Aug. 9, 2004
Thanks for being here today. We're off to a good start. Today is the first day we can practice. We ran the conditioning test this morning and then the hang clean. I'm excited to report that we had the highest percentage of guys pass the conditioning test since I've been here. Just watching it, and again without studying it very carefully, it's obvious the conditioning level was very good. The investment over the summer has been outstanding. They have arrived in great shape and are ready to play football. We also did the hang clean and made significant gains across the board. The way it looks is that we will have more members of the Iron Cat Club than ever before. The guys have done a great job not only in the weight room but also in their conditioning. If we had a weightlifting team or a track team, we'd be in great shape. We are, however, a football team and we're going to put the weights down and not concentrate on how we run on a track and start playing football this afternoon. My suspicion is that same investment that was made in the weight room and on the track has taken place on the field. We took the challenge to our guys about football being a 12-month game and just like anybody that plays sports today, you work at your trade year-round. There are things we had to do -- I'm looking forward to seeing where they have come in this regard as well. But I like the way we showed up. I like the way they arrived to camp. There's a certain kind of excitement and juice and energy. It's always fun the first day of camp. They're all glad to be back, they're all glad to see each other. There's just a lot of excitement and anticipation. Much like I said last week (at Big Ten Media Day), we feel like we have more answers this year and more people in place than maybe we've had, but we also have some question marks that we need to determine and identify. It's going to be fun today to go about identifying those things and hope to develop some answers in the next three weeks prior to going to Fort Worth.
Q: It seems like the offensive line is one of your answers, and not a question mark. Is that a correct assessment?
A: It is an answer and we feel really strongly about our offensive line. Those kids came along last year matured, started to learn to play together, which is critical for an offensive line. It is a real necessity to develop the second level of players. You really have something going of you have numbers six, seven and eight playing well. Last year I said I think maybe we have three or four guys. I'm pretty sure we have five offensive linemen ready to go today. But it would be nice to develop the next two or three guys and be able to play them. Great offensive lines have about eight guys that you can go to and rotate in there. That's our next direction there.
Q: Who is going to replace Jason Wright?
A: It will be interesting to watch -- Noah (Herron) comes in as a guy who's got a lot of background but he's been in different places as far as being the `bell cow' if you will of the backfield. He's taken leadership of that group and needs to express that. There are a lot of ways you do express that as a football player. We also have a bevy of young guys that are trying to find the next slot or the first slot and so it ought to be a lot of fun. We have some returning veterans in Nathan Shanks and Terrell Jordan that I think are going to give us some things that are going to be pretty good. But after Terrell and Nathan we have some freshmen that are unknown commodities. That's part of what camp is about as well. Let's figure out who those next guys will be or who is the guy perhaps and give them the chance to be productive as running backs.
Q: What's the status of your receiving corps?
A: It's good to begin and get the guys back healthy. That was a real liability at the end of the year last year. In the last half of the season we had some of our best players down and unable to play. Mark Philmore is back 100 percent. He was able to come back for the bowl game but missed most of the last half of the year. Ashton Aikens missed half of the season or more. So it will be good to get those guys back in the fray. We saw some freshmen that were redshirt freshmen in the spring. We saw some real positive signs. I'm excited about the kind of spring that Kim Thompson had. One spring does not a player make but he was very productive. In the spring scrimmage he had a big day and everybody got excited about it and I think he's excited about it. The silver lining to every dark cloud -- and there is always one -- is that we had some guys get some playing experience. Shaun Herbert and Brandon Horn and some other guys who got repetitions last year began to emerge and gained valuable experience. We think we have a better situation at receiver than a year ago. That group really needs to step up with force. At tight end, Taylor Jones got better and better and better and we might play him at tight end more. Erryn Cobb moved from linebacker to fullback. He's kind of a tight end, fullback kind of guy. He showed some really positive things and displayed positive things in the spring.
Q: With some talent at tight end and fullback, will you change your offense?
A: We really won't change our offense. We do what we do. We won't change playbooks as much as we change personnel.
Q: How has Brett Basanez done in the off-season?
A. He's had a great off-season. I've said this often in the last month or so. Fair or not fair, right or wrong, the quarterback position receives way too much credit when things go well, and way too much blame when it doesn't. He was the victim of the latter a great deal of time last year. And he did not go around and place blame or make excuses or all the wrong responses that some athletes make. Time will tell how good a football player Brett Basanez will be in this program. But I couldn't be happier of what he's done. He's made statements not only to himself, but also to his teammates. He's doing some things that are program things. Everyone works on his trade but it's another thing when he's one of the best performers in the weight room. That does not necessarily go with the job description of quarterback all the time. Weight room, quarterback -- he made it fit. He's taken a leadership role there. A great leadership role and the work that takes place in the off-season. He has to, and that's non-negotiable in his job. He's taken that well. If you see him today, he's a different guy. He's not only different in maturity but just look at him -- he found out what a weight room looks like and put it to use. I'm proud of his involvement and his commitment.
Q: How important is it to get Ashton Aikens back?
A: Ashton -- as well as being a good player -- brings an important aspect to our football team. He's a great leader and a tough performer. He is that important for us. It would be good for him to be healthy. He gives us something off the football field -- a presence that makes a difference with your football team.
Q: How does your defensive line measure up to your offensive line?
A: Our defensive line might be as good or better. That's a strong statement, but I truly believe we can have a really solid front four. They are another group that had to grow up together and endure some tough times. Many of them went through some tough times as recently as two years ago. They took some really nice steps last year and now are poised and ready to take the final step and become something special. It's hard to get real excited jumping to eighth in total defense in the Big Ten, but when you're 11th four years in a row, that's a nice statement. It's the first step of what I think could be a group that takes itself to the upper half of the Big Ten. I'm being conservative with my estimates with what they can be. I have strong feelings about this group. You start with Luis Castillo. He has just become a very, very good football player. Two years ago -- he wasn't very good. Things were handed to him. I say often -- you do one or two things -- you keep taking it or you do something about it. He did something about it. He's a lot better football player today and he's taken some guys with him, which is even more important. You line him up with Loren Howard, Colby Clark, Barry Cofield, and then have some guys like Trevor Schultz, Ryan Keenan and David Thompson -- there's some depth there we haven't had in the past. They can be a pretty strong group of guys.
Q: How much will your number-one offense go up against your number-one defense during the preseason?
A: More than you probably think. We'll do a lot of 7-on-7 and 11-on-11 playing what we call `thud.' No one is on the ground and no one gets tackled. But they still get hit and we play fast. As far as actual one-on-one -- full go and taking guys to the ground -- not much. We don't do much of that anyway. We might spot a couple of situations here and there. Unlike in the NFL, I can't go make a trade or sign free agents, so we're a little cautious.
Q: Is this year's schedule the most challenging slate you've had since coming to Northwestern?
A: I've been asked that a lot lately. Last year's schedule was pretty demanding. Miami (Ohio), as you know, was one of the nation's best teams. They proved that to a lot of people last year. Kansas turned out to be a pretty good football team. After we beat them in the opener, they won six games and went to a bowl game. Air Force is always difficult to play. But I'm excited about the schedule. We have a great opener on national television against a TCU program that has been outstanding the past five or six years. We have two football teams coming to Ryan Field in Arizona State and Kansas, who both have legitimate bowl aspirations. It's going to be exciting to play some good football teams.
Q: How many quality players do you need to challenge for a Big Ten title?
A: It would be nice in the next three weeks if 14 or 15 guys emerge. To have a quality football team you need about 40 guys who can really play.You don't need 10 offensive linemen. Seven or eight would be good. You don't need 10 receivers. Five or six that can play would be pretty good. We're not there yet. Our front line -- I have a lot of confidence in what they could be. It's the next element that needs to take the next step. That's where we need to learn about this football team in the next couple of weeks.