- Adam Rittenberg, ESPN Staff Writer
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Spring football is under way at Northwestern, which returned to the practice field Saturday. The Wildcats say goodbye to a decorated senior class, which included quarterback Dan Persa, and must fill several key spots on both sides of the ball. Head coach Pat Fitzgerald has an emphasis on learning and fostering new chemistry on the team, as the Wildcats' leadership features several new faces. The 2012 season will be crucial for Northwestern, which has reached four consecutive bowl games but also seen its wins total drop every year since 2008.
ESPN.com recently caught up with Fitzgerald. Here are his thoughts:
What have been some of your emphasis points from the end of the bowl game and your objectives in spring ball?
Pat Fitzgerald: Every year you look for ways you can improve and build upon your past, but it's always a new team. Obviously, we've got a lot of young men that graduated who were very dynamic for us over the last four years, multiyear starters who laid a tremendous foundation of success for our program. Now you have to come together with this team and number one, we want to build better chemistry with this team. Eight of our 12 leadership council members, it's their first year, so it's kind of indicative of trying to forge the chemistry, player to player.
Is it a better chemistry or a new chemistry?
PF: Every time you get to the offseason, you fall into that trap, is it better or worse? More importantly, it's always new. It's new guys jelling, guys assuming new roles and the natural progression. The guys have done a tremendous job. I look forward to watching to see how we do when somebody punches you back in football.
Were you surprised at how last season turned out? Some guys were talking about contending for a Big Ten title and you end up at 6-7.
PF: Well, we had a tough five-game stretch. That overshadows anything else that we did. What we look at it is we stayed the course and fought through it. You can point back to multiple plays and calls on our end and what we did schematically as coaches, you vet through all that stuff and you look at how close we were. It's easy to point blame and point fingers. It's more important to create some solutions and through that, you always start with the way you're teaching and coaching, and what you're asking guys to do schematically. Are we playing to their strengths? Because of maybe a little youth and inexperience, are we asking them to try to do too much? And I thought we adjusted. Obviously, you don't want to go through what we went through, and it was our fault. You look back and say, we adjusted, but did we adjust fast enough? Hindsight's always 20-20, but you learn from it, you grow and then you educate the guys on why it happened and how we're going to be stronger moving forward. What did we win, four of our last six games? So we finished strong. Obviously, you'd love to have back the last one here at home. And in the bowl game, we played two really good quarters and two quarters that beat ourselves, so we've got a lot to learn from. I wouldn't say I was surprised. No matter what you predict, you never know how it's going to go.
What are some things you can do at this time of year from a communication standpoint, from a learning-the-game standpoint or a schematic standpoint to remedy some of the things?
PF: Absolutely. We've taken the approach of Football 101 this whole offseason. Not only what we're doing schematically, but why we have things structured the way we do, going deeper into the why we do what we do to help guys understand and appreciate conceptually what we're trying to achieve as a program. Same thing schematically in all three phases. And then to build the team and build the chemistry. We've got to have a lot of things much further along at the end of spring ball. Then we've got to take another step at the end of the school year and in the summer.
How do you emphasize the why more? Not just what you're doing but why you're doing it.
PF: Every resource you have capable of a teaching tool, you use. Each guy learns a little bit differently. Some guys can look at it on paper and get it. Most guys have to look at it on paper, see it on video, walk through it, go experience it, learn from it, fail at it, do well at it. It's a process. It's not just one cookie-cutter way to do it. You've got your structure, but then you've got to adjust it based on the way guys are picking it up. And as a teacher, you always have to make sure what you're doing is productive and you're seeing the result equal what you believe you're teaching.
What do you want to see out of your quarterbacks in spring ball?
PF: Number one, I want to see them improve from where we were at the last time we were with them. All three guys were involved with bowl practice and all three guys improved throughout that month. I want to see them lead the offense. I want to see them manage what we do and how we want to do things as far as schematics. And then I want to see them take over the leadership of the team.
Kain [Colter] obviously has played more than the others. What are you looking for from him in the spring to emerge as the next guy?
PF: Number one, let's focus on what's important and that's for him to go out and fundamentally execute. There's no, 'You're the starter, all of a sudden everything changes.' So obviously let's go out and fundamentally execute and improve on the things we identify after watching the cutups. Going through bowl prep, there are some little mechanical things he's got to work on. And as a quarterback, when he gets on the field he has to make all 10 around him better. When you look at him, he's got that personality that guys just want to be around Kain. He's got a great attitude, he's very driven, he's very focused but still he's got a lot of compassion. He's just a great teammate. And then you watch the experience Trevor [Siemian] had last year. Those two guys will be a little bit further ahead, especially early, than Zack [Oliver], just because of their experience level.
Defensively, what are some areas you feel that need to be improved?
PF: Obviously, looking back to a year ago, it's limiting explosion plays by communicating and [being better] technically and execution sound. Being better on third down, especially third-and-medium, where we've been really good in the past, and same thing with our pressure totals. We took a step backwards in all those areas. Up until the last two games of 2010, we were actually statistically better in a lot of areas on defense. We've got a lot to build from. We've got some solid experience coming back, and some guys stepping up as leaders, especially up front with three guys who have played a lot for us. A couple of them are young, Quentin Williams and Tyler Scott, and Brian Arnfelt. The linebackers, David Nwabuisi has played a lot of ball for us, and Damien Proby. And I'm very pleased with the steps that Ibraheim Campbell made a year ago. The last thing is continuing to work hard to create turnovers.
Ibraheim comes back in the secondary but you lose three starters there. Who do you look at to emerge there, especially at cornerback?
PF: We've got great competition there. You look at a group of guys coming back who have played a lot of ball for us in different roles. As you look at the group, Demetrius Dugar and DJ, Daniel Jones, who have started games for us. We're really excited about a couple of our younger guys, Nick VanHoose and C.J. Bryant, who has been a role player in the kicking game. And the same thing with Jarrell Williams, who we redshirted last year like Nick, who we think is an explosive athlete.
Kain told me he thinks you'll be a more athletic team overall. Do you see that potential?
PF: Yeah, I think we've recruited well, and we take pride in the way we develop our guys. I feel we've got pretty solid athleticism top to bottom. Now we've just got to develop that depth. You'd hope by toward the end of spring, you'd start to have some guys work toward solidifying some starting jobs at least for the start of camp. And then you hope you solidify that depth for the long haul in Big Ten play. We have 26 guys graduating, 21 guys we signed, 22 with Kyle [Prater] and our walk-on class coming in. So we'll look very different in the fall than we do in the spring.
What's the status of Kyle's NCAA waiver?
PF: We really can't proceed until he matriculates into school, until we start spring quarter. Nothing is going to move forward until he gets into class, he gets going, all that stuff. Is there a goal to have it done by the end of spring? No. The goal is to work through it, to vet it and work with Kyle and his family and then the NCAA. The priority now is he's going to a new school, so get him to class, get him into a new dorm, here's the lay of the land. Those things are all much more important, get him healthy, make sure everything checks out. I obviously want to have [the waiver process] done by August.
What do you want to learn about this team by the end of the spring?
PF: The big thing is I want to see us execute through better teaching. I want to see more consistency and execution, and there's multiple parts there, communication, technique, and then obviously the overall execution. I want to see the chemistry in a better place April 14 than we are today from being tested through football. And I want to get stronger. We're going to continue to work hard in the weight room and continue to do the things you have to do. But our priority right now is just to increase our football knowledge, our schematic knowledge and then obviously our knowledge of each other.