We sat down with 'Cat coach Pat Fitzgerald in mid-February, shortly after his team had begun that portion of its off-season conditioning program called the Winning Edge. It is but one more step in the process of building a team for the fall, a process that continues now with a spring practice that culminates with the intra-squad game on April 16. --Skip Myslenski
As for the players themselves, let's start with Persa. How's he doing?
So far, so good. On track. Will be non-contact throughout spring. At what point will he take a snap and go through some individual drills? At this point it's to be determined. He won't take any scrimmage reps for sure, or live reps. But he's doing great. He's on track. Everything is good. And I've also liked the jobs Evan (Watkins) and Kain (Colter) and Trevor (Siemian) have done so far this winter. They've all gotten better and stronger and improved in those areas where they needed to improve. So it'll fun to watch that competition.
Since he went down and, as you said, the team's attitude changed, did that cause you to change anything in your approach?
Yeah. I probably did a terrible job predicting it and fixing it. I thought we had talked through it, worked through it, understood what needed to be done and how it needed to be done. But it was a catalyst for excuses instead of a catalyst for success.
Did that disappoint you?
Yeah, incredibly. If I would look back, I think that's where I failed. It's been a great motivator.
But how can that be your job, to keep them from ...
I'm the leader. It's my job. It's my job to take the guys and prepare
them for that, and also push 'em and drive 'em and help 'em through it.
We had our chances in two of the last three games, plenty of
opportunities. One game we didn't even show up and play.
No. I think it just became simpler to make an excuse for a performance than it was earlier. That's a failure on my part. Like I said, I think it's been a good catalyst in the off-season. The guys have realized it, looked themselves in the mirror and said, "What we did collectively as a group in the last three weeks is unacceptable." And they're doing something about it. That's all we can ask.
Onto running backs. Everyone's wondering when they're going to see another 1,000-yard rusher, which used to be common around here.
Well, we've been pretty close. We really have. Number one, injuries. We were really excited about Steph (the graduated Stephen Simmons), then he battled injuries toward the end of his career. Same thing with Scott (Concannon). Scott did a lot of good things, then we couldn't keep him healthy. I was disappointed for those guys. They're great young guys and it didn't happen. But I liked the way we finished the year. We ran the ball more efficiently at the end of the year than maybe we did the previous year. That's been encouraging. I like the way Mike (Trumpy) finished and the way Adonis (Smith) came on and improved. Obviously, Jacob (Schmidt) is a tough nut. He's a tough guy. He had to battle through some injuries for the first time in his career. He's back and ready to go. Probably won't be cleared for spring practice right away, but we hope to have him back as spring practice moves forward. Timmy Hanrahan is a young man who walked onto our program and I like him. I love his attitude and his work ethic. Same thing with Tyris Jones. Then we have two freshmen. I think we have good competitive depth there.
Which is also true at wide receiver.
Deep-and-talented group. The competition's already begun on who's going to start. I made a statement at the start of the winter that every job is open. That's across the board as a team. I'm looking forward to that competition. I could talk about each guy, but you can write about Jeremy (Ebert) and the guys who have played. It's going to be a great spring for that group.
I like where our offensive line is right now. Al Netter is doing an outstanding job leading that group. They've played a lot of football together. They're going to take a beating in the preseason because of our sacks (last season). But when we looked at them, about 20 of them were on other people than the offensive line. So they take the blame. That's fine. I'm glad those guys take the blame because they take it personal. But we've got a lot of areas where we can improve in sack avoidance than just our offensive line. And I've been pleasantly surprised with the growth of Brian Mulroe. I think Ben (Burkett) is in better shape. Now we've got great competition on the right side. I like the job Pat (Ward) did, but Pat needs to improve and get better. There's a bunch of guys fighting and clawing and scratching to be that right guard and the backup. So it should be great competition.
And the other line?
They're running as well as they have since I've been here. We've got explosive athletes, we've got good size, Niko Mafuli might be in the best shape of his career right now. Brian Arnfelt to this point is probably having the best off-season of anybody in that group. We had to fix Jack's shoulder (Jack DiNardo), so he'll be out for spring. Quentin Williams is no longer playing baseball, he's already up to 270 pounds (from 240 something). Davon (Custis) is up over 250. So that young group is starting to really mature, as they typically do. Vince (Browne) is Vince. He's steady Eddie. You could set your watch on his work ethic and his commitment. But needs to double that total. Has to take that sack total and double it.
Did this group take the poor finish personally since they were pushed around pretty good, especially by Wisconsin?
Yeah. They sure did. And they responded to it pretty well. I like where they're at right now.
Did any of them talk to you about it?
A couple guys have, yeah. But, again, there's no real hangover from the way we finished at all. I think there's more a hunger to get to where we believe we can go with this group.
We did and now we've got a nice young talented group that needs to step up and grow up and mature and get experience. That group has no starters in it right now.
What about Bryce McNaul?
He's back. But he had shoulder surgery in February. He'll be back. He'll be fine. But it's going to be a great competition.
Do each of those competitors have individual strengths that define them?
Yeah. But I think the common thread to all of them is they can really run. Top to bottom, this might be the most-athletic group we've had from a foot speed standpoint.
Explain the importance of that in defending the spread offense, which is all the rage now?
Well, they've got to be athletic, but they've got to be tough as hell. You're basically looking for a bunch of outside linebackers. The Mike (middle) linebacker is almost dying. I don't get excited about looking at myself on video. I just don't. It's hard to play (the tape). You have to have that kind of mentality and attitude (that he did), but you've got to be able to run and change direction and have what we call reactionary athleticism. Back when I was playing, the ball went that way and, bang, that's where you went. It was in a phone booth. Now, because of the option, because of misdirection, because you're so spread out, guys are getting you in space and now you're playing more fast break football, or one-on-one football, or two-on-one, and you've got to be able to react athletically.
So that's what you look for when recruiting linebackers?
Again, I'm not looking for me. I'm not looking for my athleticism. That position's tough to play. It always has been. But it's tougher from an athletic standpoint now. It's always going to have the demands of toughness.
Then the defensive backs?
Great competition. Same as at receiver. We'll see how it shakes out in the spring.
Finally, your specialists?
We've got our punter. I was really pleased with the way Brandon (Williams) came along last year. Now competition for the starting placement job between Jeff (Budzien) and Steve (Flaherty). I'd prefer to have one be the kicker and one be the kickoff man if I could, so I'd love to have both guys play a role. But that will play itself out. Then Pat Hickey moves into the starting long snapper position, and I think Pat's poised and prepared to do that. These guys have been around for awhile.
Overall, what's the speed of this team like?
We're close. We're close. Got to get a little faster on the edge up front on the defensive side. Got to get a little faster there. But we've got guys who've got the ability. We just got to keep improving.
And you finally have some guys who can be real difference makers.
We do. You put the ball in Drake's hands, he can make things happen. Jeremy (Ebert) can make things happen. (Wide receiver) Tony Jones can make things happen. Rashad (Lawrence, another wide receiver) made things happen a year ago. Adonis can make things happen. Mike Trumpy can go the distance. Danny can go the distance.
Finally, at a lot of positions, you mentioned that there's a competition going on. You like that, don't you?
I think it makes good players great and great players special. I think the biggest curse you can have as a competitor is no competition. For every Peyton Manning and Tom Brady, with no disrespect to their backups, there's nobody who can compete with them. But I can show you a million for each of those guys, when they didn't have competition they became complacent. They choked it down a little bit and they didn't improve and get better. That's a killer for a team. So ideally we love to have competition everywhere.
Which you do, it seems.
Currently, we do. . . . It's a credit to our coaches, who've worked their butts off in recruiting, and to our players because we've had success. Players want to play for a winner. They don't want to go somewhere where they don't think they can win. People see us play, and the style that we play, and kids want to be part of that. They like being part of a no-huddle mentality football program. We're not a huddle up, slow it down, lethargic football program. We're up tempo across the board. Everything we're going to do is with a sense of urgency. I think with technology today, kids just want to go, go, go and enjoy being part of that kind of climate.