo that we go at, if we were a finished product today, I'd be a little concerned. I'd like to be the finished product maybe sometime in November. So we got a lot of work to do."

    But did he see the intensity he liked?

    "It was OK. On the One-to-Ten-ometer, I'd give it a 1.75. We're all right. We're OK. Baby steps. We got a long, long way to go. First Saturday of full pads practice in spring ball. We're not a very good football team right now. But nobody is in the country."

    TWO-MINUTE DRILL WITH COACH HANK: Often, in this offseason, Fitzgerald has declared that his team lost its attitude after quarterback Dan Persa went down and that this, more than anything, prompted their failures against Illinois and Wisconsin and Texas Tech. We wondered, on Saturday, if defensive coordinator Mike Hankwitz agreed. "We've addressed it, we've talked about it, we've explained what happened," he said. "The last three games, we didn't have the same attitude we had prior to that. They could see it and we said, 'We're putting it behind us, moving on and working to have a better attitude.' It really started in the offseason ... and it's carried over. Now it's developing. It's much closer to where we need to be. We're headed in the right direction."

    What did they see on film that let them know the attitude was absent?

    "We weren't celebrating plays, we weren't letting a guy know he did a heck of a job. We didn't have the same intensity in our pursuit. It seemed like we were playing more individually than collectively together. It's frustrating, disappointing. But it happened and now we're going to do something about it."

    Was it a teaching lesson?

    "Oh, yeah, it was a great teaching lesson. We let a string of things effect us more than they should have and that prevented us from using the tools that we had."

    Persa?

    "Yeah. In reality. Yeah. And we had some guys who were banged up, hurt, and they let that affect them more than it should have. So it was definitely frustrating. We could see it happening, we tried to address it, but we just couldn't, we never got it changed the way we needed to."

    THE VIEW FROM THE FIELD: We brought up Hankwitz's observations while talking with Peters and Williams. "We didn't play with the swagger, the team chemistry, especially on the defensive side of the ball, to win games and it cost us. And I wouldn't say it was just the last games," said Peters. "I could say it spread back to the whole season. We never played as a combined force. When we did have it on, like the Iowa game, you could tell. We were celebrating after plays and all that. (Not) seizing momentum and keeping momentum is what killed us at the end of the season."

    "I think right know we're really focusing on being a team, being a defensive unit communicating really well and working together," said Williams.

    Hank said you talked about it. What exactly was discussed?

    "We talked about playing together and playing with an attitude," said Peters. "That stems from repeatedly responding and celebrating after every play. If you keep harping on it, it becomes a habit, and once it becomes a habit, we're going to be a deadly force."

    CHANGES I: Williams, by the way, has dropped baseball, which he played in his first two years as a 'Cat. "I just felt like I needed to focus," he explained. "I didn't see myself progressing like I wanted in either sport. So I figured I better drop one, and it was natural for me to choose football."

    He has, as a result, gained some 15 pounds and is up to 260, which makes it no surprise that Hankwitz says, "He's stronger, and he's been able to devote more time to working on some things that he wants to improve on."

    CHANGES II: Defensive tackle Niko Mafuli, in contrast, has spent his offseason dropping weight, which is why both Fitzgerald and Hankwitz have said he is in the best shape of his life. "I really worked at it ... to get my body where I want it to be," he said on Saturday. "It's not there yet. It's not going to be there probably until camp. It's an ongoing thing. It's going to continue through the spring, summer, into camp."

    Has he changed is diet?

    He laughed. "Yeah. I was eating a little crazy for a little bit, my weight was up. So I really changed. I got with our nutritionist and changed the way I ate."

    What did he drop from his diet?

    "A lot of carbs ... a lot of the sweet stuff. I'm a big guy, I like the sweet stuff."

    Pies, cakes?

    "All that good stuff. Ice cream. And I upped my protein intake, upped the vegetable intake, dropped the carbs, and portion control is a big thing for me. So it's smaller meals more frequently."

    What's been the change in him?

    "I'm down, from the start of winter workouts, about 16 pounds. I've dropped down and I feel better and want to keep going."

    What prompted the change? Did he look at himself in the mirror?

    "It was a combination of that, (defensive line) Coach (Marty) Long getting on me, and I was like, 'This is my last year. I want to do something I've never done before.' I just want to give my all. I just said one day, 'This is enough. I'm going to do something about this.' Weight's always been a big thing with me. It's something that's held me back in the past. I'm not going to let that happen anymore."

    CHANGES III: Rising sophomore speedster Venric Mark, who last season was No. 85 in your program, is now wearing No. 5, which previously belonged to the graduated Sidney Stewart. Explained Mark: "I was No. 5 in Little League, I was No. 5 in high school, I saw the opportunity to wear No. 5 now, so I thought I should grab it. I went back to childhood."

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