April 13, 2013
Catch the two-hour telecast of Northwestern's final spring practice at 8 p.m. CT Sunday (April 14) on the Big Ten Network.
With their eyes on the future in more ways than one, Pat Fitzgerald and the Wildcats held their 15th and final practice of the spring Saturday on NU's scenic lakefront -- the home, in the not-too-distant future, of Northwestern Football and a multipurpose athletics and recreational complex. But in the here-and-now, Skip Myslenski presents the following report regarding the successes of the recently completed spring season and the mindset of the team moving forward:
Last Friday, in a meeting with his team's Leadership Council, Pat Fitzgerald was discussing tweaks he had made in its future schedule. The one that concerned him the most, the one that gave him greatest pause was his decision to give them Fridays off during the summer, a change he made since their summer school classes would not end until just before they began their two-a-day workouts up in Kenosha.This way, he felt, they could get not only get some rest before the rigors of training camp. They could also, if they chose, even take off and spend some time at home with their families.
"My biggest concern was that amount of time off. I mean, a three-day weekend is a pretty good deal, so I've obviously got concern about that," he would say, recalling that meeting. "But before I could say I have a concern, the guys said, `That won't be a problem.' To me that shows a mature team, that shows great leadership, and we're not even done with the school year yet. We've got a lot of work to do yet during the school year. But to hear that right now, I think we're further ahead. I think that momentum from last year, and what we learned last year collectively, has carried over. That's positive."
Why were you guys able to say the three-day weekends won't be a problem, we later asked one of that Council's members, quarterback Kain Colter.
"We're focused," he said simply. "We all want our goal more than we want to go out there and party and live college life. We want to go out there and win the Big Ten championship. You know, we're going to have fun. We're going to be college students. But when it comes down to business, we're a business-type team. We don't take things for granted. When it comes time to work, we work."
The 'Cats officially ended their spring's work Saturday at Lakeside Field, the home of their school's seven-time national championship lacrosse team. They drilled for 47 minutes and then, for the next 35, held a controlled scrimmage that revealed very little.
Redshirt freshmen running backs Malin Jones and Stephen Buckley showed some promise, and the junior cornerback C.J. Bryant picked off Trevor Siemian. But both Siemian and Colter played sparingly; running back Venric Mark and any number of starting defenders played not at all; and the personnel on both sides of the ball often changed with each snap.
"It was kind of like a revolving door," Fitzgerald would say when this exercise was over. "I kind of felt like a doorman at a restaurant, as many guys that were going in and out."
It was only appropriate that their spring's work ended with a paucity of hard news from the field, for it has been like that in the weeks just past. The reasons for this are obvious. The first is that Fitzgerald knows, in many cases, just who will be starting for him in the 'Cats Aug. 31 season opener at Cal. The other is the many 'Cats who sat out the spring while rehabbing from operations, which meant certain decisions would not be made until they reached Kenosha.
That last fact did give any number of players a chance to get reps they would not have otherwise received, which is why Fitzgerald could say this Saturday when asked about his team's depth. "I think it's in the best place that we've had it," he said. "Having 13 guys (out) from postseason surgeries, and not having our freshman class here yet, I think the guys did a great job throughout the spring. We walked in a little banged up. We walk out healthier than when we walked in. So, mission accomplished from that standpoint."
Yet the true revelation of the spring has been more ephemeral, has centered instead on topics like attitude and mindset and maturity and morale. All the recent weeks Fitzgerald has talked positively about those unquantifiable virtues, and he did it again Saturday when asked what he learned about his team in the work they just concluded.
"I think our chemistry's carried over from last year," he said here. "I felt like we learned a great lesson in team a season ago and that carried over into this year. Hopefully we'll take the next step that we're going to need to take between now and the time we get to Kenosha."
"I think that comes from our leadership," Colter would say when we asked him about his team's maturity. "We're really close as a team, we like to have fun. But at the same time, when it's time to focus up and get things done, we're going to get it done. The biggest thing we've been trying to preach to everybody is we had a great year last year, but we can't be satisfied. We've still got goals that we want to accomplish, and to get them we're going to have to work really hard."
Their schedule now looks like this: A discretionary week; five weeks in the weight room, which is considered the first phase of their summer program; a week of finals; then summer itself and the final preparations for Kenosha. "Number one, I want us to get in the best shape and be the best-conditioned football team in the country," Fitzgerald will say when asked his goals between now and then. "Have chemistry formed by working hard and getting out of our dorm rooms and getting out of our apartments to spend time together just being knuckle-headed college guys and having fun doing it. And be smart, and be safe, and be healthy when we get to camp. If we do that, I think we'll be OK."
We are talking to Kain Colter about the days ahead, about those days when those three-day weekends loom and the coaches are not around and there are workouts to attend and the onus is on the players to do them on their own. With that in mind, we ask him, what message has he given to his teammates.
"Last year," he says, "we set a standard for things that we do here, especially when it's run by players and making sure everybody's going to be there. Even though it's optional and it's not mandatory, it's mandatory. The players are going to run it and hold people accountable and make sure everybody's there and run things just like the coaches were there."
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