March 23, 2010
By Skip Myslenski
NUsports.com Special Contributor
There is more, so much more involved than Xs and Os and unearthing performers able to replace those so recently departed. These are merely the obvious concerns for a college football coach as the ground thaws and spring approaches. For that season, to him, is not one of renewal, which is what the poets would have us believe. It is, instead, a time to continue the construction of the team he will unveil in the fall, which at root is a project rife with complexity. That was a point made eminently clear over the course of an hour in early March, which is when we checked in with the 'Cats Pat Fitzgerald to discuss what had already occurred in the offseason and what is on the menu for this spring's practice.
You are at the front end of building next year's team. What are you trying to get established now, in the spring?
Right now, we're in that infant stage. We've gone through the first phase of our offseason from a conditioning and a strength standpoint. That transitions into the Winning Edge and the third phase is really spring practice. You learn a lot about guys in shorts, but you learn a whole heck of a lot more about guys when they get punched in the mouth. That's what's going to start happening here on the 29th. But what we've tried to do is train our guys to understand how they need to take ownership of themselves first, how to talk to themselves the right way. The significance and the importance of that is that they're in the moment of what they're trying to accomplish and, hopefully, that just isn't with football. It's more importantly with life. Yeah. It's critical that we form a chemistry and we form an attitude and an approach to the way that we want to do things. With the Winning Edge, we sprinkle in different ways to influx adversity and to put them into a football type, or life-type experience where things aren't always going to go your way to see how they respond and see how they learn to grow. Now we can hopefully do that in the football context. So it's the next phase, Step Three. The next steps will be summer workouts and then fall camp.
A team eventually takes on a personality. Is this also the time next year's team starts to develop that personality?
Yeah. We talk about our identity, what is our identity going to be? We have a set of values, we have a way we want to play in all three phases. But what is this team's identity going to be? I can't answer that quite yet. We've got an idea. We've (looked at) everything we did a year ago as coaches. We're almost through with that. We've got spring practice planned, we know what we want to accomplish in the first two weeks. But then after that, OK, now what are our strengths really with Dan (Persa) being the quarterback or Evan (Watkins) being the quarterback. Who are our running backs and what are their strengths? Defensively, who's going to get after the passer and who're going to be our quarterbacks in the back half? I guess that's all schematic identity. More importantly, what is our identity going to be when you pop on the video? That's the whole chemistry and the attitude we hopefully instill in our guys, and the work ethic and the investment that we try to have. It all kind of starts there and it sounds so simple. But it's so complicated it's amazing. We don't see our guys for three weeks (due to reading week, finals and spring break) prior to them getting on the field for spring practice. You say, "Wow, that's a long time." OK. That pales in comparison to June and July, then we report in August and we have the same amount of time to prepare for the opener. That's why we try to teach them in the offseason how to lead themselves, and then how to lead others. That's the development we try to have.
Do you see leaders developing at this time of the year?
You hope so. I think each guy is at a different stage of that walk and that journey in his life. It's amazing by position, too. Quarterbacks and linebackers and safeties, those guys typically are a little bit more outspoken, a little bit more vocal. Receivers and running backs are somewhat pretty quiet. The O-line, pretty quiet. The D-line are pretty much lunch-pail guys. So that whole dynamic and how guys step up, yeah, you try to train it, you try to develop it. But at the same time you want guys to be genuine. You don't want to try and put a square peg in a round hole.
Is it too early, then, to see who is going to fit into that round hole?
We look at it, I guess, from a little different approach. I heard it back when I was a player here. The first sign of a leader is a man who can lead himself. So we're looking at it from the standpoint, we're trying to develop everyone as a leader. We've got to get them to lead themselves first. Now who's going to be the magnet to pull the team along and drive the team? Yeah. We're starting to see that. But let's go play football. Like I said, everybody looks good in shorts. But let's go play football and then I'll have a better idea of where I see things going. I know who the most-respected guys are from the standpoint of (their election to) The Leadership Council. But let's see if they can sustain it. Then also, as long as they're talkin' the talk, let's see if they can walk the walk. I think it's easy to be a leader when it's 72 degrees and you're in an indoor practice facility. But I think it's a totally different thing on a football field. It's so different because now you're one of 11. You try to put them in competitive situations (during conditioning drills), but it's not football and you can't emulate it. The ball's oblong for a reason and it's going to go where it's going to go and things are going to happen. I look at it, for instance, what we do and how we do it, look at Mike Kafka. If you want to use one game as a microcosm, look at the (Outback) bowl game. Things didn't go perfect for him. There were a lot of things he'd like to have back, but he just kept on battling. Maybe some of them were his own decisions, some of them were the plays we called, some of them were the way we executed collectively as an offense. But he kept on battlin' and he never wavered in his confidence. Never. And he gave us an opportunity to be successful. That's what I think you're trying to do. That's what I think you want in life.
As an old basketball coach told me once that he'd seen the state of Illinois and he'd seen the state of Indiana, but he'd never seen the state of perfection. Does that explain why it's important to have that attitude Mike displayed?
Yeah. Exactly. I talk to a lot of other coaches and when they do their winter workouts, this drill they have to be perfect or that drill they have to be perfect. I'm from the Walk (Randy Walker) school and I'm from the (Gary) Barnett school where it was never about perfect. Never. Striving for excellence. That's different. Being the best you can be. Different. Going beyond where you think you can go. Different. Persevering through adversity. Different. I think too many people want to be perfect and that's not life. I've never met it. Never met it. Never met it.
You mentioned that you had a set of values on how you want to play. Is it easier to get those established since this is now your fourth spring?
I think it's more from the standpoint of the players' perspective. I think they understand what we want from a program standpoint, what the expectations are, how we're striving for excellence and how we believe in going about that. It's not as much teaching. Now you just want to make sure you don't accelerate too fast because you've got a group of freshmen who have never really been through it. So we start over every off-season, go A, B, C. How quickly we can get to Z? That'll be determined by the pace of the team, not by the pace of us as coaches. We think we're further along now than we've been. Is that a by-product of this being year four, of every player in the program, this is pretty much the only way they know how to do things? I don't know. Maybe. Time will tell. But we're definitely further along and I think that has a lot to do with the kids' attitudes when they came back from the bowl game. Then also the work of our strength coaches. We had a really good plan, I thought, in January and February. We tweaked some things a little bit, went to a much more focused, concentrated, small group approach to what we were doing, and it's paid dividends.
Since you mentioned it, what was their mindset when they came back from Tampa?
You know, I didn't see them for a couple weeks. We had two discretionary weeks and then, when I came back off the road and visited with a couple guys, they were very driven, very hungry, kind of on edge a little bit. We've got some unfinished business. When you've got that kind of attitude, I think your approach is, "Let's go work to get better. Let's go improve. If I didn't like my role, fix it. If I do like my role, improve it." That's kind of been where they're at to this point.
Jerry Wainwright, the former DePaul basketball coach, once made an observation about roles that I liked. He said that, at the beginning of a season, you often have guys who have been lounge acts who now have to start playing the main stage.
And you never now how they're going to react.
Is that part of the spring too, learning about a guy like Persa, who's going to take on a larger role?
Those are the obvious ones. But if you looked at our receivers, at this point last season, would you have said Zeke Markshausen (was going to have the season he did have)? That's the great thing about football. There are so many different working parts, there are so many different roles that can be taken over. Jerry Brown (the assistant head and defensive backs coach) said it forever. In our program, as we develop our guys, you can never give up on a guy. You can never say, "You know what? He's never going to be any good." You look at Kafka, Markshausen, (Andrew) Brewer, you can go on and on. You look at defense a year ago, you look at the play of Adam Hahn, he had a great year. Corbin Bryant stepping up. Quentin Davie. Nate Williams. Some pieces that, last spring, you would have said, "They're going to be role players." They were extremely productive players for us last year. I think that's what makes our program so special. Our guys buy into that development and they see the parallels of football with life and if they buy into what they're being taught here, there's a chance they're going to learn some very valuable life lessons they can use to their advantage as they go through their journey of life.
Larry (Lilja), the director of strength and conditioning) said one of the goals in the Winning Edge was to teach them there is more in the tank than they might think is there. Is that part of this developmental process too?
It's to help them build trust in themselves. You hear us all the time, trust yourself, trust your teammates. Well, how do you do that? You put them in those situations where now we've got to put the two-by-four up between the uprights and there's no net to catch them. As much as we can do that, and hopefully gain confidence from that, well, you know, there's that coach-ism out there that says you want to build the ego up, not tear the ego down. So it's a fine line. You're going to learn through some failures, but they're only momentary. That's what we have to teach kids today, especially young people at Northwestern. They're so driven, they're so successful, they're so bright. But it's OK to get a B. If you gave everything you had, if you gave maximum effort and got a B, live to fight another day and move on. But I think a lot of kids don't realize, not necessarily our guys, just society, don't realize how hard it is to be successful in this kind of environment. I'm proud of the job our guys are doing.
You used the word ego. When (the late Hall of Fame coach) Bud Wilkinson first took over the Rams, back when they were still in St. Louis, they were wholly dysfunctional and I suggested to him that one of the things he had to do was get his players to put their egos into their back pocket. He said, no, not at all. Ego is what makes a player good. What he had to do was get all the egos going in the same direction.
How do you do that?
It starts in recruiting, finding young people who believe in team and if we all buy into it together, we all get vacuumed up, we all improve, we all get better, and there're enough plays and roles and reps to go around and have everybody be individually successful in our game. On top of that, I think you have to foster a culture where players take over ownership. If they have ownership of the team, then peer-to-peer, ego is embraced, your individuality is embraced, but it's all within the team concept and what we believe in. When we have that, we have a chance to have chemistry, and then we have a chance to fight through things and be successful. That's what I've seen us be able to do here the last few years. I mean, they haven't been perfect games. But I don't see anybody playing perfect games. I don't see anybody blowing anybody out. So I think more and more you have to find ways to create that chemistry and, really, players have to buy into what you're trying to teach them.
That brings us back to a question I asked earlier. Are players buying in more now since they've seen the success that has come when they've practiced what you preach?
That's a good question for them. But, yeah, I believe so. I believe they have seen the benefits of what we do and how we do things to them on the field. OK. Then they've gone into their social context and their academics and, if they use the same approach, it just seems that everything slows down a little bit. They're working at a different tempo and a different pace, mentally and emotionally and physically, than maybe other people are willing to go. They understand they can do that. They've been in those kinds of environments and they've done it in something that they love, which is football, a game. So if they can do it in a game, they sure can do it academically, and they sure can do it socially from the standpoint of doing the right things and giving back. I'm proud of them for doing that, but they have to believe in it and I think for people to believe, there's a couple of ways to do it. You have to have faith. Sometimes, for some guys, they don't have the evidence yet. There's a big group of young players who haven't played yet. They don't necessarily have the individual evidence that, hey, doing this works for me. So being able to put them in that environment where they have some success, then some momentarily failure and coming right back and doing it again, and saying, "See. When you do it this way it works. But when you decide to go back, for whatever reason, to these habits that you have and you're inconsistent and you fail, well, which way do you want to go?" We have to show them that it'll work.
But these people who don't have empirical evidence yet, they're surrounded by players who do. Isn't that important to a program's success?
No doubt. It's critical. Think about what I just said. We're away from our players for three straight weeks. We're out of it as coaches. June and July? We're out of it. On the field when we're playing? We're out of it. So absolutely. There's no question. That's the key. If they're looking at each other and I'm holding myself accountable and I'm holding you accountable, that's how it all moves forward. That's what you hope you build when you're building a program. You're building individuals and developing them as people within the structure that you have without being so rigid that you can't be flexible enough to navigate through the journey with a new group of people. I mean, Danny's different from Mike and Evan's different from Danny and Mike's different from both those guys and they're different from C.J. (Bacher) and they're different from Baz (Brett Basanez). I think that's what makes football so much like life.
Which is a nice segue to discuss the makeup of the team. How will the offense be different with, as we all expect, Persa at quarterback in place of Mike?
We always try to go by a players-formations-plays mentality in all three phases. It's a little easier to put that in an offensive context. But what do our players do best? What formations and/or schemes can we put them in to execute plays that we believe in and can execute consistently. So, you know, Danny strengths are similar to Mike's. What Mike really developed last year, and I see the same development in Danny, when C.J. matriculated out, Mike and Danny took a step up. Now Mike is gone and I've seen Danny kind of take the next step, and I've seen Evan kind of come along with him. So, yeah, for obvious reasons it's Danny's job. He's got the most experience in the offense, the most reps. But I think Evan's going to develop and improve and where they're at (at the end of spring ball) will be different from today.
Technically, Xs and Os wise, what is your biggest question mark?
Can we continue to develop the running game? We want to run the ball with more efficiency. We had pretty good balance. We were about a 50-50, run-pass team a year ago. But we need to run it more efficiently, more effectively. We need to figure out who our playmakers are going to be, our weapons, from an offensive standpoint. At receiver, there's a great opportunity for guys to emerge. With Jeremy (Ebert) back and healthy, with Sid Stewart a year older, who's going to be that next group? Demetrius Fields. That whole group, who's going to step up there? Then in the backfield, it's going to be great competition. To add Mike Trumpy into that mix and Arby now in a spring practice context, I think will make that whole group better.
Speaking of Arby, what does he need to do to take the next step?
Just keep growing and maturing. Grow in the offense, learn the system. I think it's really hard for a freshman to play. We ask our backs to do a lot in protection, we move them around and do different things. He's not just dotting the I in our offense. So I thought he did well last year and improved as the year went along.
The offensive line appeared to be in flux all last season. Do you agree with that and what do you see with it now?
I thought a year ago early we were not very healthy. We had a lot of guys who had a little bit of this, a little bit of that in practice while preparing for the fall and then in the fall itself. Preseason was not what we needed it to be to be consistent. So we had constant competition. We did not walk out of fall camp saying these are our five guys and that went through the first month or so, the first month and a half. Again. Neal Deiters was not someone who, at this time last year, we expected to start our bowl game. But he emerged. I think we're still in that same kind of position right now. We're going to be without Keegan Grant and Doug Bartels for spring ball. So we're going to go through some growing pains with some new guys in different roles. But it's going to be great for the long haul.
To move over to defense, the backfield would seem to be the obvious question mark.
Sure, losing the production of a (Sherrick) McManis on the corner. We've got (Justan) Vaughn and (Demetrius) Dugar, they're guys who have played quite a bit of football for us. Obviously Justan a little bit more than Dugar. Michael Bolden and then Jeravin Matthews. So we've got four guys to compete for three roles.
Talk about moving Jeravin to corner.
We moved him over in bowl practice. So there're four, we think, very dynamic athletes and we're going to see how that goes as spring practice evolves. I've really been pleased with the way Justan's offseason has gone. He's healthy, the healthiest he's been in 18 months. It's going to be interesting to see how that develops. You look at the safety position, Brian Peters has played a lot of football for us. Now we're going to move David Arnold back to safety and see if, as he continues to get healthy, can he be player we expected, along with Jared Carpenter and Hunter Bates and Cooper Gerami. So we've got pretty good competitive depth there. Obviously, at the other corner position, is Jordan Mabin, who's played a lot of ball for us. So I feel good about that competitive depth, I really do, and then we'll see some other guys as they emerge. But they're kind of the incumbents. Then to have Nate Williams out at linebacker, he will not participate in spring practice due to offseason surgery, to see Quentin Davie emerge as a leader, and where's Ben Johnson going to go, and Bryce McNaul, and that young group of guys like David Nwabuisi and Damien Proby and Timmy Riley? It's a group that I think is really interesting and I'm interested to see how it goes, I really am. And I think it's a pretty deep group, I think it's a pretty competitive group.
Then moving forward to the line.
I'm excited about that group too. We've got a young group of names that are going to be competing on the edge. (Davon) Custis and (Anthony) Battle at the defensive end position to go along with (Vince) Browne and (Quentin) Williams and (Kevin) Watt. That's a group that I think is pretty athletic. So there're going to be new names, there's not going to be a Wootton out there. Everyone knows who Corey is, but I'm excited about that group. I think it's deep, I think it's talented, now how do they grow and mature here playing football? Then inside with (Brian) Arnfelt and (Jack) DiNardo and (Niko) Mafuli, we're going to identify more guys too, but who from that group emerges? I think that's as much an excitement from a competition standpoint as any.
Finally, the specialists?
We've got John Henry Pace coming back and Pat Hickey competing with him for the long snapping and short snapping. I'm excited to see what Brandon Williams can do punting and Jeff Budzien is also going to try and do a little punting with his place-kicking. Then you have Budzien and (Steve) Flaherty competing for the kickoff role, the place-kicking role with (Stefan) Demos. But I was really pleased with the year Stef had last year. I'd love to see his average up a little bit in punting, but he's not a punter by trade and he's assumed that role for three years to help the team. Over two years, he's got over an 80-percent field goal percentage. That's pretty good, it's really good.
Northwestern, to be blunt, never seemed to have any depth, but here you're talking about competition pretty much across the board. Where did all this depth come from?
Well, our coaches have done a tremendous job recruiting. We had a plan in place to solidify both lines and make that be our focus and then work our way out. If we can play and battle in the trenches, we believe we give ourselves a chance to win. So we've attacked that over the last four years and we feel like we've solidified that and, like I said, now we've worked our way out from the belly of both sides of the ball. Our coaches have done a great job, our players have done a great job recruiting, and we've started to slowly be able to redshirt a majority of our guys. So now we're going to start to become a junior and senior laden team. Unfortunately, for the first couple of years, we weren't that. We were pretty young. Now, the majority of our guys who have played a lot of football, they're kind of in their third and fourth year, some in their fifth year. That was kind of the plan and we've been able to pretty much stay the path.
Can you explain just how important that one, extra, redshirt year is?
Well, you think about the difference between a 17-year old young man and a 21-, 22-year old man. It's that simple. Now I'm not going to say we redshirt everybody. We look at five different equations that go into (the decision). Number one, how are they handling the homesickness? That's real. Number two. What kind of physical and mental condition are they in? Number three, can they handle what we're teaching them system wise? If we ask them to go right, do they go right, ask them to go left, go left? Fundamentally and technically, are they picking up the techniques that they need to have. Number four, do we need them to play? If we do, we play them. Sometimes that happens, but you'd like to avoid that. When we get to camp, when we get to Kenosha, by that Saturday scrimmage, we walk out of our Sunday personnel meeting, we're kind of going, "Off the flight deck. On the flight deck. Stay in the mess hall."
What's the fifth part of the equation?
The five is does he want to play. I can think of one guy, and I'm not going to share who it was, who said he didn't want to play. He didn't stay in our program. He left.
Then what about the competition this depth engenders. How important is that to the growth of the team?
It's critical. Like I look outside, we played a freshman, Rod Goodlow, at linebacker. His competition this spring with Ben Johnson is going to make both guys better. Bryce McNaul competing with David Nwabuisi and Quentin Davie, across the board, Proby and Riley, and I keep going on and on. All those guys competing, it just makes everybody that much better. It's been ingrained in me. Competition makes good players great and great players special. If you don't ever feel that someone's breathing down your neck, even if it's one percent complacency, that is just the biggest cancer you can have.
Which brings us to the mountain top, a bowl win. You talked about it a lot last year. Is that still the goal?
Uh-uh. But it's not important now. You've got to get to the summit first and it's a long way up. We're still training right now on how to climb a mountain. That mountain climb will start in September when we play Vanderbilt. But we're not there yet. We're just getting prepared.