Yeah, I think we have. I think, number one, I still stick by that comment, that we're close. When I say close, I mean to getting to the goals on our board, which are obviously winning our division and competing for the Big Ten championship and then winning our bowl game. Obviously, we're all proud of the fact that we've gone to four straight bowl games and that we've been eligible five of the last six years. But that's not the ultimate destination.
So how are we going to get there? I think the guys have figured it out and, number one, it was about chemistry. The Leadership Council and the senior class, they've worked hard, they really have. As I've communicated with them and we've talked about things team-wise, they feel strongly that this is as committed a team as they've been a part of since they've been here. From a player-owned standpoint. That, I think, speaks to the leadership in the locker room, which is encouraging. Obviously, nobody's hit 'em since the end of spring ball. But we're going to get to that here in a couple weeks.
But they feel very confident. They feel great about the incoming guys. We've had 20 out of 21 freshmen out of the signing class here all summer. They feel great about that group. They've been humble, they've really worked hard and bought in to how we do things. So I think that is a big part of the 'how.' Obviously, the last two seasons have created some little wounds. We've had opportunities to win more games, and we haven't. We've had opportunities to win our postseason play, and we haven't. There've been opportunities for us to take another step and we haven't, and I think that's become an incredible motivator. So while externally that might be a negative, internally it's been a great fuel. Motivation.
So do you call those losses learning experiences?
However you want to generalize it, you can. I think as you look at the senior class, you look at (offensive tackle) Patrick Ward, one of his first times playing was at Syracuse a few years ago. (Linebacker) David Nwabuisi, first collegiate start was at Syracuse a few years ago. So there's a little bit of full circle (because the 'Cats open the coming season at Syracuse), where some of these guys maybe stepped into roles they weren't ready for and now it's their turn to lead. So I think it's just experience. You can't put a price tag on the experience level of some of the guys we have coming back. They've been there and done that. They've seen some great play, and one win away from maybe being a championship team, to the last couple of years where we hurt ourselves in a lot of areas. So they can look back and say, "You know, we should have done more internally. We should have paid more attention. We should have held each other a little more accountable." We take the blame as coaches ten times harder than they do because this is all we do. "We should have done this, we should have done that." So you tweak it, but you don't make wholesale changes. It's not broken. It's just how do you get to that next step. That's what we've been working on.
When I look back on the last two seasons, you were close to doing something special when Danny (quarterback Dan Persa) got hurt (against Iowa late in the 2010 season). And then last year could have been special except for those breakdowns here-and-there during the losing streak. So do you ever get antsy, say to yourself, "C'mon. It's about time we break through"?
We-e-e-ll, I don't know if I get antsy. I think I'm going to stick to the same theme. I think you're just incredibly motivated. It's going to happen and I think if you try to force things, you're not going to get the desired outcome. Patience is not a good term. I hate patience. But we're building something special here, you know. Do I wish we had four straight bowl wins? Absolutely. But it's going to happen, and then we're going to talk about other things. Now you're talking about the other side. You're talking, "Hey. We're champions multiple years and now it's about avoiding complacency and continuing to be hungry." So, you know, it's a full circle, and we're about half way. Now we've got to be the catalyst to get ourselves up to being a championship team and it's not going to be easy, especially when you look at the start of the season and who we've got to play and how we have to go on the road for the opener in a hostile environment where we didn't have success the last time we went there. Then we come home and it's going to be critically important that we start fast. I think if you asked me to describe Northwestern football in one word, I'd say motivated.
You always say that a team is built through five phases -- winter workouts, Winning Edge, spring, summer workouts, fall camp -- and that you learn something about it through each of them. Now that you're through four of those phases, what do you know about this team?
Again, number one, I think we're hungry, I think we're motivated, I really do. I think the group has used -- I've allowed, maybe for the first time, a little bit of external motivation. I'm not a big believer in that. I think with that you've got to pick and choose. But there were plenty of attacks on particular position groups, there were attacks on our coaching staff right after the season. When you raise expectations, that should happen, and that was used in a positive way to motivate the guys a little bit. But those are in the rearview mirror now. Now it's about excitement. It's kind of like the birth of a child. At this time of the year, every year, it's that anticipation to get everybody back. As I look at where we're at -- and, again, I don't have all the empirical evidence because we haven't started (hitting yet) -- but listening to the young men, I've had them over now twice in the last week, the attitude seems to be in a great place. They feel very confident about where we're at from the standpoint of a team coming together and the chemistry being in the right spot. Now we'll see what kind of condition we're in when we report a couple Mondays from now.
I've got written down here as a question, "Do you yet understand the personality of this team?" From what you've said, I'd guess you'd say it has a hungry personality?
There's no question. No question.
Is it manifest most in any one player?
I see some guys that, to me, are working to be catalysts, to take that next step.
Yes. But, again, coming out of spring you have a group of leaders and coming out of fall camp you hope it's the same, but some more can emerge. That's why we don't name captains after the first three phases or going into the winter. We name captains after training camp. That's when we know. As we're grinding, there's going to be ups and downs, and the guys who are most consistent will be the guys who're going to emerge.
But the guys, to this point, that I've been very pleased with in what I've seen are, up front on defense, (Brian) Arnfelt, (Tyler) Scott and (Quentin) Williams. Those three guys have really done a good job of taking ownership of that group, and taking everybody under their wing. We know what we need to do up there. We need to impact the quarterback more. You can point the blame (for last season's defensive breakdowns) on a lot of places, but that's one place where we know we've got to improve for us to take the next step. We've got to impact and affect the quarterback more. Those guys have taken that to heart.
Then, in the linebacking corps, I've really seen the emergence of Nwabuisi and (Damien) Proby. I like where those two guys are. Then I've seen a maturity level in our secondary, I really have. I've seen a group that might be young, but I've seen a maturity level of a group that's looked themselves in the mirror and they're tired of it. They're tired of it (all the criticism they received last season). I think that's the whole group, I really do, and I like the way they've been committed to this point. Now I look forward to watching the way they compete in camp. In spring, I thought they took a step forward. They came together. They had a chip on their shoulder. And I think they practiced with an attitude. Obviously, (safety) Ibraheim (Campbell) is probably the most experienced guy. But (corner) Daniel (Jones's) been out there. Doogie's (corner Demetrius Dugar) been out there. C.J. (Bryant's) been out there. (Safety) Davion Fleming's been in games. (Safety) Hunter Bates has been in games. (Safety) Jared Carpenter. So there's a lot of guys who've played a lot of football. Some have battled through this, that and the other -- I remember back when I was a kid, I had a coach, "When are you going to be sick and tired of taking it? When are you going to do something about it?" I see that look in that group's eyes and I sense that in their attitude.
On offense, up front, it's the guys who've played the most, obviously. (Guard Brian) Mulroe and (center Brandon) Vitabile. Patrick's more of a lead-by-example guy. He's not a man of a lot of words. He's a lead by example guy with his consistency, and his almost calm confidence. Mulroe and Vitabile are the guys who're going to get out there. We're going to need some guys to emerge at superback. I couldn't tell you who those guys are yet. Then I really like where (quarterbacks) Kain (Colter) and Trevor (Siemian) are. I think they both had a good spring. Not great, but good, and I expect them to take the next step now in fall camp.
Speaking of Kain, and disagree with me on this if you think I'm wrong. But I always viewed Danny as being risk adverse, as someone who wouldn't take many chances. Kain, in contrast, seems to be willing to take a few more chances. So are you maybe going to have to rein him in a little bit?
Well, I think Kain trusts his athleticism. And I think prior to Danny getting injured he had the same thing. He had a trust, it's kind of like playing Monopoly. You pull a card and it's the Get Out Of Jail Free card. The athleticism, the escapability, the ability to make something happen. Now that I've watched both Kain and Trevor through the spring, both have a very strong grasp of the offense. So I think once you can go out there and just play, now instincts take over. And instinctually, when you talk about Kain in particular, he's a play-maker. You saw that a year ago. Whenever the ball was in his hands, something good happened. Now, there's some little things he's got to clean up, and as we expand his package at quarterback, there's going to be some ups and downs, especially as you practice. But I like that. He's not afraid of failure. I'm not saying that Danny was. But I said it to Mick (McCall, the offensive coordinator) at lunch. There's not a play that Kain and Trevor haven't thought they could make. But let's let it play out a little bit before we say, "All right. Let's not go down that road with the play call because we know the outcome might be (bad)." There's a lot of things we can't control as coaches. But I love it. I'll be frank. I love it. I think that gives a whole other dynamic to our offense, and that's exciting. Danny was that way until, unfortunately, he got dinged up.
I was thinking specifically of Kain saying, after the spring game, that one of the things he learned from watching Michael Vick was to keep his eyes downfield while scrambling since a receiver might pop open.
You do. But then there's the coaching side that you don't make that throw, that you don't make that throw again or you'll be standing beside me. (Fitzgerald laughs here.) But I think he's further along in his maturation because of his experiences. He's got more experience going into his third year than Danny did, and with that being said, he knows to get down, he knows to slide.
And, since everyone is interested, the obligatory question: Is Kain still just a quarterback as he was in the spring?
Yes. Absolutely. As we open up the fall.
Not a receiver or a running back?
Not as we open up. But we always reserve the right to play the best 11 players, and as we go through camp, we'll see how it goes. But our anticipation today as we sit here is he's a quarterback.
Then there are the four guys who sat out the spring (either with an injury or while rehabbing from one). (Running back Mike) Trumpy?
We expect him to be full go to start camp.
(Superback Evan) Watkins.
We expect him to be full go to start camp.
We expect him to be full go to start camp.
We expect him to be full go to start camp.
Easy enough, so. Last year at this time you talked about guys having chips on their shoulders. Is the hunger you talked about just another word for chip on shoulder?
Yeah. Again, they're motivated. I think the team's hungry. I'll go back to when I first got here (as a player). It was, "Man, we're going to go to a bowl game someday." Then look at where we're at today. The young men who're in the program have changed that expectation. They've raised the bar. They've raised the level. We still look up and say, "We've got a long way to go." Meaning, to where we want to go. Then once we get there, we'll talk about staying there. But that's athletics and life.
And symbolic of that is attitude is that, when they break down now, the players don't say, "Go 'Cats." They instead say, "Big Ten champs." What does that tell you about them?
As long as our actions reflect our goals, I'll be happy with it, I'll be fine with it. That's what I told them. My job is to make sure that happens. I haven't seen a change in that. That's what I talked to (Director of Football Performance) Jay (Hooten) and the performance staff about in the summer. (I told them) I got no problem with the group breaking down like that. But if they don't have a workout that's that of a champion, then it's your job to tell them they can't break down that way. That wasn't good enough today. Or in the middle of a workout, tell them they're not working up to that standard. So I haven't caught up to Jay (recently) and found out how it's been from that standpoint. But the young men, when we've talked at the barbecues we've had, they feel good about it.