April 8, 2014
The Northwestern Wildcats practiced outside Tuesday morning in Evanston. NUsports.com Special Contributor Skip Myslenski met with NU head coach Pat Fitzgerald as the 'Cats continue to put in reps to build solid habits while focusing on the fundamentals of spring ball.
After last Saturday's practice, Pat Fitzgerald said, "As I look at where we're at right now, we're behind."
After Tuesday's practice, the penultimate one open to the public this spring, we wondered just where his `Cats were behind, how they could catch up and what effect this might have come fall.
"I hope the effects are none. That's going to be the destination we need to get to by the time we play Cal (in their season opener)," he said with a chuckle. "But where are we behind? No bowl practice, number one. The obvious distraction we've had to deal with, number two, causing us to spend a lot of time on other things. Number three, we're not able to scrimmage because of our bodies. That's not the young men's fault. Like most college teams, you average between eight and 15 young men that have post-season surgeries. (The 'Cats have 11 sitting out the spring.) When it impacts one position in particular-- last year it was the O line, they were behind, and this year it's the D line (which has four players out). That's creating an inability to scrimmage on Saturdays. So I can't tell you how we're going to be on the fourth or fifth drive of a scrimmage yet.
"So we're going to have to look at how we're going to go about two-a-days camp (in Kenosha next August). I think we're definitely going to have to go back to some controlled scrimmages in our two-a-days. We're going to have to have that second practice be a little more 11-on-11 controlled scrimmages to see how guys react to game-like situations. Everything we've done right now has been more of a practice with situations. Meaning first-and-10, second-and-long, third-and-medium, red zone, tight zone. We're behind in four-minute, we're behind in two-minute, a lot of the things we need to get done, we just don't have the bodies to do the reps. So we'll just tweak our plan and do what we do."
After last Saturday's practice, Fitzgerald also said, "Our stress this spring has been about the process of creating the right mental and physical habits. That's what we lost last year at times."
After Tuesday's practice, we wondered just what habits he was referring to and how his `Cats could reestablish them.
"Fundamentally, first of all," he said. "You've been watching us practice for a long time. We put our guys in controlled settings, scrimmage wise, because we're so conscious of the process of creating the right mental routine and the right physical routine fundamentally. That's what you're going to revert back to when all the chips are on the table on big drives. That's what you're going to revert back to when the little guy in your head starts talking to you when you get fatigued. If we create those right mental habits, the science behind it is you're going to have the right physical habits. Trust me, I'm not a scientist. But I know from personal experience that if you've got those things in the right place, you revert back to it. Then you can be consistent.
"I thought a year ago, as we looked at everything video-wise, that was our issue. We were inconsistent. Where it really showed up was in times of need. Big third downs. Finishing drives offensively and defensively. Late in the fourth quarter when we made mental mistakes. As a coach you put that on yourself. I'd say that from the minute I walked onto the dais after some of those games. You look at some of those guys out there making those mistakes, and you look at yourself as a coach, and you ask yourself, `Are you doing too much? Are you asking the guys to do too much?' Because when we're in the moment, we've repped it, but maybe we haven't repped it enough and maybe that's why we made the mistake.
"Then you've got to look at the guy himself and you've got to ask him when you sit down and talk, `Why did you make that decision? Why'd you make that choice?' If the guys have taken ownership of it, then you have a chance to coach them, and for the most part I think we've really done a nice job of that. The guy's have taken ownership. They see we can be better. And they're working hard at it. But that's real hard. That's not easy. That's why there's only one national champion. That's why there's only one Super Bowl champion. It's really hard. But hopefully we'll embrace that process and keep getting better."
You're talking muscle memory, we noted.
"Yeah," he said, and then he smiled. "Well, there's a big muscle between your ears. That's probably the biggest muscle we've got to get fixed. A lot of it's confidence."
Minutes later we read Fitzgerald's Saturday observation to senior receiver Tony Jones and asked him what habits he felt his coach was referring to.
"Just the focus. When this team faces adversity, we've got to be able to come together and get things going in the right direction," he said. "Last year I think at times we let one bad thing lead to two bad things, then three bad things and so forth. We've got to be able to come together as a group and be able to get things back on the right track no matter what adversity this team faces."
Rarely, after any spring practice, does Fitzgerald laud a single individual. But Tuesday, unprompted, he had this to say about senior receiver Kyle Prater, the transfer from USC who has scuffled with nagging injuries since joining the `Cats. "I'm really pleased with the spring Kyle Prater's having. Number one, from a football standpoint, that's easy. But for him, it's been a long, long road for him, and to see that he's finally healthy for the first time, I see a young man that's really coming into his own confidence wise. I'm really happy for him, a guy who's been through a ton."
"He's put in a lot of work," Jones would later say of Prater, who's his roommate. "KP's one of the hardest workers I know and it's definitely paying dividends. I don't think the first couple of years of his college career have gone the way he hoped. But he's kept a great attitude. He's one of those guys who's always in the training room, always in the weight room, always in the film room, and I think he'll have a great year."
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