April 17, 2010
WATCH: Fitz, QB D. Persa discuss spring practice #12
By Skip Myslenski
NUSports.com Special Contributor
Scenes from Saturday's scrimmage, the second of the spring. . .
Neither Nate Williams nor Quentin Davie played and both were merely starters when last season closed. Still, on this afternoon, the linebackers were the deepest and most-accomplished group the 'Cats put on display. "I wouldn't disagree with you," Pat Fitzgerald would later say.
He, of course, starred at that position back in the mid-90s and gave it a cachet, an aura, a luster that sprinkled down on his many successors. It now, quite simply, meant something to be a Northwestern linebacker, where the footsteps you would follow were outsized and acclaimed. "For me personally, and probably for Ben (Johnson) too, Fitz being the linebacker that he was was a big part of us coming here," explains one of the current crop, junior Bryce McNaul. "He really injects some enthusiasm and definitely some pride into the linebacker position here. You definitely feel the impetus to perform here at Northwestern. You have guys like Tim McGarigle who have come back and he's in there teaching us. I can go to the sideline and ask the NCAA all-time leading tackler, 'Hey, what do you think I should have done on that play.' It's a tremendous resource we like to take advantage of."
Are they conscious of carrying on the tradition?
"Absolutely. That's our goal," says Johnson, another junior. "We have the best teacher here. The man is the most passionate man I've ever played with. As a coach, everyday it's 110 percent, 100 miles-an-hour. It's like you have to stay with him. I've learned so much in the time I've been here from him. Getting into film, it's the little things he tells you. Little keys, talking, communicating, like knowing what's going to happen before it happens.
"We'd be fools," concludes McNaul, "not to take advantage of that."
HAS A STORY
"During recruiting, they asked me what I wanted," says McNaul, who, as Fitzgerald once did, wears 51. "It was either 47, my high school number, and then my brother, who's actually an Army Ranger in the military now, I thought maybe I'd wear his high school number, 44. I submitted those. But then I came actually to this spring game my senior year of high school and looked at the roster and saw 51 there. No words were spoken between anybody about it. It was just given to me and, like we talked about, it's trying to step into that role and doing the best we can."
So no one had that number?
"I think prior to me it was an offensive lineman. It may have been a joke with (late coach) Randy Walker. Having Fitz on the staff at the time, he said he was going to give it to a player that played linebacker like Fitz, so he gave it to an offensive guard. A little inside joke."
So when did you learn for sure that you'd be wearing it?
"At that spring game. I didn't really realize what it meant until my dad (Eric, who filled him in on its import) said, 'Wow, that's really cool.' I said, 'Yeah, that is.'"
McNaul and Johnson started on the outside for the first unit on Saturday with sophomore David Nwabuisi in the middle. Redshirt freshman Damien Proby was in the middle for the second unit with sophomore Roderick Goodlow and redshirt freshman Tim Riley on the flanks. Proby, with an interception in the scrimmage, was asked about first. "He's had a really good spring, a really good spring," said Fitzgerald. "It was funny. Nick Roach (a former linebacker now with the Bears) was here today and I said, 'Watch 46. He reminds me a lot of you. The difference is you're in the NFL and he's a freshman.' So there's a lot of room for growth, but a lot of similarities in their games."
Can he play on the outside when Williams returns?
"We like him right now in the middle. He's bright enough to play any of the three positions. We thought last year, as he was going through his redshirt year, we moved all those guys around. But he was so instinctual finding the football, we wanted to keep him in the box more times than not. So far so good. I like the spring he's had, Riley, Bryce McNaul's probably had the best spring out of that whole group at linebacker. Q Davie's been a little banged up. Nwabuisi's been a little banged up at the end of this week. And I felt Ben Johnson's had a good spring. It's a deep group."
AND THE GOOD
Those linebackers catalyzed the defense early in Saturday's scrimmage and, in its opening three possessions, the first offensive unit managed to pick up only 37 yards. But then it found itself and, by the end, both it and the second unit had scored a pair of touchdowns. "That just speaks to us not coming out ready to play right away," quarterback Dan Persa said when asked about his group's early ills. "That will get us in trouble in a game. We came out a little slow."
How is that corrected?
"In the lockerroom, getting everyone going before the game, just talking to people. I think that's on me."
Is that kind of slow start a concern, Fitzgerald was later asked.
"No. It's spring practice. No. No," he said. "I think it's more important that Danny was able to realize (the situation) and I thought when he and (second-team quarterback) Evan (Watkins) came back off a couple of series, I thought the way they were talking on the field was outstanding."
What were they saying?
"Just encouraging guys, picking them up, helping them have situational awareness. 'Let's go. Second down. Expect this, expect that.' It's one thing to lead yourself. It's another thing to speak up and lead others. It shows you know what you're doing, you're confident."
They are called superbacks, which means they must catch like wide receivers and block like rugged fullbacks, and one of them, Drake Dunsmore, ended the Outback Bowl with nine catches for 120 yards and a touchdown. He is sitting out the spring while recovering from shoulder surgery. But senior Josh Rooks and redshirt freshman John Plasencia, two others of this strange breed, showed enough Saturday to auger that this position will have a big role in the 'Cat offense come fall.
"Definitely. Definitely," said Persa. "We got the ball out to Drake a lot last year. I think both John and Josh are going to get a lot more catches and Drake obviously. He's a pretty good weapon for us."
"We talk about players, formations and plays," said Fitzgerald. "We're going to identify our best 11 guys and our superbacks are pretty dynamic and we don't even have Drake out there right now. So definitely. I also like the spring (wide receiver Jeremy) Ebert's having, so where it's going to go and how it's going to shake out, competition will tell. That's what's exciting."
RUSHING: Jones 18-60, 1 TD; Schmidt 11-35; Jensen 1-22; Moulton 1-8; Persa 3-8; Simmons 3-6. Team totals: 37-139 (3.8 ypc).
PASSING: Persa 16-22, 126 yds., 2 TD's, 0 INT; Watkins 10-21, 99 yds, 1 TD, 2 INT's. Team totals: 26-43, 225 yds., 3 TD's, 2 INT's.
RECEIVING: Schmidt 6-28; Jensen 4-27; Ebert 3-54, 1 TD; Moulton 3-20, 1 TD; Rooks 3-27, 1 TD; Plasencia 2-46; Barber 2-12; Stewart 2-10; Simmons 1-1. Team totals: 26 rec. for 225 yds., 3 TD's.
INTERCEPTIONS (Defense): Proby 1, Arnold 1.
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