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    The Skip Report: A Final Missive from Spring Practice

    NUSPORTSDOTCOM Early enrollee Parrker Westphal (22) was one of many Wildcats who benefited greatly from 2014 spring practice.
    NUSPORTSDOTCOM
    Early enrollee Parrker Westphal (22) was one of many Wildcats who benefited greatly from 2014 spring practice.
    NUSPORTSDOTCOM

    April 12, 2014

    Coach Fitz Interview | T. Siemian Interview | T. Henry Interview

    It's been an eventful spring season for Northwestern, both on the field and off, so it's only fitting to cap the spring with a catch-all post from NUsports.com Skip Myslenski to set the record as straight as possible in both realms:

    WE'LL START WITH THE OFFENSIVE LINE, where it all starts for the offense. Entering the spring, avowed center Brandon Vitabile, "We said we wanted to be more physical. We've gotten more physical, we're moving guys off the ball a lot better than we used to. We're taking the fight to them. We're not getting hit in the face every play. We're delivering the blows. It's like boxing. You can be pro-active or reactive. We're throwing a punch, not waiting for someone else to throw a punch. We have that type of mentality now."

    "There are two philosophies. You can be pro-active or reactive," Adam Cushing, his position coach, later added. "You can be the guy that is initiating the contact, being the physical player. Or you can be the guy that's trying to react and be a dancer. Our goal was to be more physical, to take the fight to them and make the defensive line or the linebackers, whoever you're blocking, react to you, respond to you. That puts you in the driver's seat for every interaction. That's what we've been talking about. The analogy (is) the hammer and the nail. Are you the hammer or the nail? Are you the one delivering the blow or are you accepting it?"

    Is this a change of philosophy, we wondered.

    "No. I think it's what was needed to make us be the physical team we try to be."

    But were you the nail last fall, we pushed.

    "I think that was a reason for our inconsistency at times," said Cushing, here explaining why this was his group's point of emphasis this spring. "I think there were a lot of times when we were the hammer, but we needed to be more consistent at that. We needed to be a hammer every single play."

    VITABILE, as he has for the last two season, anchored the line this spring and is a lock to start come fall. Paul Jorgensen, in turn, consistently started at left tackle during the practices just ended, and that was true too of Geoff Mogus at left guard and Matt Frazier at right guard. The wild card, then, is right tackle, where the starting reps Saturday were split by 290-pound sophomore Eric Olson and 300-pound senior Jack Konopka, who started last year at left tackle. "He's responded great. He's had a phenomenal attitude about it," said Cushing when asked how the latter has responded to his demotion.

    "Obviously, it's not what he wants. But he has really approached it as an opportunity to get better, and that's what he's done. Both of them, because of the competition, both of them have gotten better every single day. I've met with both of them individually the last couple days here, and they both understand how much better they've gotten while realizing there's going to be an unbelievable competition at the beginning of fall camp. It's going to be fun."

    THE MIDDLE LINEBACKER is generally considered the quarterback of the defense and, for most of the past two seasons, Damien Proby admirably filled just that role. But his `Cat career concluded last November and so, Pat Fitzgerald remembered Saturday, "We had a void in the middle and we sat there and talked about it as coaches for a day. Then we brought (senior Collin Ellis) in and said, `Hey, Collin, we're thinking about moving you to middle.'

    "`I'll take it right now.'

    "There was no hesitation. He jumped in with both feet and I think where he's at in the spring, he's going to be one hell of a middle linebacker. He's taken over the leadership role on the defense in my opinion, there's no doubt. Based on spring. Now we're going to get some other guys back. But coming out of spring, he's the leader of our defense. And it ain't bad having a Ragin' Cajun with a crazy look in his eye being the leader of his defense."

    EARLIER THIS SPRING, when we looked at this move, Fitzgerald said the biggest adjustment confronting Ellis was using his eyes correctly, was making the proper reads. "If he gets his eyes right, he can play real fast," he here went on, and then he looked ahead to the individual meetings he will soon have with his players. When he sat down with Ellis, he now surmised, his question would be, "How's your comfort level with your eyes."

    "Actually today was really when it came, when I felt really comfortable," Ellis replied when we asked him that on Saturday. "Obviously there were times (earlier) when I was seeing certain things and not really reacting as quick as I should. But today I really took the next step in getting downhill when I see it. I'd been seeing it, just not reacting in the way that I needed to. Today I had a couple plays where I was actually coming downhill."

    "That happens and there's that ah-ha moment and the game slows down because you make the big things small," Fitzgerald said when he heard that. "As a linebacker, you can't have your vision so wide that you see everything. You've got to see one thing and once you get the confidence that that one thing will take you to the ball, you make some plays and then all of a sudden your confidence skyrockets. I think he's on the launch pad of that confidence rocket taking off. I don't want to speak for him. But I like where he's at."

    ALL THIS EYE TALK may seem irrelevant. But it called up a comment of an old, old Cleveland Brown defensive back named Walter Beach, who once said, "If you have to think of what to do, it's too late to do it."

    "Yeah, that's extremely true," Ellis said on hearing that. "(Linebacker) Coach (Randy) Bates says it too. `If you made a tackle and you don't know how you made the tackle, you did it right.' There've been times, I remember Cal last year. They threw a quick little bubble. I don't know what happened. All I know is. . .I tackled the guy as soon as the ball came in and it popped out. It's just reacting to the point where it's not thought. It's all muscle memory. Seeing it and reacting."

    Jimmy Hall is another who switched this spring, moving up from safety to himself play linebacker. "This year, we want to do more stuff on defense, play more man, have more speed," he said Saturday when asked about that. "We have probably some of the fastest linebackers in the Big Ten in Collin and Chi Chi (Ariguzo). That's something we wanted to really work on this year, playing with speed."

    "If your linebackers can run, and they're fast and physical, and they show up at the ball in a bad mood, you're a pretty darn good coach. I know that from experience," Fitzgerald explained with a chuckle. "That group's really athletic. They're getting a little edge to them. And I wish we had 15 more practices because they're really starting to come together as a group."

    THE GREAT UNKNOWN coming out of the spring is the defensive line, which had four of its members sitting out following post-season procedures. "That is a major work in progress," Fitzgerald said of it. "I like what the guys did this spring, but there's no way, shape or form that we're ready to make any analysis there. I'd say the same thing at running back with the guys being out.Then we've got to get some things solidified in the kicking game."

    AND FINALLY, since it was so much of this spring, there is that union issue, which at first glance would seem a threat to the `Cats cohesion. But, said senior wide receiver Tony Jones, "Guys realize there's a possibility that this team could be split because of that decision, so that's something we've definitely focused on, making sure that doesn't happen. There's more of a conscious effort to make sure guys come together, and I think we will continue to come together regardless of differences of opinion."

    "We've had a lot of conversations," Vitabile picked up. "I've talked to a lot of guys that normally I wouldn't talk to. Different position groups, I don't have have to interact with the wideouts and the dbs that much. But we've really gone out of our way--I've gone out my way; Kyle (Prater's) gone out of his way; Cam (Dickerson's) gone out of his way; everybody's gone out of their way to talk to guys, to see what they're feeling, to understand their point of view. That helps you become closer. The more time you spend with somebody, the more the relationship grows. You see a little bit more what drives them, what motivates them, and that helps you become a better teammate."

    "People say it could be tearing the team apart," echoed Ellis. "But I'm trying to think of instances where teams are sitting down and having the deep dialogue we're having about things that directly impact us as well as everybody in the nation. So we're sitting there, times being taken out of our day for us to get together as a team and talk about really tough stuff. That is a way I feel that we're going to become closer after this thing. So, yes. Obviously it's a distraction. But I feel as a team we'll come away closer as a team because we're actually sitting down and having an open dialogue with each other and really getting to know each other, how we think, what makes us tick. I think that'll end up paying off for us in the long run. It could end up making us a closer team."

    "As I've stated earlier, I believe this is the closest team we've had since I've been here," said running back Venric Mark. "I'm not going to lie. It's not only football. The union is definitely a part of it, a big part of it. The union is weighing on us. . .(and) outside looking in, if you're not in the locker room, it might seem like it was splitting us up. But some guys who maybe didn't talk to each other a lot are now doing that and it is causing our team to merge together and everyone's becoming closer. The camaraderie's there, the chemistry's there, and that translates to on-the-field play."

    "I think there's a lot of dialogue that we'll be able to draw upon once this thing gets moved forward, and we'll turn our focus to that when we can do that," Fitzgerald would finally say when those feelings were mentioned to him. "But I think the guys have handled it very well. I think they've handled it as well as they can. When they had to handle their business academically, they've done that. And when they had to handle their business football wise, they've done that.

    "If that's something they feel, then hopefully we can end up having it a positive in the long run."

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