Nov. 24, 2010
By Skip Myslenski
NUsports.com Special Contributor
Mike Hankwitz, the 'Cat defensive coordinator: Coaches are not granted those luxuries hoarded by fans and by casual observers and, yes, even by humble scribblers. They must work always to make things right and cannot simply rage against the fates or debate questionable calls or, most relevant here, wonder aloud why numerous big nasties are such lethal tacklers one week, such inept tacklers the next. That, of course, has been the pattern of the 'Cat defense as it moved from Penn State (bad) to Iowa (superb) to Illinois (worse), and so we just have to ask Hankwitz -- who under his coach's garb, after all, is still a very-real human being -- if sometimes, sometimes in quiet moments, he wonders like us all, "What the heck is going on here?"
He smiles. "Oooohh. A little," he then says. "But that's part of coaching and every team's a little different. We're trying to teach this team what it takes to be successful all the time. But some students don't get it right away, so you've got to keep teachin' and keep preachin' and they'll get it if we give them the right message."
But is this group, well, driving him crazy?
This time he laughs. "We've been frustratingly inconsistent, yes," he now admits. "Saturday (against the Illini) it was boiled down to six plays or seven plays. But you can't give those up and be a good defense. We gave them over half their yards in, I think, eight plays. In 76 plays we play excellent defense. Well, that doesn't get it. We're not going to be good that way. Yeah. It was frustrating because we didn't play the same way as we did against Iowa. So we're trying to figure out why and go back to doing it that way. We are young in spots, and it's a journey. We're still working to get there. We know we can play excellent defense when we play like we're capable of. But we're not always doing that right now, and I think guys get frustrated. They're trying to do too much instead of just doing their job. So. Go back to work, try to get it right this week."
Pat Fitzgerald, the 'Cat head coach:
He not only operates under the same restrictions as Hankwitz. He also preaches that, after learning from them, mistakes must be flushed (his word) and forgotten. But he too is very much a human being and so we ask him as well if his team's inconsistency sometimes drives him nuts. "Yeah. Absolutely," he says. "But that's what happens when you have a lot of first-time starters and young guys. You look at Saturday's game. We put the ball on the ground four times in the first four series. (In the first three series, to be accurate, redshirt freshman quarterback Evan Watkins
lost a fumble; true freshman Venric Mark
had his fumble recovered by teammate Mike Trumpy
; true freshman Adonis Smith
lost a fumble; and Watkins was intercepted.) They're all by young guys. So. It's our job to encourage them, it's our job to coach them up, it's our job to get them to do the things we need to do to be successful. When we settle down, we're right back in the game on Saturday. So we're close. We're not there yet. This team's got a couple more opportunities to get there and put a full, clean game together. But we're just not there yet."
We now tell him that we know mistakes must be flushed, that nothing is solved by simply wondering why they occur. But we then ask if sometimes, sometimes in his quiet moments, he does wonder why.
"Well, yeah, absolutely. Yeah. When you're inconsistent the number one thing you've got to do is go back to As, Bs and Cs. Fundamentals, you know. Do the things that you stress the most, and trust and believe in yourself, and trust and believe in what you're trying to accomplish. I think sometimes when you're young, you revert back to bad habits. You lose focus, you revert back to bad habits, now all of a sudden you hit a little bit of a panic button. It takes us a little bit to get them to settle down. I thought our coaches handled it really well, I thought our kids handled it really well on Saturday. Things weren't going really well. 'Just settle down.' And I thought we came back. But, again. Two of our last three games, we haven't made any plays in the second half. So. There's not anything magical. I mean. We've got some things going on that you can't control (most crucially, the injury to quarterback Dan Persa). You've just got to deal with it, keep fighting through it."
So he ascribes much of his team's inconsistency to its inexperience?
"Yeah. Yeah. It's guys going through it for the first time. I wish, for some of them, they were just going through it in practice. But the reality is they're out there performing. They're giving everything they've got and that's all we can ask them. Just give everything you've got and we'll continue to do the best job we can to coach them and keep them confident."
Kain Colter, the 'Cat true freshman quarterback who saw brief duty against Illinois as the number two behind Watkins. "I think he's got as good jukes as anybody on the team," the superback Drake Dunsmore said of him on Monday.
"He's got some wiggles," the safety Brian Peters said of him as well.
So you are now Mr. Wiggles, we tell him.
He laughs and then explains, "Ever since I was little, I've been playing with my friends in the backyard, playing football, and we've always been competitive and I learned to practice my juke moves back then and they just carried onto today."
Did he pattern himself after anyone?
"I watched a lot of Michael Vick highlights, so I try to do that. He's a quarterback, I'm a quarterback, so a lot of things he does I try to carry over to the game."
Was he surprised that he played last Saturday?
"No. We knew I was going to go in. I was surprised that I only got four plays. But that's how it goes. Any way I can help the team, I'm willing to do it."
Will he play more Saturday at Wisconsin?
"Who knows. Depending on what (Wisconsin) throws at us, we're going to have to make some changes. We're just going to go with the flow and see what's working. But every week you've got to prepare to play. I'm getting number two reps. Evan's doing a great job. But I'm practicing hard, getting film work done, so if I have to go in the game, hopefully I can do well."
This stance recalls what Fitzgerald said of him, that "He's got a lot of swagger, he's got a lot of belief and confidence in himself, and that's what I like about him."
"I hope I have a swagger. That's something I take as a compliment," says Colter. "Whenever you step on the field you have to have a little confidence in yourself. To have that swagger, I feel that gives you an edge on your opponents."
Has it been hard, then, for him to wait his turn?
"Yeah. I've never sat in my whole life. A lot of freshmen haven't. So coming in here, sitting and watching, it's tough. You always want to get on the field. Unfortunately, Dan went down and my time had to come, so I jumped in the game."
How'd he feel when Dan went down?
"I was sad for Dan. You know, he's a great player and it looked like a serious injury from what I could see. So I was sad for him. But Coach Fitz is often talking about, when a soldier goes down, someone has to be there to pick up the rifle and start shooting. Evan and I have done that."
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