Feb. 27, 2014
Skip Myslenski's second spring practice report includes a lengthy interview with the only 2013 team captain returning to the 'Cats in 2014, three-year starting center Brandon Vitabile, and other news and notes of the week.
The philosopher George Santayana notably declared, "When experience is not retained, as among savages, infancy is perpetual. Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it."
The statesman Winston Churchill later echoed that statement when he said, "Those who fail to learn from history are doomed to repeat it."
So spring football is not just a time to look ahead, is not just place to prepare for that season that will come with the fall. It is also an opportunity to look back, and to assess what was, and to make the adjustments necessary to solve those problems that colored a team's past. An inconsistent offense was one of the problems that bedeviled the `Cats last fall and, when asked about them, the quarterback Mark Alviti recently told ESPN.com that a reason for its struggles was "A lack of leadership. We had no one to go to on offense. Everyone would agree with that."
"I think we had some team issues also," the center Brandon Vitabile
said Thursday when asked about that comment. "I was a captain, so I take a lot of responsibility for that. I should have done a better job being more vocal instead of just worrying about my position group. That's a learning process. No one's going to step in...the president's not going to be perfect his first day in office. That's why he has four years, to get it right. If he does, then he can do it four more. Everyone has a learning curve and that's what the coaching staff, Coach Fitz (Pat Fitzgerald
), Coach Cush (offensive line coach Adam Cushing
), has done a really good job of, trying to help me mature as a leader. I know a lot of the other coaches do that with their players too. We weren't perfect. Our record shows that we were not. And it does come down to the locker room, how we interact with each other and the lack of trust that we may or may not have."
Would he care to enumerate those issues he referred to?
"There was not a lot of communication and that comes with trusting each other and just being comfortable to talk about whatever's bothering you, whatever issues you may have. If you're comfortable, you can communicate about it, talk about it and handle it. But if you're not, you're going to go behind the back. That's not what we did. But the best way to confront a problem is for me to say, `Skip, I've got a problem with you. We've got to talk about this.' That's where you grow. When you talk to someone like a man -- as much as we're still kids playing a game -- when you have that maturity, when you can talk to someone face-to-face instead of whispering behind their back, we need that type of bonding. It comes down to growing together as a team. When you're comfortable enough, I can tell you you're wrong right now and two minutes later we can play video games together."
The 'Cats selected the new members of their Leadership Council the day after Super Bowl Sunday and they, recognizing last season's issues, soon took a step they hope will solve them. "One thing we're really focusing on is getting with people who aren't in your position group and are outside (of) your clique. We're trying to become closer because we know that helps," explained Vitabile, who is in his second year on that Council. "When I can help (safety) Ibraheim (Campbell) or Ibraheim can help me on something he may see, you take it more kindly instead of saying, `No. He's just saying that because he wants to be a pain.' So we're getting closer. You can't say one day we're close, one day we're not. But we're definitely working on it. Most position groups are making a big effort to expand outside their room."
We had one last question for Vitabile and it was this. Considering all that's swirling around this team, is leadership more important than ever?
"I think leadership's always important," he avowed. "In most programs, there are a lot of guys who were leaders in high school and have been leaders throughout their lives, succeeding off the field in whatever they do. That's the type of culture we have here. But I think it's important we have a common mindset, a oneness, a purpose, knowing that whatever happens, what we do in between the lines is the most important. Control what we can control, and that's it. That's what we're trying to get across to everybody."
QUICKLY NOTED: When asked about the offensive line, Vitabile said, "There's a lot of guys moving around, playing different positions. It's great. I think we have 13 or 14 guys going as opposed to the seven or eight we had last year. It's good for us. Competition in general is good no matter what you're doing, whether it's sports or the econ class I'm taking. Competition makes everybody better."
Jack Konopka, who started last season at left tackle, has not worked with the first unit in practices one or two. Does he have to win back his starting spot? "I don't know if anybody has a starting spot," said Pat Fitzgerald. "When you have the type of season we had a year ago, guys may have been out there. But I don't see 22 returning All Big Ten players. I don't see the returning Coach of the Year. So I think there's a ton of work to do, and you can name one name, and I can name 11 on offense and 11 on defense and 11 on the kicking game. That's are focus now, getting better, and not on who did this and who did that in the past. We're going to try and figure out who can do it right now so we can be a championship caliber team."
Jimmy Hall, a safety last season, is now working at outside linebacker. Is the switch permanent or is it a spring experiment? "To be determined," said Fitzgerald. "We're trying to get our best 11 on the field at all times and he's always been in that mix. We obviously graduated some very talented guys up there and we're trying to get as much competition at every position as we can. So we'll see how things progress."
The 'Cats next gather for a closed practice on Saturday, where they'll hit for the first time this spring. "Now we'll find out if we can play football," said Fitzgerald, looking ahead. "We put the pads on Saturday and start the physical side of football."
AND FINALLY: Vitabile, on not making the postseason last year: "Sitting home with friends watching bowl games was like pulling glass out of my eyes."
Be the first to know what's going on with the 'Cats -- Follow @NU_Sports on Twitter, become a fan of Northwestern Athletics on Facebook, subscribe to the NU Sports Express e-newsletter and sign up to receive promotional text alerts for the latest news, schedule updates and video and to interact with NU. For more information on following specific Northwestern teams online, visit our Social Media page!