July 25, 2014
On Monday, Pat Fitzgerald meets with the nation's press at the Big Ten's annual football media day, ready to discuss what will be his ninth season as head coach of the Wildcats. Before fulfilling that obligation, he sat down for a discussion with NUsports.com Special Contributor Skip Myslenski, who initially wondered if it had been an especially long offseason for him.
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"By the pure (length of) time of not playing, yeah, absolutely. Our expectation is to compete for championships and to play in the postseason, and for five of the last six years, we've done that. It was a five-year run, I thought we earned those opportunities, and unfortunately last year, we didn't earn it. So it was definitely great to get to football and spring practice, and I think the guys feel the same way."
We were thinking more in terms of just wanting to get back to games so you could wipe away the bad memories of last season.
"I don't think it has anything to do with that. What I mean by that is we've worked to solve the issues we had last year and moved on. I look forward to (Monday) being over like I did last year. I was looking forward (last year) to not answering any(more) questions about 2012. . . I'll get asked so many questions about last year by national media this week, but this team is so far along, we're beyond that. I get it. I understand that's part of the whole exercise. Typically, for the national media, their snapshot is, `What did you do for me last fall?' But this is a completely different team. I know the guys are excited to get back to playing football, to get back to our standard, to get back to our expectations. We've got to go out and earn it again. This (the questioning), I guess, is just the necessary first step in the process (that builds to) the fall. But, with us, this process has been going on since we got back together in January."
Not to belabor last year, but you mentioned that you solved some issues. Can you enumerate them?
"From a more macro standpoint as a program, we obviously didn't respond well to adversity a year ago. That had been one of the standards, one of the things we value here, is the ability to respond, and collectively we failed at that. That's why we stayed home, that's why we didn't achieve the success we needed to achieve to put ourselves in contention to win a championship, in contention for the post-season. It's disappointing, but it's great lessons learned and I think our guys realize that. It's always easy to be a surrogate leader and give of yourself when it's 72 degrees and sunny with a nice cool breeze. But for some of our guys that was the first time they experienced that kind of overall adversity, and we didn't handle it very well. Ultimately, that's my responsibility. We're trying to get that fixed. I think the guys did a really good job of reestablishing what our standards are internally in the locker room, first and foremost. We've been working through, in different phases (during the off-season), reestablishing our standards and what we expect as a program. But it really all kind of comes together for the team in camp because you have everybody here. So that's the next step."
What do you like about this team?
"I like the ownership of a diverse group of leaders. Offensively, up front, I really think (tackle Paul) Jorgensen and (center Brandon) Vitabile have done a terrific job of leading. I think the receiving group is a little bit more by committee, but I like what Christian Jones and Kyle Prater have done. There's a lot of different leadership there. I like what I've seen from our older guys in the running back room, and I definitely think (quarterback) Trevor Siemian has stepped up as the leader of our team and also the leader of our offense. Defensively, there's no doubt linemen Sean McEvilly and Deonte Gibson have stepped up big time from a leadership standpoint. At linebacker, Collin Ellis has done a really good job, and the back half, Traveon Henry and Ibraheim Campbell have done a great job. So it's a pretty diverse group."
Diverse in their approach, in their personalities...?
"I think diverse as far as more than one, or more than two. Especially offensively. Last year we had A dynamic leader or two, but we didn't have enough. And then, when adversity struck, and maybe that guy's role changed, or maybe somebody else had to fill in the void, we didn't have the leadership we needed. That's beyond my opinion. You read what guys said at spring practice. So they identified that and they've worked hard to correct it -- most importantly, together. I think that's what is. Not necessarily the diversity side, but that glue is what I've liked in what I've seen. They've really worked hard together -- positionally; opposite sides of the ball; the older guys are doing a terrific job being surrogate leaders and teaching our young guys what to do and how to do it. So I think we're trending in a very positive direction. . . Now the challenge is when we start playing football."
You mentioned Trevor. How banged up was he last year and how is he now?
"He was definitely limited physically. We came out of the Wisconsin game, that's when he got dinged up, he could barely walk on the field. I would think for the next month, month-and-half, he was dealing with that, and was finally as healthy as he had been in the Illinois game. You've got a guy who's thrown for over 3,500 yards and over 20 touchdowns -- that's more than (Mike) Kafka, (Dan) Persa had going into their senior years. So he's as experienced a quarterback, as proficient a quarterback as we've had. Obviously we'll play to his strengths and things of that nature. He's done a really good job."
We know you don't hand out jobs in July. But it sounds as if the job's his.
"He's our quarterback. He's our quarterback."
With Kain (Colter) gone, has he blossomed as a leader, as a performer?
"I think -- what's the old saying? When you have two quarterbacks you don't have one. From a leadership standpoint, obviously, I think those guys complemented each other well with very different styles. Not one better than the other. But I definitely think, through graduation, there's no two anymore, there's one. That has obviously benefitted Trevor. It's given him the opportunity to probably be-- instead of saying something and thinking, `I wonder how Kain perceives that?' Now it's, `This is mine. This is mine.'"
And Venric Mark, the running back who missed virtually all of last season with injuries?
"He's trending to be ready to go for the season and things are moving in a positive direction."
And Dan Vitale is set at superback?
"I really liked the spring Jayme Taylor (a 6-foot-4, 225 pound redshirt freshman) had though. I think Jayme's a guy who's definitely going to be in the mix for playing time. I really like that group. Mark Szott (a 6-foot-4, 250 pound junior). That's a blue-collar, hard-working group now. I really like that whole group, those guys will find different roles. Danny gets all the pub. But the whole group is a blue-collar, hard-working group of guys."
Then the guys up front, who make an offense go?
"We've got really good competition there. I feel good with Brandon at center, obviously. I think Paul's come into his own. Same thing with Geoff Mogus. Then, on the other side, if we're starting today, it's Matt Frazier and competition between Jack (Konopka) and Eric (Olson). Then the rest of the group, we've got really good competition. . . We've got pretty good depth there and, most importantly, we're a lot stronger. We're a lot stronger. Overall, as a program, we had about 170, give or take, personal records in the weight room in the three major lifts.
"We thought two years ago, when most of these guys (in the line) on both sides of the ball were recruited, it was going to take them about 18 months to two years to get their functional strength where it needed to be. Now it's time to see the fruit of that labor. They've gotten much stronger on both sides. You win football games in the trenches and we weren't strong enough out there on either side of the ball last year. It was a work in progress and I'm really proud of what both sides of the ball have done getting stronger. Football is a trench game. You've got to win the trenches to win the game, and we didn't win consistently enough up there a year ago on either side of the ball. We're going to better there this year."
But don't you have some trepidation since so many of the defensive linemen missed spring ball while rehabbing from procedures?
"Not as much as last year since most of those guys have played. Max Chapman was out, but he's played a ton of football for us. Sean McEvilly was out, and he's played a ton of football for us. Deonte Gibson's played a ton of football for us. And they've all gotten stronger, they've all gotten in better shape, they've all been cleared pretty quickly after spring practice to be full-go. A couple are a little limited. But that whole group is ready to go."
And you ended spring liking Collin (now at middle linebacker) as the quarterback of you defense.
"I think Collin and Ibraheim. I think those two guys are going to be the quarterbacks of the defense. You need both. To be great defensively, you need a catcher, pitcher and center fielder, right? One of those linebackers has to be your pitcher, and one of those DBs has to be your center fielder -- not that Ibs is going to play free safety. But those two guys are the ones who are going to lead our back seven."
And your catcher?
"I'd say Sean and Deonte."
Which leaves the DBs.
"Lot of competition, lot of talent. . . Solid depth. As athletic as we've been. But that group's got to be more physical. That was one of the things we set out for them in the off-season. Our linebackers, with their fits and where they belong in the run games, they've got to be more physical. And our secondary's got to be more physical. Then we've got to make -- we were in position in a lot of games where we ended up on the short end to make plays in the fourth quarter. We've got to execute better back there. There was a lot of positives from our defense last year. But that one area along with explosive plays -- there were very few missed assignments. It was more a lack of execution and technique and fundamentals or making the play when you're there to make the play. We've to get our guys confident in that situation and we've worked hard at that."
You've used the term physical often...
"Yeah. If you want to win the west in the Big Ten, you've got to be a physical football team. You've got to run the ball and stop the run, first and foremost. You look at our [division] with Wisconsin and Iowa and Minnesota and Purdue, they have a lot of two-back principles in their offense. . . Nebraska was a physical, physical football team when we played them. That's what you've got to do to win our division, especially on defense. We've got to be better in the belly of our defense. Our guys know that. It all starts and ends there."
So is it fair to say the point of emphasis in the off-season was getting stronger, getting more physical?
Coach Fitzgerald is scheduled to lead off Big Ten Football Media Day on Monday (July 28) at the Hilton Chicago. Watch Fitzgerald's press conference live on Big Ten Network at 9:30 a.m. CT and stay tuned for more coverage of Big Ten football throughout the day.
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