EVANSTON, Ill. -- Head coach Pat Fitzgerald and the Northwestern Wildcats held their preseason media day Wednesday, and I was on hand for it. I'll have some blog posts and video interviews in the coming days, but first, some notes.
Fitzgerald confirmed that the team will practice Aug. 23 at Naval Station Great Lakes, the U.S. Navy's headquarters for training. Details are coming, but check out my post earlier this summer for more about the event. Great Lakes used to be a powerhouse in college football, and there are a ton of football connections there. The team will leave its off-site training camp in Kenosha, Wis., and practice at Great Lakes before returning to Evanston the night of the 23rd. "Hopefully, a great tradition is going to be started," Fitzgerald said.
I'll have more on All-Big Ten kicker Stefan Demos in the coming days, but his workload will be lighter this fall as Brandon Williams has emerged as a solid option at punter. Demos, who has battled hip problems, handled field goals, kickoffs and punting last season and also punted in 2007 and 2008. Although his rugby style worked at times, all involved are pleased to see Williams emerge. "Nobody wants me out there punting any more, that's for sure," Demos said. "Including me. ... I'm sure [Fitzgerald] is tired of being called the worst special-teams coach ever because he doesn't have a punter."
Speaking of special teams, true freshman Venric Mark already is marking his mark on punt returns. Although safety Hunter Bates, cornerback Jordan Mabin, wide receiver Charles Brown and another freshman, receiver Tony Jones, are also in the mix, I'd be surprised if Mark wasn't the starter. Stephen Simmons and Jacob Schmidt will continue to handle kickoff returns, Fitzgerald said.
Northwestern is much healthier now than it was a year ago and has been able to practice at a good clip. The team's slow start to 2009 could be attributed in part to being limited in preseason camp. "This will be my fifth year [as head coach], and this is the best-conditioned team we've had," Fitzgerald said. "We've pushed the tempo. We go six-minute periods, and we went in such a quick tempo, we finished with two and a half minutes left in our second set of team [drills]. That's going at it, especially with where the weather was at. ... It puts us in a position maybe to be a little more accelerated than we've been in the past." Fitzgerald added that the team's speed has been upgraded through recruiting.
The secondary loses three multiyear starters but has two spots locked up with cornerback Jordan Mabin and safety Brian Peters. Justan Vaughn, Demetrius Dugar and Mike Bolden will compete at the other corner spot, while Jared Carpenter and David Arnold are the candidates to line up next to Peters. Other position battles include outside linebacker (Bryce McNaul and Ben Johnson), right tackle (Patrick Ward and Neal Deiters) and offensive guard, where Doug Bartels, Keenan Grant and Brian Mulroe are competing for two starting spots.
The recent heat and humidity in northern Illinois is helping Northwestern prepare for nonconference road games in balmy Nashville (at Vanderbilt) and Houston (at Rice). Fitzgerald also said the team uses a service for potential hot-weather games that allows players to "plug in" to an air-conditioning unit on the sideline that provides cool air underneath their shoulder pads. Northwestern used the service for its game inside the Carrier Dome at Syracuse last September and at the Outback Bowl in Tampa on Jan. 1.