THE REALITY: Communication, most sensate 'Cat fans will remember, was a major problem for their team last season. This was especially true in the defensive backfield, where breakdowns resulted in any number of blown coverages and explosion plays for opportunistic opponents. It is no wonder, then, that following Tuesday's practice Pat Fitzgerald would say, "That was one of the bullet points of things that we wanted to work on. . . We've just got to work our butts off at it. You play in front of big crowds, you play in front of noise, you've got to be able to be on the same page and it happens through communication."
THE WORK: Tyler Scott, the defensive end, was the first to raise the point. "He made us aware of it, and we have to make a conscious effort to say communicate, communicate, communicate," he said. "I think they actually have a camera somewhere. . .that's miked up so they can hear the DBs talk to each other."
That little tidbit delivered us to Fitzgerald. "Early," he explained, "we put some cameras on the sideline to be able to evaluate communication, to be able to hear pre-snap communication and then checks and adjustments and post-snap. It was good. I'm not ready to patent anything yet. But it was productive what we tried to do, to be able to show them the significance and the importance of being able to communicate."
Then, later, the linebacker David Nwabuisi would add this. "Early on," he added, "there were a lot of drills that needed more communication. We did team-building drills where communication was mandatory. In those exercises we really had to communicate, so we kept it consistent instead of going from the season to where you don't communicate for three months until spring ball and all of a sudden you've got to pick it up again."
THE RESULT: "Communication's a lot better than it was," Scott will finally say. "Last year that's where we broke down a lot, so we've made that a key point where we need to improve. I think we've done a pretty good job of it so far."
THERE'S MORE: Those sideline cameras to evaluate communication, those team-building drills to foster communication, these kinds of additions are commonly referred to by Fitzgerald as tweaks to the ways his 'Cats previously did business. Another of them this offseason altered the way they went about their conditioning. "Young men love competition," he would say, explaining why this tweak occurred. "We've always had a competitive offseason, but (this offseason) we tried to have some more battles, to get back to more one-on-one battles. That's where we had some issues last year. So just have some fun, get some camaraderie going, some chemistry going. But also be very competitive."
IN THIS CORNER: Scott, a junior, was matched against a pair of redshirt freshmen, Max Chapman and Deonte Gibson. Nwabuisi, a senior, was matched against the junior linebacker Damien Proby and the sophomore linebacker Chi Chi Ariguzo. Across the board there were match-ups like that and, through the winter, these 'Cats competed in the weight room, competed in drills, competed in races, competed continually. "We did a lot of things that held us accountable whether it was nutrition, getting a certain lift, winning a certain race," explains Scott. "You got points for certain things and it really made you want to be the best out there. It was good. I enjoyed it."
"The added competition," adds Nwabuisi, "just makes people go that much harder. You can only push yourself so far, and another person can always push you just a little bit further. You take everything more serious. No one wants to lose. As men, you never want to lose at anything. It's not cool to lose a competition. So we're always fighting to try and be the best, and it's always good when you get matched up with someone whom you respect as much as you respect your own skills and attributes. You go after them every time, in every drill, in every lift we have in the weight room."
TO SUM UP: "The whole offseason really has kind of been trying to keep us in game mode at all times," Nwabuisi will say. "Usually you lift and you're doing drills, you're trying to get faster, you're trying to get quicker, but you're not really thinking about communicating, you're not really thinking about competing as much. During this whole offseason it was more like relating it back to football. All the drills we did were football-related, and you were always competing with someone. All the lifts we were doing, you were always competing with someone. We added those team-building activities where we had to communicate with each other. So it kept us together as a team and understanding the main focus we needed to enter the season."
THE ULTIMATE AIM: Allan Johnson, a 'Cat strength coach, said this to their defensive unit in early winter. "We've got six, seven months to create a new beast," he said.
"That's something that's really stuck with me," says Nwabuisi after recalling that moment. "That's our goal this whole offseason. Create a new mentality, dominate at all times and win, compete and win. Win, win, win. We're just trying to create a new monster out there, a new beast."
"It is," concludes Scott, "just creating a want to, a desire to win, a desire to be the best." THE REALITY (AGAIN): The defense, most sensate 'Cat fans will remember, was hardly a beast last season. It was, in fact, blamed for many of the team's failures, an attitude that even now in the spring is not forgotten by those who operate on that side of the ball. But, Scott will say, "You've got to embrace that. You've got to say, 'Yeah, it's on us.' Then make an effort to be better the next year and improve on what we did."
"Maybe we did get pointed at this past year, and we definitely keep that in the back of our minds," adds Nwabuisi. "It definitely motivates a lot of us. It definitely does. That's the trigger point for me personally, and I know it is with a lot of other guys. Tyler. Proby. A lot of guys, we don't like being talked about like that and we're going to make sure it doesn't happen again this upcoming season."
"They're sick and tired of listening to people that don't matter," Fitzgerald himself will finally say. "That's what I tell them. You've got to be worry about who you listen to and what you can control. The people who don't matter and the things you can't control, if you listen to them, they're going to tick you off. So they're pissed. I like it. (Because) I'm pissed too. (Because) we've stunk at times. And that's our responsibility as coaches. We've got to fix it. And it's their responsibility as players. It's a responsibility collectively.
"They've got it. They've got it. So. Appreciate the people letting them know. It's good. It's good. Keep telling 'em. Keep telling 'em."