Big Ten: academic 0806

Posted by ESPN.com's Adam Rittenberg

As Northwestern endured a maddeningly inconsistent season last fall, the communication gap between players and coaches seemed to widen.

One high-ranking assistant told me toward the end of the season that he had run out of ideas for how to motivate his group. Multi-year starters regressed on defense, while a sink-or-swim offense put too much on the passing game after losing star running back Tyrell Sutton to an ankle injury in Week 2.

When head coach Pat Fitzgerald reviewed a disappointing 6-6 campaign, the 33-year-old elected to relinquish some control while increasing the competition level. Every element of Northwestern's offseason program -- from running to lifting to academics to community service -- had competition built into it. But the players were the ones driving the competition, splitting into 10 groups and electing leaders from every position group and academic class.

By successfully creating what he called "an environment of ownership," Fitzgerald got his players to bond better with one another and with the coaching staff, which included two new coordinators. The results are showing this fall, as Northwestern has started 5-0 for the first time in 46 years.

"There's a lot of things that are going the way we want it because we're taking control of this team," Sutton said. "The coaches are backing off and giving us a lot more control than we have in the past."

Competition remains a focal point, particularly on a defense that has transformed behind new coordinator Mike Hankwitz, ranking fifth nationally in sacks (3.4 per game) and ninth in scoring (12.4 ppg).

A line that boasted more career starts than notable plays has seen improvement from holdovers (Corey Wootton, John Gill) and newcomers (Vince Browne). Linebackers Malcolm Arrington and Quentin Davie are much improved and the secondary isn't a liability for the first time in years.

"Our guys have great confidence in each other," Fitzgerald said. "Through that competition, we've built trust. A lot of guys have stepped up."

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