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...
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Skip Myslenski chats with Kain Colter and Pat Fitzgerald following the team's final practice before dispersing for the holidays. The team will reconvene on the night of Tuesday, Dec. 25.
Making comparisons to the past can be a sensitive matter. But when pressed to specify differences, he did say, "Those guys last year worked their butt off and they wanted it bad, just as bad as this team. But I think the difference between this year's team and last year's team is our confidence level. You look back at this season, we've dominated almost every game, and the games that we lost, we let it slip. So our confidence level is high, that's the biggest thing, so even when we're down, we know we can play better, we know we can play with any team that's on the field that Saturday and strap it up and play well. Like I said, it's our confidence. Guys last year, they wanted it too. But we had a rough season last year, and here we're building and our confidence is up and guys are eager to make plays."
He has long dreamt, he said often this season, of playing college football. But not until he viewed the 2006 Rose Bowl did 'Cat true freshman superback Dan Vitale appreciate the special nature of the postseason. That affair matched Texas and quarterback Vince Young against USC and running back Reggie Bush, and even now Vitale will say, "I remember that game perfectly and how it finished up. That's when I got into the whole bowl-season thing as a young kid."
And now that he is part of a bowl-bound team?
"It's a cool feeling, seeing that on TV and knowing that I'm there now and, as a true freshman, being able to go to a different state and play in a game like this. It's crazy, especially at this school where we haven't had a bowl win in a while. It's crazy knowing that we get that shot (to end the drought) and I get to be part of that."
For Dean Lowry, the true defensive end, the postseason epiphany came later, came as he watched the 'Cats do battle with Auburn in the 2010 Outback Bowl. "That's the one that stuck out for me," he remembers. "After that, I was really interested in Northwestern. (I liked) the way they played and the intensity they had, that never-give-up mentality. So that game definitely sticks out for me."
And now that he is part of a bowl-bound team?
THE PLAN: The 'Cats practiced Saturday for their Jan. 1 date with Mississippi State in the Gator Bowl. They treated it as a game-week Tuesday. On Tuesday, when they regroup next, they will work as if it was a game-week Wednesday, and then their Thursday practice will simulate a game-week Thursday. "So we'll have everything (the game plan) in by the time the guys go home (for their holiday break)," explained Pat Fitzgerald.
LIVE AND LEARN: This is the fifth straight year Fitzgerald has guided the 'Cats into the postseason, a streak that began with their appearance in the 2008 Alamo Bowl. "I'm a little more comfortable in the routine," he said when asked the difference in him between then and now. "My first one, like a lot of things, the first time you do it, you look back and go, 'What the heck was I thinking there?' So we've definitely tweaked our plan as I look at what we did initially. It's probably a little bit jaded by what I experienced as a player. Barney (Gary Barnett) had us doing two-a-days. That stunk. That stunk."
In Pasadena or here, we asked with an eye on the '96 Rose Bowl?
"Here. I wasn't practicing. (He was sidelined by an injury.) I was on the steak-and-chicken tour. That was ridiculous. But my senior year, Tennessee (in the Citrus Bowl), we're watching Peyton (Manning) and the Vols in helmets, and we're going two-a-day practices. We almost had a mutiny. So we're going to have fun. Especially with playing on Jan. 1, that gives you, number one, a lot of time to develop the young guys. Then number two, from what we've learned, we hope we have a plan to peak on game day. Not do too much too soon, and really have fun in what we're doing."
Now his name is tied to that of the acclaimed Drake Dunsmore, the accomplished superback whose 'Cat career ended just a fall ago. Despite rumblings of this connection throughout the year, it was solidified one Saturday at Michigan State when true freshman Dan Vitale caught nine passes for 110 yards, running his rookie reception totals to 21 catches for 206 yards to outstrip Dunsmore's numbers (11 for 141) when he was so young. But, as Pat Fitzgerald likes to remind us, stats are for loser, so let us search elsewhere for links that bond this pair. "There's a lot of similarities," superbacks coach Bob Heffner helpfully says.
"The main two things are what good people they are and how much they like playing football. Those are similarities right there. After that, yeah, there's some differences. Drake did certain things, Dan does certain things. But the bottom line is they have those two qualities, and if you get a good person and football is really important to him and he likes playing ball and likes being coached, then your job's pretty easy."
Some seven minutes still remained in the 'Cats' Saturday dismissal of Illinois when Stacy Fitzgerald, Pat Fitzgerald's wife, prepared a chili dog and exited her box high above Ryan Field. Unfolding below her was a rarity for a group nicknamed the Cardiac 'Cats, who routinely find themselves involved in tension-filled cliff hangers, and now she was going to help celebrate a rout, which her husband's staff has come to call "hot dog games." She would celebrate it by going to that box holding the 'Cat coaches and delivering that chili dog to defensive backs coach Jerry Brown, who was free to relax as this affair meandered toward its end.
Later, after he had descended from his perch and jogged out to the field, Brown was stopped and asked about the moment. He smiled broadly and then he said, "Yeah, I had a little snack."
Bo Cisek, the 6-foot-2, 290-pound senior best known as the protector on the punt team, got two carries at running back. He fumbled once and netted a negative three yards. Redshirt freshman Doug Diedrick, a reserve superback, got three carries at running back. He picked up a dozen yards. Redshirt freshman Zack Oliver, the third quarterback on the depth chart, entered the game with more than eight minutes remaining, and five minutes later he was relieved by P.J. Carollo, a walk-on. "We tried to get everybody in," Pat Fitzgerald would later say. "I don't think we accomplished that. It drives me crazy at the end of games (since) you try and make sure everybody plays in games like that. But that's a very, very good problem."
Those are some other snapshots that help explain just how thoroughly the 'Cats manhandled their in-state rival on Senior Day.
On the sideline, he high-fives his players and body-bumps his players and reflects a roiling torrent of emotions. That is why we found the following exchange revelatory. It belies that public image and gives a glimpse at the inner-workings of Pat Fitzgerald, who was asked this about his team's Saturday meeting with Illinois at Ryan Field. Since it is Senior Day, since the opponent is their in-state rival, since the game itself has bowl implications, must he do something to make sure his players are not too amped up? "Nah, because I think when the ball goes in the air all that stuff doesn't matter. All that false bravado, that's all it is," he began in response.
"The guys have been pretty even-keeled now. We've played a lot of big games here this year, and some we've played really well in. They've all been big games. We're the only school that played three BCS nonconference opponents. Those are big games. Two of those teams are bowl eligible. So we've been in a lot of games and this team's grown up and matured. I see a kind of calmness to them that I like. It's a little bit beyond their years. I think it's because of the seniors. They've done a nice job."
Is that business-like approach something he wants?
* Running back Venric Mark sat out the second half of the 'Cats' Saturday win over Michigan State and quarterback Kain Colter was just a part-time combatant in that affair. But Monday, while looking ahead to his team's imminent fray with Illinois, Pat Fitzgerald said, "We expect both Venric and Kain to play. We'll see how it goes practice-wise. But we expect them to play this week."
But he was not as optimistic when it came to corner Nick VanHoose, who has missed the last three games. "I'd say right now the answer would be no, I don't expect him to play," he said. "But we'll see as the week progresses. He's close. He's real close. We'll see."
* Fitzgerald did not divulge the injury that sidelined Mark. But he did say the decision to sit him was collectively made by him and his coaching staff. Then he went on to tell this tale: "I talked to him (Mark) at halftime. I said, 'Listen, I want you to take your stuff off. I want you to take a shower. In the best interest for you not only this week, but long term, I'm going to shut you down for the game.' He wasn't very happy. But his response in the second half was unbelievable. He was ridiculous. I had to push him back on the sideline. We gave him our Twelfth Man Award for his juice and passion on the sideline on Saturday. I'd much rather see him scoring touchdowns, don't get me wrong. But I thought the way he responded was pretty spectacular. This morning I said to him I'm going to be asked if you're going to play, and he's like, 'Absolutely.' Take that for what it's worth."
"WE'RE CLOSE:" Pat Fitzgerald has offered this assurance often this season. He did it again last Monday, some 46 hours after his team's enervating loss at Michigan, and he did it once more on Tuesday, just after his 'Cats completed their morning practice. It was then that we asked, "To what?"
"Being a championship team. That's what we're close to," he said with no hesitation. "We're going to win football games. I'm not worried about that. But we're close to being a championship team, and that's our expectation. I'll keep saying it until we get there. And then, when we get there, I'll say we've got to start back over. That's what our expectations are. That's what we aspire to be. Gone are the days of maybe-we'll-win, gone are the days of maybe-we'll-play-in-the-post-season. Our internal expectations are to be champions.
"That's not necessarily going to happen for us this year in the Big Ten. But when I say that, that's what I mean. We're close. Do you get tired of saying it? Yeah, you do. But it's a journey, it's a grind, and I think we're building it. We appreciate the support of the administration giving us the time to build it. We appreciate the effort and the fight our young men are giving to get us there. Got to coach them better. We've got to get over the hump and break that door down. You know. I think there's 12 teams that have the same kind of goal set. If it was just about us, it'd be a lot easier. But it's not."
Checking in with. . .
. . .DANIEL JONES, the young corner who was all over Michigan receiver Roy Roundtree last Saturday as the 'Cats' game with the Wolverines rushed toward its conclusion. Now here came the Hail Mary pass from Devin Gardner and, Jones would recall, "I was just trying to knock the ball down. After that play, I think there would have been six seconds left on the clock. So I was just trying to knock the ball down and live to play another play and end the game."
"It was another of those luck-of-the-bounce type plays. I thought I was in great position. I was the first guy up. I actually hit the ball and, in my mind, I'd just made the play that ended the game. But it happened to fall into his arms. It was just an unfortunate bounce for us."
And when he saw the ball in Roundtree's arms?
"I couldn't believe he caught it. Like I said, I thought I did everything right. I was on top of the route, the first guy up in the air and hit the ball. I just thought, 'That's the way the ball bounces sometimes.' Lucky bounce for them, and we just have to play and finish from there."
That bounce, of course, set up the Wolverines field goal that sent the game into overtime, where they would close out the 'Cats. So, Jones was finally asked, would he do something differently if he had a chance for a Mulligan?
"I would be more aggressive and try to catch the ball as opposed to trying to knock it down," he said. "I would just be more aggressive to the ball, and just get the ball back, and assure the game's over."
* Flush it. That is one of Pat Fitzgerald's standing orders. Exult for a day or grieve for a day following a game, and then put that one behind you and look ahead to the next. That is what he constantly tells his 'Cats. But how do you do that, just how do you do that after suffering a defeat as wrenching as the one they absorbed Saturday in Ann Arbor? "It's rough," center Brandon Vitabile admitted early Monday afternoon. "You just trust. You know the guys are out there battling. It's a war. You see it in everyone's face, how down everyone is afterward. You don't even want to talk about it afterward. You listen to coach right after the game and hear what he has to say. But the bus ride home is just silence. There's no one talking, there's no one joking around. That's what it should be. You should really hurt from it.
"Yesterday, you come in, watch film with everyone, there's some positivity going on. We were right there. We played a lot of good football on Saturday. We did a lot of things well. We did some things not so well. But it's good to see that. That the work we do put in pays off and maybe we're a step away, a block away, a catch away. So just keep working as hard as possible. People understood we fought hard and we just weren't able to come out with it. So we've got to keep fighting and hopefully we'll come out with one this week."
The dozen players on the 'Cats' Leadership Council settled around the table for their weekly Monday meeting with Pat Fitzgerald. These are normally 20-minute sessions and, during them, those involved discuss what's good with their program, what's bad with their program, what things could be done differently, what's important in the days ahead, even what uniform they wish to wear the following Saturday. But on this Monday, the first Monday of November, Fitzgerald simply walked into the room and said, "How's everybody doing? Any questions? Anything that I need to know that I don't know? Great. See ya tomorrow."
"I don't think I need to tell them a whole lot," he would later explain. "I think they get it."
"That's exactly what happened," quarterback Kain Colter, one of the Council members, soon avowed. "We all realize the opportunity that we have in front of us with these last three games and a chance of maybe even going to a BSC bowl if we win out and some things go our way. So we realize how big of a moment we're in right now and we're all going to try and make the best of our opportunity and keep going."
* The 'Cats, after a bye, return to the arena Saturday at Michigan, and so Monday Pat Fitzgerald held his regular, weekly press conference. "The week off was one that was needed by us," he would say in his opening statement. "We needed to get healthy, needed to work on some things in areas where we've not been consistent enough in. And then, at the same time, continue to accentuate the areas where we've been playing very well."
That led us to later ask if he would enumerate those areas in which his 'Cats had been inconsistent.
"Do I have to? I'd really prefer not to," he said with both a smile and soft chuckle. "You know we self scout each week. But then, as you get to the bye week, last week, Monday, Tuesday, I went on the road (recruiting) along with the majority of our coaches. But our coordinators stayed back. I kinda gave them a couple of things that I wanted them to do, along with our support guys. We wanted to critically look at ourselves first. We then wanted to obviously look at our upcoming opponent. So. There's some things that, without -- quite frankly -- talking about them, that we need to improve on and hopefully we'll play better in those areas as we move forward."
So he talked to superbacks coach Bob Heffner, himself a former O-line coach, and learned that years ago he had called one of his groups the Big Cats. Then he talked to Al Johnson, the football performance coach who works closely with the O line, and learned that he was already using that term in the weight room. Now center Brian Vitabile, as well as Mulroe, were talked to, and soon enough this season's group had its handle. No longer would the line play with Hog Pride, which had been its cry for so long. Now it would simply be the Big Cats.
"Hogs go to slaughter," Cushing would also say on Thursday, further explaining the change. "But big cats rule the jungle, rule anywhere they are."
BEEN THERE. LET'S NOT DO THAT: The linebacker David Nwabuisi is not only a much-experienced senior. He is also a captain, a leader, a ballast of this year's 'Cats, who now find themselves heading to Minnesota off their first defeat of the season. A fall ago that first defeat sent them spinning into a five-game losing streak and so here, with his stature in mind, we asked Nwabuisi just what he was doing to make sure a similar fate did not befall this team. "It's important to realize, one, you can't go back and change the result of that game. All you can do is push on forward," he began.
* Last year, in the wake of their first loss of the year (to Army in week three), the 'Cats were enveloped by a miasma and dropped four more in a row before emerging from their funk. Now, a fall later, they have just suffered their first loss of this season (on Saturday at Penn State) and here looming in front of them is a rigorous road test at 4-1 Minnesota. So, we wondered Monday, just how do they make sure they do not reprise the struggles that beset them a year ago.
"It's all about just refocusing," answered senior defensive tackle Brian Arnfelt, who is one of their captains. "It's on our (list of) values. Respond. How do we respond? I don't think we necessarily took the right attitude last year. But I don't think with this year's group that's going to be an issue at all. I think we have a group of character guys who are willing to answer, who are willing to put in the work during the week, the film study, the practice, the reps, the grind, in order to get the results on Saturday. So I don't think that will be an issue...
* Nick VanHoose did no dance and minced no words early Monday afternoon. He, instead, simply owned up. "I had a lot of mental mistakes and a couple coverage mistakes," the redshirt freshman corner said here, thinking back to his performance Saturday in the 'Cats win over Indiana. "This week was probably my worst game mentally. With the coverages, it was probably my worst game. But got it fixed today in film and I'll go talk about things to (defensive backs) Coach (Jerry) Brown later."
Some two months ago, back on Media Day for the on-rushing season, Pat Fitzgerald took time to laud the running back Venric Mark. "What I like most about V so far is his attitude has been tremendous," he said then. "He's like a kid in a candy store. He's having fun. I told him the other day, 'You're a junior now.' He just kind of rolled his eyes. It's going fast for him, but he really invested this summer. He's in great shape."
"As I think about it now, yeah, it has really gone fast," Mark himself would say minutes later. "I remember when I first got here and I can't believe I'm going into my third year ... It gives you a sense of urgency. Coming into your junior year, it's bar none. You've got to make plays. We're all hungry for that. We really are."
LOOKIN' BACK: There were any number of reasons we wanted to check in with offensive tackle Patrick Ward. There was, first of all, his selection as the 'Cats offensive player of the South Dakota game. There was, in addition, that one minus he had received for his performance last Saturday, that negative blip he got for his work on -- of all things -- a quarterback sneak. Finally, and not unimportantly, there was the homage paid his mental acuity by Pat Fitzgerald, who had noted in awe that Ward was a straight A student except for a single A-minus.
"There were a couple A-minuses. Unfortunately," he admitted when we did check in with him.
* Here's a rarity. As their offensive player of the game in Saturday's win over South Dakota, the 'Cat coaches selected left tackle Patrick Ward. "He had one 'minus' the whole game. He was pretty close to that perfect game you can throw as an offensive lineman," Pat Fitzgerald said Monday.
* Here's the kicker. Adam Cushing, the 'Cat offensive line coach, gave Ward his single minus on, of all things, a quarterback sneak. "I beat Cush up about it today. I made fun of Adam," Fitzgerald revealed. "I told him, 'Pat Ward came to me and said it was the worst coaching performance he'd ever seen. [Cushing] had to nitpick to give him a minus.' It was actually on a quarterback sneak. That was the funny part of the whole thing. 'C'mon, Cush. Give me a break.'"
HELLO: Last Saturday, on the first play of his college career, true freshman Traveon Henry ripped down Ryan Field with the rest of the 'Cat kickoff team. Then, Pat Fitzgerald says with a chuckle, "He got his lips knocked off. He got double-teamed, lifted off his feet and knocked on his can, and he gets up and gets in on the tackle. That's kind of exciting for a puppy."
They did grip work. They did wrist extensions. They stuck their hands in a bucket filled with rice and pushed through it. They grabbed onto numerous plates of weight and just held them as long as they could. "Building that strength in all those tendons, those fibers, those muscles," explains Jose Jose Palma, a member of the NU Football Performance Staff.
* Early Saturday evening, after the 'Cats had defeated Boston College, quarterback Kain Colter was one of the players who appeared in the interview room. He had, as usual, split time that afternoon with Trevor Siemian, and so here it was only natural that he was asked if he felt he was in a competition for the starting job. "You're always in competition," he said bluntly. "Nothing in this program is set. If a guy's doing a lot better than you, then he'll play. The coaches are competitive. They want to win. They're going to put the best 11 players on the field. So you're always in competition."
Late Saturday night, after his team's victory over Vanderbilt, Pat Fitzgerald lamented his 'Cats offensive inconsistency in that game. On Monday, after viewing the film, he was more specific in his critique.
* Let's get this out of the way first. "Yeah. Absolutely," 'Cat coach Pat Fitzgerald said late Saturday night when asked if Kain Colter was still his team's starting quarterback. That was true even though Trevor Siemian, Colter's backup, had just catalyzed the 'Cats to a comeback win for the second week in a row.
* Last Monday, at his weekly press conference, 'Cat coach Pat Fitzgerald tore into the performance of his kicking team against Syracuse ("We stunk"), and then dropped in this declaration. "I don't like stinking. And I don't like when guys don't execute what they're coached to do. So we're going to make personnel changes. We made a bunch of personnel changes in the game. We played 44 guys. We're not going to go through what we went through last year. We're going to find the best 11 and get them on the field."
And what, we later asked him, did he exactly mean by "We're not going to go through what we went through last year"?
* Often, during his Monday press conference, 'Cat coach Pat Fitzgerald would spice his comments about a player or a position group with the word "fun" or the phrase "enjoy the moment" or the exhortation to "have some fun." This all seemed counter-intuitive just days before his team's Saturday season opener in the hostile dome out in Syracuse. But then, near the end of his time on stage, that all made sense when he offered up this. "We've been practicing now since January in some way, shape or form," he offered up, "either in the weight room, or conditioning, or spring ball. Then the guys worked their tails off this summer, we feel strong our our chemistry, then through the grind of camp. So I'm looking forward to going and playing. I'll know a lot more (about his team) next Monday. It's kind of like waiting for your baby to be born. 'Hey. It's got ears. It's got a nose.' So here we go. Let's see what we look like."
* Sophomore running back Treyvon Green, who took a hard hit at last Friday's practice and was later taken to the hospital, accompanied the 'Cats on their journey north. He did not work out on Monday morning. But later coach Pat Fitzgerald said, "Trey's doing great. He's doing great. We fully expect him to be back for the opener.
Quick hitters from that annual ritual called Media Day, when all teams are undefeated, all players are relatively healthy and all is right with the world. . .
* The 'Cat offensive line, in seasons past, talked often of having Hog Pride. "But what Coach (Adam) Cush(ing) said is, 'Hogs get slaughtered,'" guard Brian Mulroe would say early Wednesday afternoon. "So now we're The Big Cats, The Cats of the Jungle. We're going to pride ourselves on our athleticism, and also just being smart and quick. It's given us a good, new outlook."
Photo Gallery of Misericordia Visiting Thursday's Spring Football Practice
It is a fine Thursday morning and the practice has gone well. Ahead of the 'Cats now is a Saturday scrimmage, which will put the punctuation mark on their labors of spring. But even here, under the sun, there are memories of last season, a season in which their defense surrendered an average of 27.7 points and 407.7 yards per game. This is proven when, to start our chat, we toss out a general question to Mike Hankwitz and the defensive coordinator replies, "I like our attitude and our effort. We talked about last year and we're moving on. We've looked at everything, we've evaluated, and now it's about solutions. We've given them solutions and they've worked their tails off to work on them. I like where we're at. We've got a good mix of veteran guys and young, eager guys, kind of like four years ago. So we've made a lot of progress, but we've got to keep making it. That's the key."
When they looked at last season, what did they see?
"We were inconsistent. We didn't execute well enough. We gave up too many explosion plays because of that. Part of that lack of execution was communication, part of it was discipline to do your job. When those things break down, you give up big plays and you're not going to play good defense. There were times when we did, and we got it going, started playing a lot better at the end. But it wasn't as good as we need to be."
We tell him now that, two Saturdays ago, the defensive tackle Brian Arnfelt said, "This whole season is about responding to what happened last year. It's really about redemption."
Here Hankwitz smiles and chuckles ruefully.
Does he feel the same, we then ask.
"Well, yeah. We work our (butts) off, you know, and when you're not as good as you want to be, it hurts your pride. But we're going to do something about it. We're glad Arnie's back. We were hoping we'd have him last fall, but he never got back until the very end of the year (because of injury). He had a great spring going, we were excited, but unfortunately that happened at a number of positions where guys got hurt, missed time. But it's going to happen, so we're trying to develop our depth so if it does happen again, it won't have the same impact."
Another point made on that Saturday by Arnfelt, who was talking after a scrimmage that was dominated by the defense, was this. "The offense really got after us on Thursday and we just kind of said in our position meetings throughout the whole defensive squad, 'We can't let that happen.' You see some things (on film) that could trickle into what happened last year."
"He's probably partly right," says Hankwitz.
And what did Arnfelt see on film that made him think that way?
"I don't know exactly. We've got a lot of young guys playing with the second team and they made some mental mistakes and gave up plays. Probably that's what he's referring to. But, yeah. We had a good first five practices, then we had a two-week break, came back, went three practices out of four days, the third practice being the Thursday he's referring to, and we didn't have the same energy and intensity. But since then, we have. So I'd like to think we've taken a big step and learned from that. But we've got to continue on that same path."
Learned what? That you have to always play with intensity?
"You have to have intensity on defense. Offenses keep changing, tweaking, spreads, this and that, spreading the field, you've got to have intensity on defense. Defense is passion and effort and intensity. If you don't have that, you're not going to be a good defense, I don't care how good you are. You can watch Alabama and they have all this great talent. But they play hard, and they play with intensity. It doesn't matter what your ability level is. You've got to have that ingredient."
Our impression this spring, we now say, is that Arnfelt has emerged as one of the defensive leaders intent on making sure that the intensity is always there.
"I think he has, yes. Quentin (Williams, the defensive end) and him and Ib (safety Ibraheim Campbell) and Bus (linebacker David Nwabuisi), some of the older guys are taking more of a leadership role. That's part of Coach Fitz's (Pat Fitzgerald's) Leadership Council principle. We're trying to teach them how to become leaders and take things upon themselves. But they still have to do it, and I think those guys have stepped up more than normal this spring. That's exciting to see."
Another guy who has been singled out this spring by Fitzgerald, we tell him, is the defensive end Tyler Scott, whom he says is ready to make that step that will deliver him some national recognition.
"I would agree. He was playing extremely well last fall, and then he got hurt and missed three games or so. When he came back, he wasn't quite the same, and then he started getting better and better. This spring, he's taken up from the best he was playing and gone a little beyond that. So, yeah. We're excited about him."
Does he have one characteristic that makes him so good?
"I think it's a combination. He's a good athlete. He was a linebacker, so he's got athleticism. And he's smart, and he plays very hard, he plays with great effort. Now that experience he's accumulated, he's starting to put it all together."
Speaking of experience, we mention that offensive coordinator Mick McCall recently said, "All those kids, they don't get everything the first time through or the second time. The third time, it starts to come." Is there a similar learning curve on defense?
"Oh, yeah. There's an old saying, there's no substitute for experience, and you don't experience everything in one fall, especially if you're a young guy and learning the opponent's defense (on the practice squad) and stuff. You just can't see everything. Yeah. In a perfect world, everyone would learn from everybody else's mistakes and what happened to them. But that doesn't always happen. Sometimes you've got to be there and it's got to happen to you. You've got to make the mistake before you understand what you've got to do, or why it's important you do what you're supposed to do. And experience isn't just what happens to you. It's also what you learn from it. Sometimes you have to have it happen to you before you realize, 'Oh. Now I know why I'm supposed to do this like coach said.'"
With that in mind, are there any younger kids who this spring have shown that they've got that understanding? We're thinking here especially of the line, where big reps have gone to players like junior (in the fall) Will Hampton and sophomore Chance Carter and redshirt freshman Deonte Gibson.
"Deonte's impressed us with his wherewithal, his awareness. Chance, we've seen the potential in him and Will. Another guy who's had a good spring is (sophomore tackle Sean) McEvilly. Then (redshirt freshman) Drew Smith has done a lot of nice things at backer. Collin (Ellis, a sophomore who started last fall) is getting more experience all the time. Chi Chi (Ariguzo, another sophomore who played last fall) is now a little more comfortable, then we've got excellent competition in the back part. Nick (VanHoose, a redshirt freshman corner) has done some good things, shown some good things, as has D.J. (sophomore corner Daniel Jones) at times, and Doogie (senior corner Demetrius Dugar). So we've got competition and hopefully, it is making them all better. Then Davion (Fleming, a junior safety) is healthy and he's a little older, so he's competing, him and Hunter (Bates, a senior). Ibraheim is building on his experience, then (sophomore safety) Jimmy Hall's gaining a lot of valuable experience. So there's a lot of young guys that have shown good things. But the key is they've got to keep improving, keep learning."
How does a coach feel when a redshirt sophomore, Campbell, is his most-experienced backer?
"Well. If you look, Hunter and (junior safety Jared) Carpenter (who sat out the spring) and Davion, they've all played and they've been here two, three years. So they're a little more experienced than you might think. But it is what it is. We're just going to have to execute with what we've got. I think we'll be fine."
We know Damien Proby, who ended last season as the starting middle linebacker, is another who has been held out this spring. But has Hankwitz decided how he will utilize him and Nwabuisi, who started last season in the middle?
"No. But Bus played both Mike (middle) and Will, and that's a big strength for him, his ability to play both. It gives us more depth back there. So we have some flexibility there."
And Collin Ellis has been moved?
"We moved him to Will (from Sam), put him in the box. He's a physical player, it's more natural for him in there. So he's going through a little learning curve, but he's done some nice things."
And Chi Chi's at Sam?
"Him and Drew Smith, two athletic guys. Chi Chi's getting more confident out there. We like his and Drew's athleticism."
Which they need since they play in space?
"Yeah. They're more of the wide side (of the field). Will has to play some in space, but he's on the side of the field where there's a little less room and he can attack."
That covers the players and so, finally, what about Hankwitz himself, whom many blamed him for last season's defensive deficiencies. Does he hear that talk? Does he take it personally?
He chuckles softly and then says, "There's always going to be critics, but I know we've played damn good defense for most of three years. Yeah, when Dan (Persa) got hurt two years ago, yeah, it affected us. But prior to that, I'll stand by what we did. Now (what happened) last year, yeah, my pride's stung too. I take pride in what I do. I'm probably harder on myself than anyone else is. I don't care what they say. I'm disappointed. I'm frustrated. But I'm going to do something about it. I'm not going to dwell on it, and worry about that. I've been doing this long enough to know what we're capable of and what we need to do to get better. I'm not going to worry about the criticism. That's always going to happen. My goal is to get us better."
THE REALITY: The rear view recalls those fatal explosion plays surrendered last season by the 'Cat DBs, and the stats reveal that they gave up more passing yards per-game (230.4) than any other group in the Big Ten. That was, most certainly, bad. But a closer look at the numbers also shows they were singed for only 16 touchdown passes, which were fewer than those surrendered by a half-dozen conference teams (including Michigan State and Ohio State), and that their 12 interceptions were fifth best in the league. This, on the other hand, was not so bad.
Still, in the wake of that season and throughout this spring, this group has been perceived as its team's underbelly, that proverbial chink in the armor that could again scuttle its drive to success. "To our great fans who are talking negative about our defensive backs, please continue to do that. You're adding fuel by being masters of the obvious," Pat Fitzgerald would say Thursday, recognizing that fact. "They love it. They can't thank you enough for your loving TLC and support. This is the time in the spring that I'm sprinkling a few of the things that some of those great fans are saying. I'm letting them hear it, so it ticks them off. Then in the fall, I won't let them listen to any of those people who don't know what they're talking about anyway."
"That does (tick) us off," Dugar says when his coach's comments are relayed to him. "It's easy to say don't let what happens on the outside effect you. But at the same time you're a man, and if somebody's coming at your pride, you want to step up and prove them wrong. That's what we want to do. We take it personal."
THE PERSONNEL: At practice on Thursday, the first unit corners were Dugar and redshirt freshman Nick Van Hoose and the first unit safeties were sophomore Ibraheim Campbell and junior Davion Flemming. But this is spring, and the competition here is rampant, and in the mix too were (at corner) sophomores Daniel Jones, Mike Eshun and redshirt freshman Jarrell Williams and (at safety) senior Hunter Bates, sophomore Jimmy Hall and redshirt freshman Matt Carpenter. "I don't know. It's up to the young men," Fitzgerald will say when asked how long he thinks this DB competition will last. "But I'll tell you this. These guys are competing their tails off. We've got a pretty good receiver corps, and they're competing their tails off."
A FEW WORDS: "The attitude in our room is that we've got to be the best," Dugar says. "Last year we felt like we took a lot of the blame for a lot of the things that went on on the field, so this year we want to make sure we come out on top. We want to be the best secondary in the Big Ten, one of the top secondaries in the nation. We're just trying to get to that championship level."
How do they remain friends while competing for the same jobs?
"We're fighting for the same job, but we're also fighting for the championship. That's the bigger picture," he says. "We try to do what we have to do to get that championship. It's more about team than the individual. So at the end of the day, we're all going to step it up if our number is called. The idea is to just be ready. So we're all going to come out and compete against each other. But at the same time, we're still boys, we're still the defensive backfield, we're still The Sky Team. So we're going to keep working with each other."
Is the competition stress or motivation?
"It's definitely motivation. Sometimes you come out here, you get in the grind of spring ball, you may come out here and your mindset might be a little off. So it can be a little stressful. But at the same time it's motivation because you know these guys are going to fight everyday to get the same spot that you're trying to get. So it's motivation."
FLASHBACK: The '09 'Cats, who would end their run in the next year's Outback Bowl, had a quarterback taking over for the first time as a full-time starter (Mike Kafka) and an array of defenders with singular personalities (Corey Wootton, Quentin Dave, Brad Phillips, Brian Peters, Brendan Smith). The 2012 'Cats, who are still in their formative stage, have a quarterback taking over for the first time as a full-time starter (Kain Colter) and an array of defenders hell bent on rehabilitating their unit's image (see Dugar's comments above and recall that tackle Brian Arnfelt said just last Saturday, "This whole season is about responding to what happened last year. It's really about redemption."). It was no surprise, then, that Fitzgerald recently said his current group reminds him of the former.
"I thought the '09 team had a spirit about them that was player run," he said Thursday when asked to expand on that comment. "You think about some of those guys on that defense who were dynamic personalities. The Woottens, that whole group, and I'm starting to see that here. Then on offense, we have guys who can make some plays. I'm starting to see that. So a lot of similarities in that spring prior to that season to what I'm seeing right now. But talk is cheap. We've got a lot of work to do."
And just what is he seeing?
"I just see a lot of guys with a lot of passion, and through that I think you just work diligently to get better. I've been impressed with our attitude. I've been impressed by the way we've worked. We've got a lot of things to get so much better at. But at least they're working at it, which is all we can ask."
"I definitely see the similarities," Dugar will finally say when appraised of his coach's comparison. "One thing about that '09 team is, they had a lot of team camaraderie, they had a lot of characters on that team and everybody embraced each other. That's kind of the same mentality we've been working on. That'll definitely make us a better team."
AND FINALLY: Saturday's practice is closed, so we won't be back at you until Tuesday. Until then.
"We think that all the time," Adam Cushing, its coach, will soon add. "But, certainly. We look around, and we graduated some pretty good players. But you look around the team, there's a bunch of good players. As an offensive line, you go execute, you've got a chance to be a pretty special offense."
OINK: Its goal now, as it has been in recent season's past, is to play with Hog Pride. That, in fact, is the banner under which it operates. Hog Pride. "It is," says Mulroe, explaining what that means, "just having a nasty attitude and playing as one."
INTRODUCTIONS: Its members are more anonymous than Deep Throat was back in the days of Watergate, and so here we pause to put some flesh on their numbers. At right tackle there is Chucky, the 6-foot-7, 315-pound senior Chuck Porcelli, at right guard there is Neal Daddy, the 6-foot-8, 315-pound senior Neal Dieters. "Obviously he's been around the program a long time and has played a couple positions," Cushing says of Dieters. "His advantage, he kind of knows the tackle position so he knows what's going on out there. A huge guy. With both he and Chuck, it'll be kind of the same thing, just playing with a consistent pad level. When you're six-seven, six-eight, whatever those two guys are, playing with your pads down is the most difficult thing to get done. Then Chuck's a guy who's been around and been playing the backup role for us. A year ago, he was our third tackle on both sides. He was by no means waiting his turn. But now that it's his fifth year, I think he's excited for the opportunity. He's having fun playing football. That's one of those fun things to see, when he's cutting it loose and having fun on the field."
Next, at center, there is V Tabs, the 6-foot-3, 300-pound sophomore Brandon Vitabile, who started last season as a redshirt freshman. "He's got to focus on just trusting himself," Cushing says of him. "At times, he's a very good football player and he plays very naturally with his feet apart. At times, he tries to do a little more than what his job is and that's the only time he gets himself in trouble. He tries to do everything rather than just his job. But that's a good problem to have. You can fix those."
To his left, at guard, is Muls, the 6-foot-4, 295-pound senior Mulroe, and at that tackle there is the 6-foot-7, 310-pound senior Pat Ward, who started last season on the right ("Pat doesn't have a nickname," explains Mulroe. "But if he had one, it would be genius or bookworm or something like that."). "It's a slight adjustment to move to the other side," Cushing says of that latter. "But that's what he played in high school, so he's comfortable in a left-handed stance. For him, it's simple fundamentals he has to concentrate on. He's played a lot of football for us, so we have a lot of confidence in him. But he's got to continue to develop those very basic things. Then Brian's probably the best athlete we have up front. Tremendous feet. Plays with leverage well. There's a few basic things they all need to work on. Brian, throughout his career, has been gaining the weight to be a full-fledged O-lineman. I used to give him a lot of guff about it. But he's done a great job of now playing at that Big Ten weight."
BUT SEPTEMBER IS FAR AWAY: That quintet has appeared regularly this spring with the first unit, yet that is no guarantee the cast won't change by the fall. For in the mix too are the 6-foot-5, 285-pound sophomore Jack Konopka, the former superback who is pushing Porcelli at right tackle; and the 6-foot-5, 280-pound redshirt freshman Geoff Mogus, who is pushing Dieters at right guard; and, on the left side, the 6-foot-8, 295-pound redshirt freshman Shane Mertz ("He's an aircraft carrier out there. The USS Mertz," Pat Fitzgerald says of him) and the 6-foot-6, 295-pound sophomore Paul Jorgensen.
"It'll probably be ongoing all the way through," Fitzgerald will say of the competition on the line's right side. "I think between the ones and twos, with both guys, I think we have a chance to have a starter there. For the first time, we might rotate some guys a little bit. We've got that much competition. We've got some pretty good depth there."
"He's very-naturally talented, but it's a different position all together," Cushing says of Konopka, the former superback who is in the middle of that competition. "There's a million different things that go on in the offensive line. That's going to be the challenge for him, catching up to the minutiae of the game in there. When he does that, he's going to be good. His athletic ability is tremendous."
PAUSE FOR A FLASHBACK: In 2001 Trai Essex was the tight end on the Big Ten's All Freshman team, but then-coach Randy Walker switched him to left tackle. He would go on to start 37 games for the 'Cats at that position and then be selected in the third round of the 2005 draft by the Pittsburgh Steelers, who gave him a $460,000 signing bonus and won two Super Bowls in his time with them. So Konopka has a precedent he can regard, and a success story to try and match.
BACK TO THE PRESENT: Fitzgerald, as all 'Cat fans know, covets competition, and when asked the mood of his room, Cushing will say, "It's an attitude of competition. There is some good competition." So that is a benefit. But then, a sentence later, he will add, "Whenever there's competition, it's a strain for everyone to gel together, so that's what we're working on the most right now. Making sure the communication's there. Making sure the camaraderie's there, and that the trust is there with each other." So, as Hamlet famously noted, "Therein lies the rub."
THE GOAL: They appear, to the naked eye, to be nothing more than a bunch of Brobdingnagian bodies bashing away at the defenders confronting them. But in truth, on each snap, the offensive linemen are dance partners who must work as one to achieve their goals. Their feet, their hips, each of their moves must mesh, and to achieve the kind of synchronicity needed for success, they must know each other intimately, they must trust each other totally, they must communicate with each other nonverbally. That is why a line is better the longer it is together. That is also why, with its final makeup still uncertain, the 'Cat line is now nothing more than a work in progress. "It's growing," Mulroe will admit when asked if his group has its choreography down yet. "We haven't all played together. But it's going to keep continuing to grow and we're going to need that. We need to solidify that."
But how do you solidify that once spring practice ends and months separate them from the opening of fall camp?
"They do a little bit of position work on their own through spring and summer," explains Cushing. "Very simple fundamentals. You don't want them to do too much because they might develop some poor habits. But they do some drills where they work together, just two-man combinations, so they trust the guy to their right or their left. And they hang out a lot. Spring and summer, there's a push to get together off-the-field as well. That trust from off-the-field carries over. So we get them together, we have dinner including me at times so we can all develop that trust together."
AND FINALLY THIS, from the late futurist R. Buckminster Fuller in his book I Seem To Be A Verb: "We should look on our society as we look on the biological world, where the fungi, the manures and the worms make an extraordinary contribution. . . We tend to applaud the football player who makes the touchdown and overlook the lineman who does the heavy blocking. We should not only applaud the flower, the fruit and the ball carrier."
THE DECISION GOES TO: The dominant unit Saturday was the defense, which held the offense without a touchdown until (if you will) the fourth quarter of the scrimmage. This was significant for two reasons. The first, quite obviously, are the memories of those defensive breakdowns last season that so damaged the team's chances for success. The other is that, just two days earlier, the offense dominated the defense in practice. "This whole season is about responding to what happened last year. It's really about redemption," senior tackle Brian Arnfelt would later explain. "We looked at the film (of last season) and just said, 'You've got to strive to be the best you can. You can't accept mediocrity.'
"So we were doing great before the break, we came back, the offense really got after us on Thursday. We just kind of said in our position meeting throughout the whole defensive squad, 'We can't let that happen.' You see some things that could trickle into what happened last year, so we came out here with an attitude today that we're going to get after it. I'm really proud of how everyone responded. Everyone came out juiced. Yeah, sassy. A real attitude."
And just what did they see on that Thursday tape that could lead to a repeat of last season?
"You see people accepting just-do-your-job, real internalized, don't get excited about anyone else, don't really get excited when anyone else makes a play. You can see when people start to get tired, we practice real fast, you see when people start to get tired things break down. Things are going to happen on offense, this is a high-potent offense league. So things are going to happen, but the key to a great defense is how you respond. Last year, looking at the film, we didn't have that. We didn't have it Thursday. But we showed we had it today."
"They're doing a good job. They're doing a very good job," Fitzgerald said later when Arnfelt's observations were passed along to him. "They're gaining on it. They've got an attitude about them. You know, spring ball, you're going to have that ebb and flow. The offense is going to have a good day, and they did. They kicked the hind butts of our defense on Thursday. But snapshot on the field, the shoe's on the other foot right now."
IN PARTICULAR: "I thought I saw some stuff from our defensive line that I was hoping to see, especially with a young man like (redshirt freshman end) Deonte Gibson," Fitzgerald also said. "I thought he made an impact today. You go in and watch the video. But he's a guy who jumped out to me. I saw (redshirt freshman tackle) C.J. Robbins make a play. I see Brian Arnfelt really leading that group. (Sophomore tackle) Chance Carter's really coming on along with (junior tackle) Will Hampton, and (junior end) Tyler Scott to me is on the cusp of being a breakout guy nationally. He's got some special qualities. I like that group."
A SUBTLE CHANGE: Somewhere in the (again, if you will) third quarter of the scrimmage, quarterback Kain Colter got flushed from the pocket, rolled left, rolled back right, resisted the urge to bolt and finally hooked up with Tony Jones for an apparent 43-yard touchdown pass that was erased by a penalty. Two plays later, on second-and-nine, his pocket again broke down, and here he stepped up, stayed put once more and found Rashad Lawrence for 23 yards and a first down.
"I noticed that last year, a lot of times I scrambled to run," he would say when his patience in the pocket was mentioned to him. "I watched (Eagle quarterback) Michael Vick a lot, I watched film of a lot of quarterbacks in the league, and one thing I noticed from them is they scrambled to throw first. Michael Vick a lot of times will make an amazing move and break the pocket, and he has his eyes downfield. That's where a lot of big plays comes from because sometimes the defense breaks down or bites up on you on the run. So one thing I've been focusing on is, once I get out of the pocket, keep my eyes downfield and hopefully make some plays."
But isn't not-running against his instinct?
"It is. But I feel as a quarterback, especially with all these play makers around me, my job is to just manage the game and get the ball to these guys because they're going to make big plays, they're going to boost my stats when I get them the ball. You know, maybe in high school I felt I had to run, I had to be the guy to make the play. But now that I've got all these great athletes around me, I can just break the pocket, dump it down and let them go make a play. That's something I'm going to focus on."
Now the apparent touchdown to Jones is remembered.
"That's something we're going to develop with me, Tony, Kyle (Prater), Rashad. That's something we work on. A lot of times protection's going to break down and, with a mobile quarterback, you've got to be ready to make a move and go. I feel that's where a lot of big plays happen. I came to the sideline after that, I said, 'Be ready when I scramble out to get open and make a play. I'm going to look for you.' It's tough for a DB to cover more than 10 seconds. So if you're out there, you drop back for five seconds, now you're scrambling, it's going to be tough to stay with them."
THE MINDSET: Colter, as we have noted along the way this spring, has grasped the mantle of team leader and pinned it securely to his shoulders. He again touched on that fact Saturday, explaining: "I feel as a quarterback, when things go wrong, or things aren't going the way you want, you have to be the one that raises the level and gets the guys going again. I'm happy to be the guy that the offense and the team looks to when things are going down. I want to be the guy that goes out there and makes the game-changing play or helps the team get momentum back. I feel that's the biggest thing I learned from Dan (Persa). He did that all last year and his junior year. I learned a lot from him."
NEW KID ON THE BLOCK: Wide receiver Kyle Prater, the Proviso West grad and highly-regarded transfer from USC, produced no highlight moments on Saturday. But later he did meet the cameras and the microphones for the first time since he officially joined the 'Cats last Monday. Some outtakes:
*On his appeal to the NCAA for immediate eligibility: "I don't really know the status of what's going on. I'm just worrying about what's going on (here). That's helping my team get better and focusing on the task at hand. That's me getting better and studying the playbook and comprehending everything."
*On Colter's comment earlier in the week that he has to prove himself to his new teammates: "When you're a freshman, you have to prove yourself off the top. So I feel I'm doing that again by coming in as a transfer. But as long as I come out here and earn my teammates' respect and have fun and show them that I'm a great character, everything's going to be all right."
*On how he plans to earn that respect: "Just being me. I'm not different from them. I'm just coming out here and staying humble and making everything about us. It's not about me. It's always going to be about the team, and I'm going to keep it that way."
*On practicing for the first time last Monday: "I wasn't much nervous. I was anxious. I was just ready to get back on the field. I'd been gone for so long, I was just ready to get back out there."
*On getting clocked by safety Jimmy Hall, whose hit after a Prater catch left the receiver on all fours and in need of ministration: "Coach Fitzgerald joked around with me and said, 'Welcome back.' No. That was a great play by Jimmy. That was a great hit by him. But sometimes you've got to go up and make those plays. That's the type of player I am. Fearless. So I'm going to go make those plays."
*On having to master a new offense in a new environment: "I like to get thrown into the fire and working under pressure. You can learn better that way. So the mistakes I make, I'm going to learn from them. I never make the same mistake twice."
*On the expectations surrounding him: "I'm always optimistic. I always set the bar high for anything I do."
AND FINALLY: The 'Cats exited Saturday's scrimmage with no apparent injuries.
THE PLAN: On Saturday, for the first time this spring, the 'Cats will scrimmage. Fitzgerald's hope is that it goes for 100 plays.
SIGHT SEEN: Kain Colter delivered the pass toward wide receiver Kyle Prater, the highly-regarded transfer from USC. This was some 90 minutes into Thursday's practice and now here came sophomore safety Jimmy Hall, who just drilled Prater in the sternum. Down the receiver went, down on all fours, and when he rose long seconds later and after administration from a trainer, there behind him were some remnants of his breakfast. But here he jogged back to his teammates, got a smile and a high five from Fitzgerald, and for the rest of the morning showed no ill effects as he took his normal reps.
"They ran a little Cover Two and he got around the corner and, well, it's one of those throws you're probably gonna have to take a little shot," Colter later said when asked about the play. "But he made the catch. Hopefully (in the future) I'll get it on him a little more back shoulder. But he made the catch and got the wind knocked out of him a little bit. But he popped right back up."
"I think it's just wonderful for Kyle to play football," Fitzgerald said with a big grin. "I made fun of him. 'First time you've been hit in about 48 months.' Good. It was great. I'm really happy for him to experience those things. He's learning how to be a football player again. It's been a long road for him."
THE QUARTERBACK: He is, by virtue of his position, the most important of all the 'Cats, and so the eyes are interested and follow Kain Colter as he moves through practices. Here, in one scene, running back Cermak Bland busts a draw play for a touchdown, and there is Colter dashing 40 yards down the field to congratulate him with a series of head slaps. Here, in another scene, Trevor Siemian is choreographing the offense, and there is Colter 10 yards behind him and staring intently. Here, in one last scene, the action is momentarily paused, and there is Colter slaloming among his offensive lineman and exchanging words with those men who protect him.
We cannot recall similar scenes from last fall and so we wonder later about this change, which clearly reflect Colter as a leader-in-action. "Last season," he will say, "Dan (Persa) was here and I kind of had to take a back seat and fit in where I could, whether it was receiver or running back. This time, Dan, Drake (Dunsmore, the superback), Jeremy (Ebert, the wide receiver), all those guys are gone and it's time for me to step up in the leadership role and take the team over."
So he feels freer now that Persa has graduated?
"I don't know if it's so much me feeling more free. But I felt you had a guy who was All Big Ten, a guy who had been here five years, and I didn't want to overstep my territory. There is just something about being the starting quarterback, you can control the whole offense, and the whole team for that matter. Everybody looks to you, whether you realize it or not, everybody's looking to you about where to go. Dan did a great job with that and me stepping in as a freshman and sophomore, I was still trying to learn my way around things. But I was able to pick his brain a little bit and as I came into this season I was able to feel like I'm going to be the starting quarterback and have control of the offense and have guys looking up to me. Now, as far as having football knowledge, I can help them out. I'm just trying to lead by example. If a guy sees me working hard, I feel that might give him a better chance to work hard and do the right things."
So he's consciously paying more attention now to doing those things a leader must do?
"I think so. I think as a freshman and sophomore, I'm paying a little bit of attention to me and doing what I can do. I'm trying to make the plays I can make and to show I can get on the field. Now that I've gotten on the field and shown I can make plays, I can try to help these young guys along and show them what to do and help them get better and focus on them a little bit more."
NO SURPRISE HERE: Colter's new demeanor is mentioned to Fitzgerald and immediately he says, "I've noticed that with every one of our quarterbacks. As the incumbent or the previous quarterback matriculates out of the program, there's just that next step that happens. Kain has always had, I think, a belief system about himself. He has a confidence, a belief in himself. But he's always been very, very respectful of Dan. Now that Dan's matriculated out of the program, he looks at it as it's his role to be that guy. And he should be. And he is."
And just how important is it that he assumes that role?
"It was happening last year from the standpoint of, when he got thrust into the starting role, it happened. He assumed it, but he was just very respectful to Dan, if that makes sense. If you were to poll our entire football team and say, 'Do you have 100 percent confidence and belief that Kain Colter can lead us to a Rose Bowl championship?' it would be 100 percent yes. So he's got that kind of respect. That natural progression just happened. It happened when C.J. (Bacher) took over, when Mike (Kafka) took over, when Danny took over. Now Kain."
QUICKLY NOTED: Siemian, Colter's backup, rode into the conversation on the coattails of that observation, and of him Fitzgerald said, "He's just growing. He's in the mix now. Last year, when all of a sudden he got thrust into the action when Danny was out early, I think that sweet taste of experience really motivated him. He did a great job in the winter. You can see his physique is completely different from when he showed up here as a pencil neck as a freshman. He looks so much better. He's more fluid running. Mechanically, he's using his lower body so much more when he's throwing. Leadership wise, he's just gaining more confidence. When you get more confidence, you're willing to step out a little bit, be the bell cow. He's gaining on that.". . . This time of year, Fitzgerald is normally (and understandably) reticent when asked to single out individuals who have impressed him with their performances. It is, after all, still early. But Thursday, when asked just that when it came to his defense, he mentioned linemen Tyler Scott and Brian Arnfelt; the linebacking trio of David Nwabuisi, Collin Ellis and Chi Chi Ariguzo; and safety Ibraheim Campbell. Asked specifically if redshirt freshman corner Nick VanHoose, who has looked good, has a shot at a starting job, he said, "Sure. Anyone of those guys does right now. It's open competition."
AND FINALLY: Last year Wisconsin won the inaugural Big Ten title game behind quarterback Russell Wilson, who transferred in as a post-graduate from North Carolina State. Now the Badgers have signed on Danny O'Brien, a post-graduate from Maryland, who will be eligible immediately while pursuing a master's in a program not offered by the Terps. "If I were Bret (Bielema, the Badger coach), I'd do the same thing. I have no problem with that," Fitzgerald said when asked about this, and then he smiled. "I'm actually going to see him tonight at the Wisconsin High School Coaches Clinic. I'll congratulate him on his free agent pickup."
SIGHT SEEN: The person-of-interest here was the 6-foot-5 wide receiver Kyle Prater, the Proviso West grad who transferred in after spending two seasons (one as a redshirt) at USC.
Does he still feel himself getting better day-by-day?
The schedule says that the 'Cats' Saturday meeting with Michigan State is the last game of their regular season, is the last Big Ten game for their 25 seniors, is also the last time those 25 will be playing at Ryan Field. But early in their preparation for the Spartans, recalled Pat Fitzgerald, he told them, "Instead of looking at it as the end, take the opportunity for what it is."
And what is it?
What in particular displeased him?
But mere seconds, not minutes, but mere seconds later he would also say, "But our focus now will move quickly, as in right-now-tonight-when-I-go-home, to our coming opponent."
"Yeah. You better believe it's out there," their coach Pat Fitzgerald will say when asked if his team recognizes and discusses that possibility.
Now he was asked if that game plan has fewer adjustments in it.
It has now gone on long enough to be considered a routine and so quarterback Dan Persa laughed as we approached. He knew, once again, we were there to check on his health and so, even before the question was asked, he assured, "I'm all right. I'm all right."
And what happened last Saturday when Nebraska's Eric Martin pile drove him into the ground?
"I strained some ligaments in my neck, kind of strained my trap(ezius muscle) and kind of bruised my upper ribs."
Which left him feeling how?
The surprise for the 'Cats last Saturday, of course, was the intrepid work of their defense. It limited Nebraska to a mere 122 net rushing yards, just over half of the Huskers' season average; it held Nebraska to a mere 25 points, nearly 10 less than the Huskers' season average; it contained powerful Nebraska running back Rex Burkhead, who is averaging 105.7 yards on the season but here was thrown for losses five times on his way to netting just 69; and it benefited from a bit of skullduggery that would have made Ian Fleming's slick spy very proud. That, anyway, is the belief of Nebraska quarterback Taylor Martinez, who earlier this week said, "They were looking at our sidelines to see what plays we were running (and) they maybe kind of caught onto what we were doing. . . It's Northwestern. Smart school."
* Persa, in fact, did run around Monday morning. "What his status will be tomorrow (for practice), I don't know. I'd list him day-to-day for tomorrow," Fitzgerald also said.
* Kain Colter, as he has been all season, was a dynamo during the 'Cats' upset of Nebraska, rushing for 57 yards and catching three passes for 57 more and going 4-of-6 as a quarterback for yet 115 more.
Back on October 15, in one of those exhibitions that manifested a willful man's capabilities, 'Cat defensive end Tyler Scott attended his grandfather's funeral in Ohio in the morning, hopped a private plane for a flight to Iowa City and played against the Hawkeyes that evening.Three days later, in one of those twists that manifested the blithe fickleness of fate, he pinched a nerve in his neck during a simple tackling drill and found himself destined for two-weeks of inactivity. "Stuff happens," he will say laconically when asked if he appreciated the irony of it all.
Defensive tackle Tyler Scott, who has missed the last two games with a neck stinger, is back practicing and, said 'Cat coach Pat Fitzgerald, "Good to go."
And what will his return bring to the team?
"I think he's been our most consistent (defensive) player," Fitzgerald replied. "That consistency, a guy who loves football, plays with passion, he's made a lot of plays for us. We could use some playmakers up front."
"Not really," he said. "We still won. Thank goodness."
* One person he did not see on that tape was Will linebacker Bryce McNaul, who is still his team's fourth-leading tackler despite missing the Hoosier game with back spasms. Another he did not see was defensive end Tyler Scott, who was emerging as his team's most-consistent defender before a neck stinger sidelined him the last two Saturdays. What he did see was a bunch of missed tackles and Indiana rolling up 319 net rushing yards.
"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."
Quarterback Dan Persa practiced Wednesday and exhibited no signs of the turf toe injury he suffered last Saturday against Penn State. But when we asked if there were any after effects at all, he admitted, "Yeah, a little bit. But at this point of the season everybody's hurt, so you just got to gut it out."
Can he play without thinking about it?
* At one point, when asked about Persa's availability for his team's game Saturday at Indiana, Fitzgerald said, "He'll be questionable for the game. I'll probably be able to let you know more on Thursday."
There will be one, very special fan in the stands Saturday night at Ryan Field. There will also be one, very grateful 'Cat out on that field facing down Penn State. The first is Army Ranger Austin McNaul, who just a week ago landed back in the States after a year on the front lines in Afghanistan. The other is senior linebacker Bryce McNaul, who has not seen his older brother in well over a year.
"I'll be focused on the game," he will say, thinking of that evening. "But as soon as it's over, the final whistle blows, I'll be thinking of seeing my brother outside the locker room."
* That haircut could well be a metaphor for Persa, who is still not the same performer he was before he tore up his Achilles last season...
Welcome back, Venric Mark.
"But the key for us" -- and here was the key part of his answer -- "is just to not forget that we have good players on this team, that we have good coaches and that we just need to play to our potential...
'Cat coaches traditionally hand out eight awards after each week's game. But after their Saturday night loss to Michigan, they cut that number to seven. There was here, for the first time this season, no Defensive Player of the Game. "As we talked," Pat Fitzgerald would explain, "we didn't have anybody play consistently enough for four quarters. Tyler Scott (the defensive end) played really well for three-and-a-half quarters. Really well. Maybe as well as anyone's played on defense this year. But for half-a-quarter he didn't and that's kind of indicative of the way we're playing on defense. We've got to put together a full 60 minutes."
They are known familiarly as explosion plays and, just like a truck full of TNT, they can dramatically alter the landscape. They can swing momentum, they can turn the tide, they can inflate an offense that had been sterile and struggling and spay a defense that had been so staunch and steadfast. They can, quite simply, determine the outcome of a game, which is exactly what happened last Saturday in the showdown between the 'Cats and Illinois. "For 95 percent of the game they played well," is what Pat Fitzgerald would say of his defense, recognizing this fact. "The five percent that they didn't cost us the football game..."
And did he try to master that move back then?
"Actually, I did," he says with a smile.
That's three down with up to three others filling gaps and presenting looks that are either false or legit, which means the young center Brandon Vitabile will again find himself in an elaborate chess match down in Champaign. The obvious story lines that afternoon will be the return of quarterback Dan Persa and a 'Cat defense looking to reassert itself after getting battered by the Illini rushing attack last November at Wrigley Field.
He beat himself up the last time he spoke into tape recorders. That was after the 'Cats fell to Army and quarterback Kain Colter said blame him for the defeat. "We got together the Sunday after the game," Pat Fitzgerald said when asked about that. "I read his comments and I said, 'At the end of the day, the reason we're in a position to win every game is because of you. I don't mind you being hard on yourself, but there's also a point of being overly critical.'
"Yeah. Me too. I'd be pretty shocked," quarterback Dan Persa said minutes later, and then there was laughter all around.
This was late Thursday morning and the 'Cats, idle this Saturday, had just finished their first practice since their loss to Army. It had been a spirited session that had knocked off, as Fitzgerald would say, some of their accumulated rust, but that was hardly important now. This news, the news that Persa was near certain to make his long-awaited return against Illinois on Oct. 1, that is all that counted now.
The scene stood in stark contrast to the one normally viewed, which finds all the 'Cats working together. For here, at one end of the field, their offensive playmakers were refining their routes and their running game. And down there, at the other end, their offensive linemen were mastering their craft, And way yonder, on another field all together, their defense was doing its own special thing.
This was one indication that this is not a normal game week and so was the pace at which those playmakers operated.
* The name of the song, actually, is just "Celebrity" and among it's lyrics are the lines that go, "When you're a celebrity/It's adios reality."
His team had opened its season with a victory, but 'Cat coach Pat Fitzgerald picked numerous nits after viewing the tape and talking with his staff. One of them, you might recall, was its lack of passion, which days later led to him offering this. "I'd be lying to you if I didn't say that it's happened every year where we get to that first game, the guys are sick-and-tired of practicing. It's just hard to keep that energy level up," he said. "I don't know. I'll look at some things maybe for next year. We had the same kind of game against Vanderbilt (in last year's season opener) that we had against Boston College (last Saturday in this season's). It kind of took us the first half to get our emotion to the level it needs to be at to start the game. So it's nice to be in normal game week."
* So, in case you were wondering, quarterback Dan Persa is day-to-day.
And what does he mean by that?
"Just kind of stop thinking about it. I think that's one of the biggest hurdles with any injury of this magnitude. Once you stop feeling the pain in it, after a long stretch with no pain, you start to trust it more and you realize you can do things your body wouldn't let you do before."
But, frankly, just trusting more is not enough, not enough if he is to perform with the alacrity he did before going down in the Iowa game.
WATCH: Full - P. Fitzgerald News Conference
With time ticking away before Northwestern's 2011 season opener at Boston College Saturday, NUsports.com special contributor Skip Myslenski reports on position battles, injury updates and the status of a refrigerator meant to feed six down linemen.
CAMP DIVERSION I:
The 'Cats are two-thirds through their Thursday practice up in Kenosha when the whistle signaling a liquid break finally blows. Now they scurry to the appointed place for some sweet relief and soon enough they are lined up in order, seniors up front, juniors behind them and on back to the lonely-and-lost freshmen. Here some helmets are off, and others are propped atop heads, and countess faces feature fatigue and almost all of the jerseys, so pristine just 90 minutes earlier, are soaked through with the honest sweat that accompanies willful labor. Just give me a Gatorade, each 'Cat seems to be silently screaming.
But that is not what they get.
Its members are never as comely as those Rockettes who annually dance their way through the Christmas Spectacular at New York's Radio City Music Hall. But have no doubt about this when considering an offensive line. To be successful, its members must be every bit as attuned, every bit as cohesive, every bit as synchronized as those high steppers from the East.
On rehabilitating his torn Achilles:
It's going well. The injury's 100 percent healed and now I'm just working to get my strength back. But it feels good. It's been a long way and I'm looking forward to camp.
On the reality that it normally takes 12-to-14 months to recover from the type of injury he suffered:
That's back to full recovery, but usually you can return before that and that doesn't mean I won't be just as effective. The right (injured) leg won't be as strong as the left one. But it'll be strong enough.
On suffering setbacks during rehab:
I wouldn't say they were necessarily setbacks. It's just that there were some good days and some bad days. One morning you'd wake up and be more sore than normal, another morning you'd wake up and could do more than normal.
On dealing with that reality:
At first it was tough, wanting to do something that your body won't let you do. You definitely want to be back with your teammates as soon as possible. But I learned along the way that sometimes it's better to undershoot in rehabilitation than overshoot. It took me a couple of times to figure that out.
On his statement to coach Pat Fitzgerald that he's in a different place right now than he was at this time last year:
Mentally I'm in a different place, so it's a little of a reversal of last season. Last season I was in the best shape of my life, but mentally I didn't know what to expect. Now I'm not in the best shape of my life, but mentally I know what to expect, I know what I have to do, I know how to respond to things. Especially for the quarterback position, I'd rather have it this way. So much of it is mental.
On Fitzgerald's belief that this change means great things are possible:
I think so. I've gone through a lot now and that's helped me take on this year with a different mindset. The experiences I've had are invaluable. From a mental standpoint, I'm head and shoulders above where I was last year.