Competition is a theme that cuts constantly through this 'Cat football season. There is competition for starting roles. There is competition in hopes of building depth. There is competition with an eye on improvement. There is competition to find, as Pat Fitzgerald often says, the best 11. "Competition makes good players great and great players special," is another point he is fond of making.
Guys have got to make plays or it's next man up. That is one more point he is perpetually stressing, but here is where the sword can get double-edged. If a player is worried about his job, if a player is worried that he must be perfect, if a player is so worried that he operates with one eye looking over his shoulder, he is not going to produce his best work. We made this point to Fitzgerald after a recent practice and then asked how he, as coach, can make sure this does not happen while keeping the necessary competition alive.
"If [a player] is worrying about me, then [he's] going to get your butt whipped. It's that simple," he said, and now we were off on an exchange that revealed much about him and his revamped approach and his current crop of 'Cats. "You've got to go out and perform and that's where we have to go as a program to take the next step. If you're worrying about a bunch of garbage then you're going to play like garbage. And I think a mature player says, 'You can talk about competition, coach, all you want, but I'm going to go out and do my job. If I do my job, I've got nothing to worry about.' If they're not on their job, then they should be worried. I want them to be worried and I want them to be pushed. That's the only way we're going to take the next step.
"You come to our team room. The goal board doesn't say, 'Be nice.' It doesn't say, 'Hopefully win some games.' It doesn't say, 'Get bowl eligible.' It talks about consistently preparing. That means competition every day. It talks about winning our conference. Winning our division. Winning our bowl game. For us to take those next three steps, that's what has to happen. So. I really don't care if I hurt somebody's feelings. I've probably been too nice in the past. And--"
But you understand where the question's coming from, we interrupt here.
"I understand. I do. And I'm not worried about it because I'm going to go with the next guy. We're going to go with the next guy. We've gone the other way, and it hasn't worked. So we're going to be much more aggressive as coaches. We're going to be much more demanding on the level of expectations. I think I've been too patient in the past and too loyal. I'm fine with that. But at the same time, guys have got to make plays, and if they don't, we're going to make a change. We have to.
"Now, again. If it's a momentary thing, if their guy made a play, that's different than if you make a mental mistake, if you make a physical mistake, if you make a fundamental mistake, if you make a technique mistake, if you make a communication mistake. Now I'm going to get upset. But if they make a play, you're not going to get pulled for that. That's why initially, with (corner) Nick (VanHoose), we didn't pull him (even after he gave up two explosion plays against Indiana, one of which went for a touchdown). [Indiana's] kids, you know what, they made a few plays. But the play that we gave up on the wheel route, we talked about, we coached it up, we drew it up, and we still give it up."
Is he talking about the post pattern that VanHoose got beat on for the Hoosiers' second touchdown?
"The wheel route (on the first play of the fourth quarter). The post pattern, he's right there to make the damn play. Make the damn play. It's the wheel route down to the 1-yard line in the north end zone. (Actually, it was to the 2.) We're using Nick as an example here. But there's enough blame to go across the board in all three phases and with us as coaches. It's the same thing I'm talking to the coaches about. I'm tired of it. Either you're coaching it or you're allowing them to do it. I heard that a long time ago as a coach. You're either coaching it or allowing it. Fix the problem. Fix it. Solve it. So we're working on it together. That's the one thing you can't miss. This is a collective no-excuses, moving-forward, take-the-next-step approach. That's the only way we can get there."
When you say it's collective, you mean the players feel the same way?
"Yeah. Yeah. That's what I see. And If they don't, then I have a problem with them and we'll have a conversation."
We also checked in with defensive coordinator Mike Hankwitz and, to begin, pointed out that no player on his much-improved unit entered this season with more than one year of starting experience. "I think that's true," he said, and then he began running down his truly youthful lineup. Defensive tackle Brian Arnfelt has been hurt and so is starting consistently for just the first time. Linebacker David Nwabuisi didn't start until last season and linebacker Damien Proby didn't do that until the middle of last season. Last season was also the first time starting for redshirt sophomore safety Ibraheim Campbell and redshirt sophomore linebacker Chi Chi Ariguzo.
"So, yeah. I never thought of it that way, but it's true," Hankwitz then said. "And then we've been rotating some young players in there and there's times when we've got six to seven first-year guys out there at the same time. You try not to do that, but it's just the way the game happens. Then with Ibraheim getting hurt last week (against Indiana), we have (true freshman) Traveon (Henry) out there in his second game. You got (redshirt freshman) Nick (VanHoose) out there, first-year player. Quinn (Evans, the other corner) is really a first-year player. I think he started one game at Stanford and it's his first year learning our stuff. Dean Lowry (the true freshman end who is in the rotation). Sean McEvilly (the redshirt freshman who has taken overt as starting tackle)."
How does the callowness of his unit effect what he is able to do, we now ask.
"We're trying to keep it down, keep it to a minimum where we can execute. Overall, we've executed much better than the year before. Even in this last game, there wasn't one time when we were really out of position. We just didn't get up and make a play. A year ago, it was frustrating because we weren't in position and you can't make a play if you're not in position. This year we're getting the position. We've just got to go up and get the ball. But those things we think we can fix."
Say his playbook is five inches. How many inches in has he gone with such young group?
"We're about an inch. But we're going to keep doing it (that way) because we're executing better. We even cut it down in the spring with guys who've been here awhile. (Senior end) Quentin Williams and (junior end) Tyler Scott and Arnie, they've been doing this stuff for three years now. But there's a difference between hearing it and then experiencing all the things that happen on the field. The hard thing is, there's no substitute for experience. You can't always learn when something happens to another guy, when he makes a mistake. You can show them, try to get them to understand it. But. Until he practices it, maybe sees it in a game, he doesn't always make that correction."
Were the problems his unit had with communication last season another reason he has kept it simple?
"No question. Part of that poor communication was we weren't vocal and stuff like that. We've made that correction. But then we also said, 'If we do less, we shouldn't have mental mistakes or hesitation either.'"
And they haven't had that?
"Not to a large extent, no."
The last person we checked in with (very briefly) this day was Arnfelt, the beast in the belly of the 'Cat defense, and here we jokingly asked if he understood just how young his group was. He chuckled and then said, "No. I would say I don't. You don't really realize it. The guys who are maybe young in game experience aren't young in practice experience, and I don't think they make rookie mistakes at all. They're real mature, especially Dean Lowry. He's extremely mature for his age."
The limited playbook, we then wondered, just what effect has it had on his group's play?
"I think if anything, we just play faster. If there's less mentally to go through, you're just going to play faster," he said, confirming his coordinator's belief. "That's what the coaches have told us. If it's too much, communicate it. Then they're going to take it off our plate."