There will be no tap dancing with words here, though there will be some quibbling over which ones best apply. The 'Cat football team that was trotted out to meet the media on Thursday has a swagger about it that is palpable. "I don't know that it's got a swagger more than a chip on its shoulder," Pat Fitzgerald, their head coach, said when asked about his team, and here was one of the quibbles.
WATCH: Media Day Interviews:
Coach Fitz's Press Conference
Offensive Coordinator M. McCall
Defensive Coordinator M. Hankwitz
Senior LB B. Johnson
Senior WR C. Brown
Senior QB D. Persa
Sophomore RB M. Trumpy
Senior DL V. Browne
It depends on which player you talk to, we say back to him.
"Yeah. It does. It does. Probably skill guys talk about swagger, probably the other guys talk about a chip on their shoulder. I don't know. But we were not very pleased with the way we finished a year ago. We've moved on from it, but still. It's like when you get your tail whipped, you remember who whipped your tail. Those memories, they stick with you as motivation if you use them the right way and that's kind of the way we've approached this off-season. . . We've had consistent success, Skip. We've been to three straight bowl games. Yeah, we haven't gotten over the top in those games, but I think we gained some national respect. I think people feel we can go toe-to-toe with anybody. . .and then we've got a lot of experience. Twenty-one seniors is my biggest senior class. They've all played a ton of football for us."
But coaches, we remind him, are genetically cautious when it comes to making grand pronouncements. So we wonder how he feels about superback Drake Dunsmore saying, as he did on this site just a day ago, that "I honestly think this is the year that we win the Big Ten championship and we get a major bowl game."
"I'd be disappointed if he didn't feel that way," Fitzgerald quickly answers. "If he aspired to play in the Pizza City Bowl, I'd have a problem with their expectations. It's a great bowl. If we get the opportunity to go there and win and get the monkey off our back, we will. But."
But you have no trouble with him saying it out loud?
"We've got it on our goal board. Our goals are simple. After consistently preparing, we want to win the Legends, win the championship and win our bowl game. I don't think that's unique to just us, though. So now what are we going to do about it? I got no problem with you asking a question and him answering it directly. I'd rather have him do that than sugar coat it and give a B.S. answer and then he walks away and says, 'No, this is how I really feel.'"
I prefer that too, we tell him, attempting to make a joke.
"At the end of the day, guys, we're not starting over here," Fitzgerald goes on, totally ignoring the lame effort. "There's a lot of teams in our league starting over, trying to reinvent themselves. We're far away from there. We crossed that bridge a long time ago. There's a certain set of expectations and if you don't get that kind of stuff done, we should get a little ticked off about it. I think that's the way everybody feels around here."
This is what wide receiver Jeremy Ebert said when we suggested that this 'Cat team had a different belief, a different attitude, a different aura about it than those that immediately preceded it. "I haven't been around a team like this. The confidence we have going into the season is unlike any other since I've been here. Yeah. We're ready to play some football. . . I think we just know we can get the job done this year. . . We have a little fire in our stomachs from how we left off last season and where we thought it was going to go. So we have a lot of unfinished business this year. . . We have something to prove this year."
And here was the reaction of quarterback Dan Persa. "Yeah. I think it's just confidence. I think we got a lot of confidence last year working through the things we worked through and we know we can play with anybody. That's the biggest thing."
And do they carry a big chip?
"I think it's been like that since the senior class has been here," said Persa. "It's always struck some of the guys that we weren't getting respected as much as we thought we should be."
"I think that we've been through so much here at Northwestern and now we feel we're on the verge of being something special. . .," said the offensive lineman Al Netter. "We all feel this is the special year. We have a lot of leadership. We have a lot of guys with playing experience. So I think there is a special buzz and we all feel it."
With a chip?
"We kind of feel we're the underrated team," said the defensive lineman Kevin Watt. "We want to play with that chip on our shoulder and show people we have the talent and have the ability to compete with the best."
Some two weeks ago, Persa enthused, "Mentally, I'm in a different place."
"You can definitely tell," Ebert said Thursday. "Before the ball's snapped, he knows where he's going to go with the ball and who he's reading. So it's pretty obvious he's done a lot of work in the film room this off season and picked up on some keys and stuff like that."
But he completed 73.5 percent of his passes last year. How much better can he be?
"I don't know," said Ebert, chuckling. "It's kind of scary, what could happen this year with all the work he's put in in the film room. He's definitely improved a lot."
NOT TO BE DETERRED:
Sophomore Kain Colter, who has emerged as Persa's backup, spent his offseason working on arm strength and gaining weight. (He's up to 198 from the 180 he played at last season.) When asked how he thought he would be used this season, he too chose not to tap dance. "It's tough to say. It really depends on how Dan comes out," he began, but then came this.
"Right now, in camp, my focus is on playing quarterback. Whether Dan is healthy or not, my goal is to beat him out. That's all camp is. Everybody's just trying to win a job, and I'm trying to win a job too. But Dan's a great quarterback. So if he comes out with the head job and his Achilles is all better, then I'll go somewhere else to help the team, whether it's receiver or running back. I think it'd probably be something like I did in the bowl game. I just want to get on the field."
On occasion, over the past two falls, defensive coordinator Mike Hankwitz has hinted at the out-sized potential in the out-sized senior defensive tackle Niko Mafuli. But not until last offseason did Mafuli truly condition himself into shape and only now, at a (for him) svelte 310 pounds, does he appear poised for a kind of breakout season.
"He's a tremendous young man and he's just really matured," Fitzgerald would say of him. "Football's become a priority to him. His role on this team has become a priority to him. Just by strength and athleticism alone he was kind of in the rotation in the past, but his inconsistency in a lot of areas really hurt him. Now he's dedicated himself to the point where it's tough to move him at 310 pounds. He's in a good place right now."
And what kind of potential is in those 310 pounds?
"We'll see what that is. But we're excited about where he's at and where he appears to be going," Hankwitz said with an outsized (pun intended) smile. "I don't want to put too many expectations on him. But I think he realizes more now after spring ball and getting into this kind of shape what he's capable of doing. That's exciting for us."
"Niko's always been a guy, you could just see the power in him," said Watt, not as reticent as his coach. "I'm really looking forward to him showing everyone what he can do."
AND FINALLY, ON A LIGHTER NOTE:
Persa has created a mustache-growing contest among the position rooms, so Thursday's festivities included a number of 'Cats who featured fuzzy upper lips. "Everybody who joins," Persa said when asked which rooms are involved, but now the biggest contest pits his quarterbacks against his offensive linemen. "We got 50 percent of the quarterbacks (trying to grow one) and they have something like 48 percent. So we're winning today."
"At first it was total numbers and then he changed it to percentages," countered Netter. "He changed the rules of the competition and so now they're winning. But we need just one more. We'll get 'em."
And what about Ebert, who was among the fuzzy-lipped?
"Yeah, yeah. But the wide receivers aren't as committed as we are," Persa said dismissively, and then he smiled.
"It's just something to do during camp," he now concluded. "We're going to try and get the coaches to do it up in Kenosha. We'll see what happens."