Snow is spitting from the sky and, down below, slush pockmarks the landscape. But this inconvenient reality does not matter. On the Kirby-Flanagan Indoor Practice Field inside the Nicolet Football Center, the 'Cats are about to wrap up their second spring practice of the winter. "It's awesome. It's great stuff. It's great to be in football in February," Pat Fitzgerald will say when it is finally over...
The memory does not recall the 'Cats ever kicking off their spring drills this early, which raises an obvious question. Fitzgerald begins answering it by referencing their three losses last season and then he is off, his elocution already in mid-season form. "You've got to teach from that, you've got to learn from that, you've got to look at all the variables at what happened," he is saying now. "Out here, it's more macro stuff. Like I was just talking to the team, 'Did you feel the momentum? Did you sense it? OK. This is what we have to do in that situation defensively. This is what we have to do offensively.' Then, in the micro, when we get in the film room and are doing different things with our cutups, with what we did well, or what we executed well, or a communication breakdown, or a missed tackled, or a missed throw, or a missed read, whatever it might be, those are the little things where we have to emphasize, 'Just do what we do. Don't try to do too much. Don't try to make up a two-score deficit in one play.' Little things like that. With all the young guys we have, I know it's a long answer to a short question, but that's what's the best part of spring. It really is. You can take the time to teach them. That's why we moved it up, to answer your question. We moved it up to maximize every stinkin' day the NCAA gives us to teach.". . .
* Thirteen 'Cats are sitting out the spring, many of them rehabbing from off-season procedures, and in this group are tackle Jack Konopka and corner Nick VanHoose and linebacker Damien Proby, all returning starters. This is another reality that influenced the schedule they are now following. "The guys we have injured from the season, they'll be able to matriculate back with the team kind of that third week of April (and after the spring exhibition game)," explains Fitzgerald. "Then we'll have a lot of time to be in the weight room together as a whole group. Right now, they're doing rehab. So if we extended our winter, they wouldn't be part of the team. You guys know what I'm talking about. They wouldn't be pushing each other. They will be once we go wheels up after spring. So a lot went into the decision (to start so early).". . .
* Since it is so early, it is not yet the time to discuss Xs or Os or yawning needs or performers who just might be on the cusp of a breakout season. The time for that is still ahead. Right now, with even spring in some distant future, the 'Cats are very much like random Lego pieces scattered across a table and awaiting construction. Fitzgerald makes this clear when asked what he hopes to accomplish here. "Who are you? What do you do well? How much confidence and trust do you have in yourself. What do we as coaches see in you? What do we believe your strengths are, and then how can we utilize those strengths?" he replies, speaking of his various pieces. "Then what are the areas that you need to improve on, then create a plan and set some goals. Not only in the micro -- again, I sound like a business guy--but not only between now and the end of the school year, but now until August."
So it's a learning experience for him?
"Huge. Huge. For the older guys, I know a lot. But for the (true sophomore safety) Traveon Henrys, for the young guys up front, for some of the young linebackers like (redshirt freshmen) Eric Wilson and Jaylen Prater and Joseph Jones, I could go name, name, name, name, name, I'm getting my first snapshot of, 'Here's our expectations. Can you get to the expectations? If you can't, why not? Is it our teaching? Is it the way you're learning. Are you just not ready? Do you need to get faster? Do you need to get stronger? Do you need to marinade in the scheme longer?' Those are all the things we've got to get evaluated, and then we can put the pieces of the puzzle together ... Right now we've got a 110-piece puzzle, with some pieces from last year gone. You need new people for those pieces. Who are they? How do they fit? Do we have to rearrange them a little bit? We're eight-years into this now. Remember year one when we were talking? We're in a totally different place. So how do you take that next step now? The program's in place. The culture's in place. We're just continually trying to raise the bar internally and continue to try and fit the pieces accordingly." ...
* One well-known piece in the 'Cat puzzle is senior quarterback Kain Colter, who is clearly one of their primary leaders. As that, we wonder, just what message is he trying to get across this spring. "I think this year is so much different from other years just because we know we can do it and we know how close we were. We were five minutes and three seconds away from, in my opinion, playing in the Big Ten championship," he says. "We had 10 wins, got our first bowl game win. I feel we really proved we can do big things here as a football program. So I feel the message this year is different. I feel we have that confidence now. Now we know we can compete. There should be no doubt about that. So now it's just about coming out there with swagger, coming out there with confidence, and really just wearing teams down.". . .
* Six months separate Colter from his team's opener at California, and over a year will pass before he slips on a cap-and-gown and receives his degree. Still, we wonder, does he realize he's heading into his senior season and preparing here for his last rodeo? He chuckles. "I talked to my family the other day and it's crazy to think about it," he then says. "Even when they say, 'Seniors bring it up.' I'm with the seniors now and it doesn't feel right. It feels like I'm still a sophomore. I feel like it's just went by real quick. You've got to take advantage of your last season. You don't get too many opportunities. That's really starting to set in."
And does that give him a sense of urgency even greater than normal?
"For me, every time you know it may be your last run, so you want to give it a little bit more effort and really have no regrets," Kain Colter finally says. "But now you finally realize the meaning behind, 'Play like a senior.' You never know how many more games you're going to get. So you've really got to make every minute count."