"I'm not as sold on guys being the finished product in high school. I like guys who have growth potential. A guy who's 205, 210 is fine with me as long as they look like they have growth potential."
* Back in 2008, out at Cheyenne High School in North Las Vegas, Damien Proby was a 210-pound senior linebacker who finished the year with 112 tackles, seven sacks, two pass break ups and recognition as his state's Class 4A Co-Defensive Player of the Year. He was also little regarded by a site called the ESPN Recruiting Insider, which concluded its evaluation of him by noting, "Is disciplined. But upside is limited."
"Sounds good, man. Sounds familiar," Fitzgerald says when he hears that, and then he chuckles.
"He's one of those guys I watched on tape and fell in love with right away," he now goes on. "I remember talking to the staff and I'm like, 'Why isn't he being heavily recruited?' It was mind-boggling to me. Everybody knows about everybody, supposedly. So it was just trusting our evaluation."
* Damien Proby is now a 235-pound 'Cat sophomore and, last Saturday against Penn State, he started his first game for them as a middle linebacker. (He had one start last season as the Will backer). He was part of the reconstituted defense Fitzgerald sent out to face the Nittany Lions and, by that evening's end, he had himself a team-high six tackles. But this was not all that occurred under the lights at Ryan Field. David Nwabuisi, whom he had replaced at Mike, took over at Will for the battered Bryce McNaul (back spasms) and also finished with a half-dozen tackles.
That is why, when asked about Proby's performance, Fitzgerald would end up speaking of them both. "Damien's a big, physical guy. Plays with his feet apart. Plays good fundamentally. That, to me, is where our biggest issue lies on defense. Fundamental consistency. I think as the game went along Saturday, he settled down. And as I've said to the team, David Nwabuisi. . .played really well, maybe his best game of the year. So that's encouraging."
* That is also how they practiced while preparing for the Hoosiers, with Proby at Mike and Nwabuisi at Will, and so we sought out Proby and asked how it felt to get back in the starting lineup. "It was definitely an exciting thing. I was happy for it," he said. "I was more of a role player until that point. I had to embrace that role. I had been a starter on every team I was on, so I had to be like, 'All right, I may not be a starter on the defense, but I am a starter in my mind.' That's the way I approached it and continued to get better instead of regressing."
Does he prepare differently knowing that he will start?
"Me personally, I go into anything, give is as much as I can give until I can't give anything more. So there was no change for me. There was still the same amount of studying, the same amount of film, extra work, all those things you have to do whether you're on the bench or on the field just to help out the team in general."
"Nerves have never been a problem for me. I love the game. Any opportunity I get to play, I'm going to make the most of it. I take every game, every practice with that mentality. So nerves are nothing that overcame me personally. I know that may happen to a lot of people. But I was never nervous about it. I felt I was all prepared and if my number was called, I'd be up for it."
Will or Mike?
"I can pop into any position. We're forced to learn all three since you never know what scenario may happen. But I do find myself at a better comfort level at Mike."
* You might remember Kevin Wilson, who is in his first year as Indiana's head coach. 'Cat offensive coordinator in 2000, the year they unveiled the no-huddle, up-tempo offense. The year they grabbed off a share of the Big Ten title and played in the Alamo Bowl. The year quarterback Zak Kustok led the conference in total offense and running back Damien Anderson was named an All-American after rushing for 2,063 yards. Yes, that Kevin Wilson.
"Loved him. Just a great guy," says Fitzgerald, who joined the 'Cat staff a year later. "Tremendous football mind, great football coach, somebody I call a friend. He was very gracious to me as a new member of the staff. Obviously, he'd been with Coach Walk (Randy Walker) for a number of years and so, as he a new guy, (he told me), 'I would do this, I would definitely not do that.'" That helped."
* Wilson's own offensive coordinator with the Hoosiers is Kevin Johns, who was an assistant under both Walker and Fitzgerald, and so the brain trust in Bloomington is well versed on the Way of the 'Cat. No wonder, then, that Fitzgerald would say this week, "We're working our alternative signal system. . . Obviously, with Kevin Johns being there, we're fully aware of his knowledge of our program, so we're doing a lot of things to prepare for that." (Asked what kinds of things, he chuckled and said he'd rather not get into specifics. This, of course, was reasonable, to say nothing of judicious.)
* On the flip side, this is Wilson's first time as a head coach and so the 'Cats have limited (to use a classic Fitzian phrase) empirical data on his operation. "So we don't have all the answers (on what to expect)," he says. "You never do. But over time you kind of get a good sense of the personality of the signal caller. So it's a big advantage for them."
* Quickly noted: Last week at Iowa, the Hoosiers started a true freshman at quarterback for the first time in history. Tre Roberson was his name and he went 16-of-24 for 197 yards and a touchdown without an interception. . . The Hoosiers this season have started nine true freshmen and played 16 overall, which is tied for third-most nationally. . . Stephen Houston, the Hoosiers' leading rusher, is averaging just 53.2 ypg. But, in their last two games, they netted 223 rushing yards against Wisconsin and 217 rushing yards against Iowa. . . The 'Cats have won six of their last seven meetings with the Hoosiers. But those games have been decided by a total of just 26 points (with one settled in overtime and another in double-overtime). . . Former 'Cat running back (2001-04) Noah Herron is a grad assistant with the Hoosiers. Current 'Cat wide receivers coach Dennis Springer was on the Hoosier staff from 2008-10.
* And finally, this fun factoid: There are three tales that can account for Indiana's nickname, but here we will pass along only The Scribbler's favorite. It involves the whimsical native (and poet) James Whitcomb Riley, who wrote that vicious fights often broke out among his state's pioneers. These fights, he further wrote, would frequently end with someone losing an ear, and so settlers were not unsettled when they walked into bars the morning after and spotted an ear on the floor. They would instead simply ask: "Who's ear?"