Aug. 7, 2003
EVANSTON, Ill. -- If experience and dealing with adversity means anything, then there is a good chance that Northwestern University's football program will have made significant strides when it kicks off the 2003 season Aug. 30 at Kansas.
On Thursday, the Wildcats held their annual Media Day following a full practice. Once the 'Cats finished taking photographs and conducting interviews, they packed their bags and headed to Kenosha, Wis., where they will hold their practices for the next 12 days.
One of the highlights of the day was the unveiling of Northwestern's new uniforms. The 'Cats were dressed in purple jerseys and purple pants for their photographs.
Northwestern returns eight offensive starters, nine defensive starters and all but one of their specialists. Despite the numerous veterans who are back in the fold, the 2003 'Cats will still be a young group: only 10 seniors are listed on a roster that will tout 100 players come August.
"We have a lot of guys coming back and several who have played a lot of minutes," says Northwestern head coach Randy Walker. "But we're still young. We played a lot of freshmen and sophomores last year that still have two or three years of playing time ahead of them."
Playing his underclassmen was the silver lining in last year's 3-9 season, and Walker is hoping the extra snaps pay dividends sooner rather than later.
"We've made some of the strides you need to make in the off-season program: the running, lifting, strength gains and size gains," he says. "Ultimately, though, we have to play better football. It was a bigger concern that we just didn't play as effectively as we needed to last year. Now we need to continue to grow as an offense and defense, master the techniques and become better football players."
While the Wildcat offense will receive its customary off-season adjustment, it is the defense that is garnering the most out-of-season attention. Last year, Northwestern allowed 502.3 yards per game (313.6 ypg on the ground) and 41.1 points per game.
"Quite frankly, we haven't had the type of defense I've wanted to have since I came to Northwestern," says Walker. "We have to get better. We're looking at a lot of things. Last year, we played a front seven that was full of freshmen and sophomores a majority of the time. How much better are they going to play? That's where off-season improvements in strength and conditioning and attitude come into play. Are the lessons we learned, and the bitter pill we had to swallow at times last year, going to make a difference in 2003?"
Time will tell, but the Wildcats expect to receive a boost with the return of 2002 preseason All-Big Ten candidate Pat Durr, who suffered a season-ending knee injury on the sixth play of the season-opening game at Air Force. Durr, the Wildcats' starting middle linebacker and defensive leader, received a medical hardship for the 2002 season and will have one more year with the 'Cats.
"Pat is a solid linebacker, but an even better leader," says Walker. "His rehab has gone great. If we get him back to where he was a year ago, we'll be taking a step in the right direction."
With the "tough go" the defense endured in 2002, Walker says the Wildcats will stay committed to the new scheme they unveiled a year ago.
"There was a lot of learning going on last year," says Walker. "Now it's time to master what they've been taught."
Offensively, the Wildcats have fewer questions than they did a year ago. With quarterback Brett Basanez and running back Jason Wright spearheading the attack, Walker is comfortable with the offense. Basanez earned third-team freshman All-America honors from The Sporting News, while Wright was a first-team Verizon Academic All-America and an honorable mention All-Big Ten running back.
"We learned some things as the season unfolded, and discovered we had a great situation at quarterback," says Walker. "The emergence of Jason Wright was critical for us and he really gave us some things that we haven't had in awhile, as did Noah Herron. I like what both of those guys mean to us."
Northwestern's offense figures to be improved with so many experienced skill players returning, including a talented group of receivers. If the Wildcats can successfully replace center Austin King and guard Jeff Roehl, and they stay healthy in 2003, then Northwestern could return to the top of the Big Ten in total offense, where it was positioned in 2000 and 2001.