April 7, 2013
WATCH: Practice Highlights | Linemen Jugs Catch Competiton | Fitz Interview | M. Hankwitz Interview | K. Colter Interview | I. Campbell Interview
Northwestern held an up-tempo, full-pads practice at Ryan Field Saturday in front of a crowd of Wildcats fans hungry to get a look at the team they will be cheering come fall. What they saw, Skip Myslenski reports, is a squad that Pat Fitzgerald feels is characterized by a belief in the mission and a steely resolve to achieve it.
It is just past noon on Saturday and Pat Fitzgerald
is pressed up against a wall outside his team's locker room. Earlier, on an April morning tinged with a touch of autumn, it had held a public practice at Ryan Field, where the school band played and the area's kids roamed and the smell of grilling burgers wafted from concession stands. Now, at rest, he is considering his 'Cats, who had regathered just last Tuesday after a two-week spring break. "After a two-week break, I thought the retention was excellent. The guys did a really good job from the standpoint of doing something," he is saying now.
|Watch Spring Open Practice Highlights|
"I'd be kidding to think they were running gassers everyday on a beach somewhere," he continued. "But they did something to keep themselves in shape and they had great retention. I think that goes back to where we're at right now as a program, being five minutes away from being undefeated. This group behind me in the locker room truly believes in where we want to go, and they know what we have to do to get there, and they're working everyday to take advantage of the time the NCAA allows us to be together.
"I think our morale is as high as it's ever been. I really do. I think the guys are really -- they know where we're at and they're excited about where we're going. That's half the battle for us as coaches. There hasn't been a day this spring that I've looked at the guys and questioned their attitude. They've wanted to be here. They've worked their tails off. As a coach, that's fine. You just coach them. I don't have to kind of whip and drive on them, as Walk (the late Randy Walker) would say all the time. Guys are fighting to get better."
Is he saying that his players have taken more ownership of the team?
"I felt we did that a year ago and that momentum's carried over," Fitzgerald says. "I just think the seniors a year ago gave a great blueprint of what it means to be really productive off the field from the standpoint of taking ownership and that chemistry. The guys are doing a really good job of that. Now. I say that, but next week will be the last week we're kind of together. Then we have a week of meetings, then the coaches go on the road recruiting and now the pressure really goes on the young men to lead the team when we're not around and then in the summer when we get to that phase in June. So. We've got a lot of work to do. But the attitude's in the right spot and I think the chemistry's coming together and hopefully we'll continue to work to improve it."
There has been a calmness about the 'Cats this spring and the reasons behind that are found there in their coach's comments. This is not to say there is no urgency about them. Nor does it mean they are ignoring their duties or assuming successes comes fall. The truth, in fact, is just the opposite. Yet now they go about their work with a certainty, with a knowledge, with -- most importantly -- that blueprint provided last season by senior defensive tackle Brian Arnfelt and senior defensive end Quentin Williams and junior defensive end Tyler Scott.
They were the primary forces that galvanized the 'Cats into a cohesive whole, that catalyzed the 'Cats to a 10-win season, that delivered the 'Cats their first bowl win since 1949. They, quite simply, showed the Cats what needed to be done to take the next step, and now the torch of their leadership has simply moved on and into other hands. This is a huge bonus for any program and here we will digress to explain just why.
Some years ago, as a college basketball writer, we did a piece on the value of player leadership, and harkened back to the days of the championship Bulls. They had the prototype of that performer in Michael Jordan, who pushed his teammates continually and challenged his teammates regularly and never cared what his teammates thought of his manner. "Every day I went to practice, my goal was I never wanted Michael Jordan to yell at me," a former Bull named Rusty LaRue once told then DePaul basketball coach Jerry Wainwright, who was an assistant at Wake Forest when LaRue played there.
"That," Wainwright said after relating that anecdote, "is the ultimate in peer pressure."
"It always means more, peer pressure's always bigger than any pressure to me," Michigan State basketball coach Tom Izzo would say after he heard that tale. "It always means more when coaches aren't the lead guys. Players play the game, coaches don't get on the floor. So you definitely need somebody who has the mentality that winning is the most-important thing, and that's a passion with him, not a yeah-that-would-be-nice thing."
The 'Cats had those guys last year with Arnfelt and Williams and they have them again this year not only with Scott, who is back for his own senior season. Linebacker Chi Chi Ariguzo. Safeties Ibraheim Campbell and Traveon Henry. Quarterbacks Kain Colter and Trevor Siemian. Wide receivers Rashad Lawrence and Christian Jones. Those are the names Fitzgerald drops when asked who has emerged as leaders this spring, and then he adds one more that is both striking and symbolic of his team's quest to be the best. It is that of Mike Jensen, the undersized (6-foot, 190 pound) wide receiver. "A guy who walked on that's just been a blue-collar, lunch-pail, special-teams, dig-the-ditch kind of guy. If I were to give an MVP offensively for the first three weeks of spring, it would be Michael," he says of him.
He is still pressed against the wall outside his team's locker room, still considering the dynamics of his team, and here Fitzgerald is asked to account for its new attitude. Is it the bowl win? Is it the possibility it will be ranked in the preseason Top 25 come fall? "We've been a Not Top 25 for so long, I don't think they even care about that. I think it's more that we think we're a pretty darn good football team," he says.
"They watch the tape. Players know players. They watch the tape and we can run, and we've got guys who can make plays in all three phases. There's an expectation level now not to just win football games, but to compete and win championships. We've got the bowl championship. Now the next step is to put the big trophy in the case, and they just don't hand that out. It's not about talk. It's about action, and they know we don't have enough time to get there. We're going to have to have a great sense of urgency in training camp, but they have to do the work in advance to be prepared for that. If where we're at today is any indication, I believe that they'll do that."
So you like this team, we finally say.
"At this point, yeah," Pat Fitzgerald says with a smile, and then he laughs. "I mean, I have a voice, right? Usually at this point (of spring practice) I don't. You guys have been around awhile. Usually I'm having to yell and scream and really get after them. I have not had to do that once, and the credit goes to our young men and our staff. But as much as I like them, the work that we have to do if we want to reach our goals is still there.
"We could just keep going to bowl games. But that's not acceptable anymore."
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!