Aug. 8, 2013
Multimedia Recap: Chicago Turns Its Attention to the 'Cats
Outtakes from that annual ritual known as Football Media Day, which the 'Cats hosted late Thursday morning. . .
* We first heard the term last summer when the 'Cats spent their day at the beach with the Navy SEALS. "Embrace the suck!" their drill-masters would bark when the going got especially tough. Remember that as you read this from running back Venric Mark, who has been asked how they balance their long-term goal (the Rose Bowl) with their short-term goal (improving every day). "It's embracing the suck. That's what 5-0-3's all about," he said, referring also to the five minutes and three seconds that separated last year's team from the conference title game.
"I had to embrace that. Sometimes in games, football's about the team that goes that extra mile. Maybe taking that extra step to make the tackle. Maybe staying low-center. Maybe running through somebody, using a stiff arm. Maybe not running through somebody, stopping and juking. Basically, we've come in with this mentality of being the killer instead of being the hunted. Being the hunter, per se. That's something that hit home with everybody and, when you think about it, it is kind of true. `Oh. We're (just) playing Northwestern,' even though we didn't think about it that way.
"Internally, we know where we want to go. Externally people have high expectations, high expectations. Actually, we're not even listening to that. Internally, we know where we want to go. We feel like we're the hunter. So no matter what the people on the outside say, we have that mentality. You know, the games don't need to be 24-17. We just need to go out there and put up as many points as possible and stop the other team from scoring. That will show everyone in the nation who we really are."
*Mark's definition of that SEAL phrase: "It's time to go. `Embrace the suck' basically means that when you feel you have no more, really you've only used up 60 percent. You've still got 40 percent (left). Your mind will tell you you're tired, but your body can do more. So it's all about being mentally strong."
*It turns out Mark also first heard that term last summer. "After doing that Navy SEAL workout, I really embraced it," he said. "And I feel that's what kind of catapulted me into having a good year."
* Mark, of course, is a diminutive 5-foot-8, 175 pounds, which is why any number of folks not only looked down on him (pun intended). They also doubted him. That, in turn, produced a chip on his shoulder, which he would mention more than once during his breakout 2012 season. But now after breaking out, we wondered, is that piece of wood still there? "The chip still is on my shoulder and it's gotten a little bigger," he avowed. "People say I had a great year last year, but I think it was OK. I expect to do bigger and better things this year. And I feel, as a team, we're going where we need to go."
* Quite clearly, then, there is an air of confidence about these `Cats, a spring in their step and a swagger in their walk. Asked the root of that, Pat Fitzgerald would say: "They've had success on the field. They've had success together on the field. And they've sacrificed greatly off the field in preparing. Those things are kind of the foundational aspects of being a confident football team. Yeah, we've done it. I've experienced it. I've won big games. I've won big games on the road. I've won big games at home. We've had a big lead, kept it. We've had a big lead, lost it, came back, responded. All the things you have to go through as a player. I think that gives that entire group (of upperclassmen) great confidence."
"It's huge," agreed Tyler Scott, the fifth-year defensive end. "I've been through it all. I've seen us give up 70 points at Wisconsin. We didn't have the greatest games here and there. Then we succeed in the bowl game. But last year we also came up short in those few games that we lost. So we know it's (about) really focusing on those details, focusing on the moment, being able to push yourself both mentally and physically in those times that are critical. (Again, `Embrace the suck.') And knowing that every play matters. We saw that last year. One play here could have won us the game. It's taking that approach that every play matters, and work as hard as you can to succeed."
* Scott himself is renowned for his own work ethic. ("He's a first-to-show, last-to-go kind of guy. He brings his lunch pail everyday," Fitzgerald says of him.) His success is also a testament to that old-fashioned virtue and an example of what it can produce. "That is what I try to tell these young guys," he will say. "I wasn't a big recruit coming out of high school. Not many people knew where I was going to fall. I didn't play any defensive end in high school, didn't put my hand on the ground at all. I just try to tell them if you work hard and set goals and strive to be the best, you can succeed."
* Scott has succeeded so well that he led the Big Ten in sacks last season and enters this one on the Bronko Nagurski Award Watch List. (It goes to the nation's top defensive player.) "People have put those expectations on me," he said when asked about that. "But all those expectations have been inside, and the only way they're going to happen is working day by day, setting little goals here and there, working on things I need to improve on, and getting better everyday."
* Here is one last bit of proof that Tyler Scott is one of those admirable, old-fashioned types who believes that actions are more important than words. He does not have a Twitter account. "I'm not a very vocal guy. I don't have much to say. That's all I can say," he would explain. "I don't put myself out there. I like to do my work behind the scenes. That's me."
* Scott is not the only prominent `Cat who was an unheralded recruit. Another is super back Dan Vitale, who as a true freshman last season blossomed into one of their lethal offensive weapons. ("He was lower rated than I was coming out of high school. That's sad," Fitzgerald said of him, tweaking those rating services that drape stars on recruits.) So we had to wonder if he took some satisfaction from his sudden success. "Oh, yeah. Absolutely. It's a lot of fun," Vitale said with a soft chuckle. "Knowing I got to start as a true freshman, at least I hope sometimes that some coaches think, `Oh. We missed out on that kid.' But Coach Fitz, he made the right choice I think and I'm happy here."
* Few knew Dan Vitale when last season started. But after he caught seven passes for 82 yards in the `Cats Gator Bowl win, it was clear he was a nascent star. That means, of course, more attention this fall. "You know. We've talked about it," he said when asked about that. "One of our mottoes is to have the hunter mentality. Even though we've gone to greater heights than we've gone before, we still want to be on the hunt. We don't want to be the hunted. So now that defenses know (about me) I'll be on their radar, everything like that, and I need to accept that. I need to accept that challenge and do everything I can to win those battles. And I should be happy they're doing that. That means I'm a threat. So I'm excited about that. Absolutely."
* Vitale, by the way, is an economics major and this summer he took a course called Econometrics. "The math of econ," he obligingly explained when we looked at him quizzically.
* And finally, on a lighter note, Fitzgerald, when asked about his true freshmen:
"It gets really hard starting in about four hours. We have a lot in mentally. Practice is going to go up a notch today. Full pads go on tomorrow. We leave on Saturday for this place called Kenosha. Except for one guy who's from Kenosha, they have no idea what they're about to get into. We're there for nine days. And then they come back and go, `How old am I now? Am I 30?' One of the young men, I'm not going to say his name, at the end of our team meeting at night, we get done about 9:30, 9:45, the freshmen stay, (defensive backs coach) Jerry Brown and I teach them the fight song. One of the questions I always ask them is, `What have you learned today?' One of the guys, I'm not going to say his name because I don't want to embarrass him, he's like, `I've never been this sore.' And we don't even have pads on yet!"
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