Before meeting with the national press at the Big Ten's Media Day, 'Cat football coach Pat Fitzgerald sat down to discuss the coming season with NUsports.com Special Contributor Skip Myslenski. The conversation, naturally enough, began with the condition of quarterback Dan Persa, who tore his Achilles last November.
He's doing great. This is a 12-to-14 month rehab and we're at month eight. So he's right where we thought he would be. He's getting stronger everyday. The rehabbing is progressing the way we thought it would. He's throwing everyday and getting stronger, strengthening that leg, and now it's going to continue to progress. So our plan for camp is to take it day-by-day. We anticipate him being our quarterback for Boston College (in the season opener Sept. 3) and beyond based on where he's at. But is he going to go out and take 70 reps the first day of camp? No, he's not. But that's part of rehab. That's what we expected.
Q: But you say it's a 12-to-14 month rehab and it'll be, what, only 10 months when you come up against Boston College.
Yeah. Yeah. But the 12-month, the 14-month thing is in the book for guys like you and me. Now we're talking about sports medicine, so. He's a quick healer. He's been working through it. He's had some bumps in the road during rehab, which are natural, which happen. You've got a shoulder, you've got some scar tissue, there's been some of that. He's kind of gone through that whole gamut and he's feeling great and he's ready to go.
Q: Has he had setbacks?
I wouldn't say setbacks. He's had the normal, what you'd expect. All right. It got a little inflamed today because we upped it a little bit more so let's bring it down for a couple of days. That's just the way it goes. I remember back in my rehab (between his junior and senior years as a player), and when I say that, it's changed since these guys are training 365. It's not that we weren't working hard in the summer, but it's 365 now. I remember, I wasn't in shape until about Week Four (of his senior year). He's much further along that I was.
Q: Have you had to pull him back during his rehab?
No. No. I think he's listened to his body well. I think he's done a good job of that.
Q: To be blunt, after what happened last year, is there any concern going into the season with all your eggs in that one basket?
Q: Not to denigrate (backup quarterbacks) Evan Watkins or Kain Colter.
No. No. It's a good question. You go from an All-Big Ten player to two freshmen (which Watkins and Colter were last season), it's unfair to those two guys. They got put into a very difficult situation and, though it might not have showed up in the win category, I thought they both handled it very, very well. And they were better quarterbacks in the spring and they'll be better quarterbacks in the fall because of that experience that they went through. Now you add (redshirt freshman) Trevor (Siemian), and (incoming freshman) Zack (Oliver), well, we'll see what happens when we get into camp. It's hard to get a bunch of guys ready. But two guys have been out there, they know what it's like. They know what they did well in their preparation, they know what they need to do differently and they've worked hard at it. So I've got all the confidence in the world not only in those two guys. But also what I saw from Trevor in the spring.
Q: When we talked back in the spring, you said you wouldn't go into detail, but that you were tweaking some things when it came to conditioning. What did you see that prompted that, what were the aims of that?
Well, I thought we lost our stinger at the end of the year, so there's a little bit of me that, that, well, every coach is paranoid. So as I looked back and reflected. "OK, did I hit 'em too much, did I bang 'em too much in practice, did I take the stinger out of 'em?" As we hashed it through as coaches and talked to the players, I don't think so. I don't think so. But then I also looked forward to the year and adding divisional play, a championship game, it's going to be a longer marathon than it was last year. So we're going to watch the team closely. We're going to come in in great shape, I know that. I'm not worried about that. But I'm taking a more marathon approach than a sprint approach because they're in great shape, they really are. They never get out of shape. They've been to three straight bowl games. There hasn't been a month of going home and eating bon-bons and watching everybody else play.
Q: So are you talking about going a little easier in camp?
No. It won't be easy. But I don't know if we'll bang as much. We were very physical in the spring, we were very physical in the spring. So we'll see.
Q: You also mentioned in the spring that individuals evolve between the end of one season and the start of the next season's camp, and that might lead to them taking on roles different from those they had in the past. Has that happened with any players you can mention?
I can just tell you what the kids told me last night in our Leadership Council (meeting). I find out in August when they show up (since, under NCAA rules, coaches can't work players out between the end of May and the start of fall practice). But from last year through spring ball through what the kids told me last night, who's poised to take the next step in his career is a kid like (310-pound senior defensive tackle) Niko Mafuli. Not a kid. A young man like Niko. He's been through a lot since he's been here and now this is it. This is it. I think he sees that and he's got the strength and the power to do whatever he wants and now he's put himself at the conditioning level to be an every down starter. So he's one guy who jumps out at me on defense. (Senior corner) Jeravin Matthews is another guy who jumps out at me on defense. (Sophomore defensive end) Tyler Scott jumps out to me as a guy who's really improved. Based on spring and from what I heard from the kids, (redshirt freshman safety) Ibraheim Campbell has really had a good off season along with (senior safety) David Arnold. Those are a group of guys on defense that I've just heard a lot about. There's a lot I'm not mentioning, but those are the ones who jumped out. On offense, I've heard that (tackle) Neil Deiters has had a really good progression this summer, done a lot of great things along with (running back) Mike Trumpy. Then I've heard Kain's had just a great summer.
Q: Since you mentioned the Leadership Council, you also said in the spring that you were going to change some of its dynamics as well. How have those changes gone? Have you learned anything new from those changes?
You know, I tweaked it a little bit more. With the experience we have on the Leadership Council with the five seniors, I wanted them to take a little bit deeper ownership and I kind of stepped back a little bit. Instead of forcing everything on them, I stepped back a little bit to see what they were going to do. Based on our conversation last night, I think we're in a really good place. In the art of team, that top 20 percent, when I bark, they bark right back. The middle 60 is what needs to improve. The lower 20 percent, listening to the Leadership Council last night, it's smaller than 20 percent, which is good, but the guys who are in that group, they're (the players on the Leadership Council) tired of them. They believe that we've got enough talent across the board that they've moved on. So. I'll figure out who those guys are when we get into camp and, if they've got further years, I'll worry about them in the off-season.
Q: When you say that top 20 percent barks back at you, what does that tell you?
That they believe in what we're trying to accomplish. They buy in. It's their team. They own it. Every year is different. The message and the vision is the same. It evolves. It tweaks. But every team is different. Talking to Dan this morning, "How you doing?" "I'm in such a different place mentally right now than I was this time last year it's unbelievable. It's unbelievable." To me, that tells you how scary good he could be. That's what's exciting.
Q: Does the rest of the Council express similar sentiments?
The upperclassmen do, yeah. Drake (Dunsmore, the senior superback), you know Drake. He's got a very stoic, humble swagger about himself. (Senior offensive tackle) Al Netter is in the same boat. (Senior safety) Brian Peters has been on edge since the end of last year. He took last year, like a lot of us, very personally, and he's done something about it. It's one thing to have an attitude about it and another thing to act on it, and he's really worked hard. So, yeah, I feel great about that group and then I see a guy like Jeravin Matthews say, "It's my turn. Let's go."
Q: Many times I've heard that the less a coach has to direct a team, the better off that team is. You believe that?
That's a great way to put it. The less I have to lead in what we value, the better off we're going to be because then the players own it. If I've got to be a dictator, eventually I become Charlie Brown's teacher. Wa-wa, wa-wa, wa-wa. You know. Then we get diminishing returns.
Q: So you've got that in place now, where the players have taken ownership?
I think so. But time will tell. Listening to them last night, they feel that way. But we'll see. That's what I told them last night. I said, "Hey, it's cool, man, it's like 72 degrees right now. How 'bout when we get our ass kicked again? What're we going to do then? How 'bout when we come out the gate 6-0, what're we going to do then?" So it's great, I'm glad to hear that's the way we feel. Now here we go. Let's get ready to adjust.
Q: And just how anxious are you to get going?
I can't wait. You know. I can't wait. It's the most fun time of the year. Today. Every practice plan is done. It was already done, but we went through it one last time with a fine-tooth comb. You're loving this. It's what you live for and you just can't wait. Christmas morning is when the guys show up and you have that evening meeting on the seventh (of August). It's like, "Yeah, man. It's football again." You work, there are 52 weeks in a year, you work 40 of them for 12 ridiculous weeks, 13 if you get in the championship game, 14 with a bowl game. So you work a lot longer than you play. That's part of it, you look forward to it. I left to come in on Monday, I gave (wife) Stacy a kiss as I was leaving, she was with (their two-year old son) Brendan trying to get him potty-trained, I gave her a kiss and said, "See you later." She said, "See you in February."