Big Ten: Kevin Mims

Who will break out in the Big Ten?

February, 27, 2009
2/27/09
9:00
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Posted by ESPN.com's Adam Rittenberg

Sometimes, all a player needs is an opportunity.

And as several sizable senior classes and national award winners depart the Big Ten, there will be opportunities around the league this spring.

Here are five Big Ten players on the verge of breaking out. Obviously, there are other potential stars in the league, but these are five who came to mind.

Iowa defensive end Adrian Clayborn -- Clayborn could become one of the Big Ten's top pass rushers in 2009. He recorded eight tackles for loss, two sacks, three pass deflections and a forced fumble as a sophomore last fall, though defensive tackles Mitch King and Matt Kroul understandably got most of the credit. It will be tough not having King and Kroul inside to occupy offensive linemen, but Clayborn has the skills to bust out.

Ohio State wide receiver DeVier Posey -- Some wondered why the dynamic Posey didn't play much more as a true freshman, but he shouldn't have trouble seeing the field this fall. Boasting top-shelf speed and size, Posey could evolve into Ohio State's best big-play threat. It doesn't hurt that he's very good friends with starting quarterback Terrelle Pryor.

Northwestern defensive end Vince Browne -- Browne showed plenty of promise as a redshirt freshman, recording four sacks and 7.5 tackles for loss. He should step in seamlessly to the starting spot vacated by Kevin Mims and provide a viable end rusher opposite All-America candidate Corey Wootton. As Wootton recovers from knee surgery, Browne will take center stage in spring ball.

Michigan running back Brandon Minor -- The Wolverines' offensive struggles of 2008 are well documented, but Minor finished the season as one of the Big Ten's hottest running backs. Michigan mixed and matched for some time before Minor emerged as the top option, racking up 447 yards and seven touchdowns in his final five games. He should thrive in a featured role.

Wisconsin safety Jay Valai -- Valai established himself as one of the Big Ten's most ferocious hitters last fall. He should take the next step and become more of a complete player during the spring. Wisconsin loses its top defensive back in corner Allen Langford, and more of the burden will be on Valai, who recorded 56 tackles and three forced fumbles last year.

Posted by ESPN.com's Adam Rittenberg

The most important game Northwestern played took place months before the 2008 season opener against Syracuse.

In an effort to give his players greater ownership, Wildcats head coach Pat Fitzgerald restructured the offseason program, putting a competitive element into every team activity. Whether it was winter conditioning, spring practice, community service projects or academics, Northwestern players competed in the "Wildcat Games."

The roster divided into 10 mini teams -- each with a captain, each with a mixture of offense and defense and older and younger players -- and racked up points from the end of the 2007 season to the start of fall camp.

"It made it so there was less of a gap between older and younger or between classes or position groups," said senior defensive end Kevin Mims, whose "NU Elite" team finished third in the competition. "We talked as a leadership council at the beginning of the year and said there's a lot of division within this team. Say there's a young wide receiver, I almost never talked to him because he's in a different class than me, a different position group and a different side of the ball.

"So we tried to get groups of guys together that wouldn't usually get to know each other. Getting to know your teammates really helps when it comes down to crunch time."

Northwestern performed in crunch time this fall, going 5-1 in games decided by eight points or fewer. Despite having only one All-Big Ten performer (defensive end Corey Wootton) and losing key players to injuries, the Wildcats' newfound unity helped them win three of their final four games to finish 9-3.

Fitzgerald could tell the team's attitude was in the right place when it came time to present the reward for winning the "Wildcat Games." The winning team would be excused from the conditioning test on the first day of camp.

Wide receiver Eric Peterman, who captained the "Victorious Secret" team to victory, discussed the situation with his squad.

"I said, 'Look, we've put all this work into it. If you feel good and you feel like you can run the conditioning test, why don't we go ahead and do it?'" Peterman said. "It will make a step not only for our individual team but a step for this program in the right direction that we're going to go this extra mile. Even when we don't have to do certain activities, we're going to go the extra mile and do it."

Quarterback C.J. Bacher's team, which finished second, also had the option of skipping the conditioning test.

"They still wanted to run it," Fitzgerald said. "We had a hungry team and we needed to keep that hunger mentality."

Fitzgerald will continue the "Wildcat Games" program this offseason and underscored the importance of getting young players involved in competition, both during the season and in the offseason.

"That will be huge in keeping this momentum going," he said. "In 1995 and 1996, we had a lot of older guys playing and when we matriculated out of the program we didn't quite have the amount of young guys with the experience. There were also a lot of distractions off the field back then whereas now we have a lot of consistency and a clear vision in our program."

Official Big Ten Players of the Week

November, 24, 2008
11/24/08
11:06
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Posted by ESPN.com's Adam Rittenberg

Here's the official list from the league office. I got two out of four and mentioned a third (Curtis Painter) in my rundown.

CO-OFFENSE

Penn State QB Daryll Clark

Clark accounted for a career-high five touchdowns and 341 passing yards to lead Penn State to a win over Michigan State and a share of the Big Ten title. The junior quarterback completed 16 of 26 passes (61.5 percent) with a career-best four touchdowns and added a 1-yard rushing score against the Spartans. Clark averaged 21.3 yards per completion, connecting on throws of 70, 49, 37, 33 and 32 yards. The Ohio native opened the scoring with a 5-yard toss in the first quarter and his 1-yard touchdown run and 32-yard scoring strike in the second quarter pushed the hosts ahead 28-0. He added touchdown passes of 4 and 70 yards in the third quarter before sitting out the final stanza. Clark's 341-yard passing performance marked the most yards through the air for a PSU player since 2003 when Michael Robinson compiled 379 yards against Wisconsin.

Purdue QB Curtis Painter

In his final college football game, Painter set a season high with 448 passing yards and connected on five scoring strikes to lead Purdue to 62 points and give head coach Joe Tiller a victory in his last game on the sidelines. The senior quarterback equaled a career high with 38 completions on 54 attempts, connecting on 70.4 percent of his passes, and added an 18-yard reception to help the Boilermakers reclaim the Old Oaken Bucket. Painter tossed touchdowns to five different players in the game, including three scores in the first quarter as Purdue sprinted to a 24-0 lead. He added two more touchdown passes in the second half, the last of which made the final score 62-10, the largest margin of victory against Indiana since 1893 and tied for the biggest deficit in Ross-Ade Stadium history.

DEFENSE

Northwestern DE Kevin Mims

Mims equaled a season high with seven tackles, including 2.5 sacks, and forced a fumble to help hold Illinois' high-powered offense to a season-low 10 points and boost Northwestern to its ninth victory of the season. The Illini entered the game averaging a conference-best 440.3 yards of total offense per game but were held 113 yards below their season average by the Wildcats' defense. Mims' 2.5 sacks pushed the visitors back 14 yards as NU recorded five quarterback drops on the day. The senior defensive tackle added a key forced fumble in the fourth quarter as Illinois drove to midfield looking to cut into a 24-10 deficit. With less than eight minutes remaining, Mims broke through for the sack and knocked the ball loose to set up a short drive which led to a field goal and the final score of 27-10.

SPECIAL TEAMS

Iowa P Ryan Donahue

Donahue averaged 48.5 yards per punt and placed one inside the 20-yard line to help Iowa pick up a road victory at Minnesota. The sophomore punter booted four kicks for 194 yards, including a long of 57 yards. The Hawkeyes also collected a fumble on one of his punts which led to a short touchdown drive and a 34-0 lead. He has recorded at least one punt over 50 yards in eight of his last 10 games.

My Big Ten Player of the Week picks

November, 24, 2008
11/24/08
9:41
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Posted by ESPN.com's Adam Rittenberg

The league office will have its choices out in a few minutes, but here are my picks for the final round of Big Ten Players of the Week. There were a lot of strong candidates on the offensive side this week, making for a very tough decision.

OFFENSE

Penn State QB Daryll Clark -- After admittedly losing his confidence in recent weeks, Clark had his best game of the season against Michigan State. The junior passed for a career-high 341 yards and four touchdowns -- Penn State's first 300-yard passing performance since 2003 -- and added as rushing touchdowns as the Nittany Lions routed the Spartans to reach the Rose Bowl for the first time since the 1994 season. Purdue quarterback Curtis Painter (448 pass yards, 5 TDs) also deserves some recognition here.

DEFENSE

Northwestern DE Kevin Mims -- It took a team effort to squash Illinois, but Mims led the way with his best career performance on Senior Day. Mims racked up a career-best 2.5 sacks and forced a fumble that set up a fourth-quarter field goal. Special mention also goes to Iowa cornerback Amari Spievey and Hawkeyes safety Tyler Sash, both of whom had interception returns for more than 50 yards against Minnesota. Spievey had a 57-yard return for a touchdown with 27 seconds left in the first half, sparking Iowa to a 27-0 lead.

SPECIAL TEAMS

Ohio State WR Ray Small -- After a two-game suspension for violating team rules, Small made an impression in his first game back. With Ohio State leading Michigan 21-7 in the third quarter, the junior had an 80-yard punt return that set up another touchdown. Small ended the game with 110 yards on five punt returns.

Big Ten helmet stickers: Week 13

November, 23, 2008
11/23/08
9:00
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Posted by ESPN.com's Adam Rittenberg

Wow. A lot of big-time performances in the league this week, so a few more stickers than usual.

These guys saved their best for last.

Penn State QB Daryll Clark: As he promised, Clark got his swagger back in a big way against Michigan State. The junior passed for a career-high 341 yards and four touchdowns, marking Penn State's first 300-yard passing performance since Michael Robinson in 2003. Clark completed seven passes of 26 yards or longer as No. 8 Penn State crushed No. 15 Michigan State, 49-18, to reach the Rose Bowl. Penn State had a school-record 419 pass yards.

Purdue QB Curtis Painter: Painter ended a disappointing season on an extremely high note, completing 38 passes for 448 yards and five touchdowns in a 62-10 rout of Indiana. The fifth-year senior connected with five different players for touchdowns and moved into third place on the Big Ten's career list for total offense.

Iowa RB Shonn Greene: He capped a remarkable year by setting Iowa's single-season rushing record with 144 yards and two touchdowns in a 55-0 victory over Minnesota. Greene became the first back to eclipse 100 yards in all eight Big Ten games since Penn State's Curtis Enis in 1997. The junior should win the Doak Walker Award and might earn an invitation to New York for the Heisman Trophy ceremony.

Penn State WR Deon Butler: Butler had only three receptions, but all of them went for touchdowns, marking a career high. He had scoring receptions of 70, 59 and four yards and registered the third 100-yard game of his career (133 yards).

Iowa WR Derrell Johnson-Koulianos: Like many of his Hawkeyes teammates, Johnson-Koulianos had a huge night at the Metrodome, racking up seven receptions for 181 yards and a 29-yard touchdown in the third quarter. The sophomore came on strong in Iowa's final three regular-season games.

Northwestern defense: The Big Ten's most improved unit shut down the league's top offense, holding Illinois to a season-low 10 points in a 27-10 victory. Defensive end Kevin Mims (2.5 sacks, forced fumble) led the way as Northwestern held Illinois to 113 yards below its average.

Weighing in on other Big Ten games

November, 22, 2008
11/22/08
8:31
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Posted by ESPN.com's Adam Rittenberg

There were three other Big Ten teams in action this afternoon. It's time to weigh in on those games.

NORTHWESTERN 27, ILLINOIS 10

Northwestern always will fight an uphill battle for respect, but games like this and seasons like this go a long way toward changing the perception of this program. Listed as a home underdog despite three more victories than Illinois, the Wildcats made the oddsmakers look like fools with their most complete performance of the season. A defense that has completely turned around behind first-year coordinator Mike Hankwitz held the Big Ten's top offense to 335 yards and a season-low 10 points. Senior end Kevin Mims led the way on defense, while his classmate, senior quarterback C.J. Bacher, had arguably his best performance (22-for-33 passing, 220 yards, TD). The Wildcats (9-3) are one of the league's better stories and could be heading to a New Year's Day bowl.

Illinois is sort of like the Jackson family: extremely talented and extremely dysfunctional. Sure, the Illini lost some of the pillars from their Rose Bowl team (Rashard Mendenhall, J Leman, Kevin Mitchell). But to go 5-7 without major injuries? That's pathetic. It marks the second straight time Illinois has followed a Rose Bowl appearance with a bowl-less season (1984). That's a troubling history of not being able to sustain success, something head coach Ron Zook must change in the coming years. Quarterback Juice Williams still needs some seasoning, but Zook's main priority will be a defense that underperformed.

WISCONSIN 36, CAL POLY 35 (OT)

Did you hear the collective sigh of relief emanating from Camp Randall Stadium? A loss to Cal Poly probably wouldn't have kept Wisconsin out of a bowl game, but it would have added an embarrassing footnote to a somewhat disappointing season. Nothing against Cal Poly, an excellent offensive team. The Mustangs held the ball for nearly 40 minutes and converted 9 of 17 third downs. Wisconsin rallied behind running backs John Clay (107 rush yards, 2 TD) and P.J. Hill (59 rush yards, 2 TD), and prevailed in overtime, thanks to a missed extra point. The Badgers aren't very good and they've underachieved on both sides of the ball, but a 7-5 record, a bowl opportunity and wins in three of the final four games certainly take the sting off a season that fell short of expectations.

Posted by ESPN.com's Adam Rittenberg

Read these links and magically get smarter. 

Bielema described the quarterback situation this way:

"We made a directional move today and told our kids why we had to do it."

  • Iowa's offensive line includes a poet, a married guy and ... a Beanie Baby collector? The Iowa Press-Citizen's Andy Hamilton examines a motley crew.
  • Could Hawkeyes running back Shonn Greene be a decoy? If he helps the play-action pass, then absolutely, Eric Page writes in the Quad City Times.
  • The Big Ten Network's Dave Revsine thinks Ohio State should go back to Todd Boeckman at quarterback. 
  • Former Michigan coach Lloyd Carr isn't commenting on the sorry state of the Wolverines, but he has plenty of praise for longtime colleague Joe Paterno, Ron Musselman writes in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. Penn State's stellar season could let Paterno go out in style, Chris Dufresne writes in the Los Angeles Times. 
  • Ohio State tight end Rory Nicol certainly has a lot to say, and he recently called out the offensive line for their poor play, Tim May writes in The Columbus Dispatch. 
"He said, 'I didn't get to play [the past two weeks because of an ankle sprain], but I'm still [mad]. You guys, you look like a bunch of girls out there, and that's the truth,' " senior left tackle Alex Boone recalled.
  • Tailgaters, listen up. Northwestern defensive end Kevin Mims and his father started a company that can turn your vehicle into a tailgating paradise on Saturdays without losing its primary function the rest of the week, Jim O'Donnell writes in the Chicago Sun-Times.
  • Penn State has plenty of reasons to pile it on Saturday against Michigan, Bernard Fernandez writes in the Philadelphia Daily News. 

Posted by ESPN.com's Adam Rittenberg

The Week 1 depth charts are gradually coming out around the Big Ten. Here's a look at two.

INDIANA

  • As expected, no starting quarterback has been named for the Western Kentucky game. It will be Ben Chappell or incumbent Kellen Lewis.
  • Redshirt freshman Chris Adkins has won the second starting cornerback spot opposite Chris Phillips. Donnell Jones and Richard Council are the second-stringers.
  • Fifth-year senior Marcus Thigpen remains the starter at running back ahead of Bryan Payton and Demetrius McCray. Freshman Darius Willis isn't listed on the depth chart but coach Bill Lynch expects him to play this fall.
  • Florida transfer Jerimy Finch, cleared to play this season, is listed behind Austin Thomas as the second-string strong safety.
  • Sophomore Brad Martin is the starting tight end ahead of promising redshirt freshman Max Dedmond.
  • I was a little surprised not to see freshman wideout DaMarlo Belcher on the two-deep. He was the most impressive player at last Wednesday's practice and should see the field this fall.

NORTHWESTERN

  • The new-look starting offensive line reads as follows: left tackle Al Netter, left guard Keegan Kennedy, center Ben Burkett, right guard Joel Belding and right tackle Kurt Mattes. That means C.J. Bacher's blind side will be protected by a redshirt freshman (Netter) and a guy (Kennedy) who played the better part of three seasons at defensive tackle. It's a little scary, but Northwestern has been impressed with both players and especially Burkett at center.
  • Reserve wide receiver Jeremy Ebert is the lone true freshman on the two-deep -- a telling sign about Northwestern's returning experience. Ebert also will start at kickoff returner with Stephen Simmons. The Wildcats will start Eric Peterman, Ross Lane, Andrew Brewer and Rasheed Ward at the wide receiver spots.
  • Sophomore Josh Rooks has moved into the top spot at superback (tight end-fullback hybrid) after the season-ending knee injury to Drake Dunsmore. Junior Brendan Mitchell is behind Rooks.
  • Sophomore Corbin Bryant will start the Syracuse game at defensive tackle in place of suspended star John Gill. Bryant had five tackles last season.
  • Senior Kevin Mims holds a starting spot at defensive end ahead of hard-charging redshirt freshman Vince Browne.
  • Peterman will open the season as the starting punt returner ahead of safety Brendan Smith.

Posted by ESPN.com's Adam Rittenberg

EVANSTON, Ill. -- It starts with simple footwork, a six-inch step Northwestern defensive end Kevin Mims knows he needs to execute on every snap this fall.

Last season, in an effort to get Northwestern's underachieving defense on track, the coaches kept changing the footwork, the formations and the philosophies. When Mike Hankwitz took over the unit this winter, he brought a clear philosophy, one shaped at six previous stops as a defensive coordinator. 

"We were trying to make stuff work [last year], so we kept changing things up," Mims said. "But coach Hank came in and said, 'This is what we're doing,' and we're really excited about that. We get to come off with the same six-inch step every time, coming off and tackling the guy. Be attacking all the time instead of having some other stuff going on. It's really nice to have a focused point of attack." 

Head coach Pat Fitzgerald said Hankwitz, "brings a confidence to our defense."

"His resume speaks for itself," Mims said. "He has that national championship ring [with Colorado in 1990], he has all that experience, so there's no way we shouldn't listen to him." 

Despite having six defensive linemen with previous starting experience, Northwestern finished 10th in the Big Ten in sacks with only 18 last fall. The defense struggled to execute blitzes and finish off sacks, and it repeatedly got gashed for big plays, particularly in lopsided losses to Ohio State and Illinois.

Hankwitz, who spent the last two seasons as Wisconsin's defensive coordinator, is known for zone blitzing schemes that sprinkle in man blitzes. Though he'll shape his scheme around the new personnel, the goal is greater aggression. 

"Whether you're extremely quick or not, you still have to stunt to be disruptive," Hankwitz said. "In the spring I was trying to get a good feel of our personnel, but we still taught our things. This fall, we'll try to utilize the guys that are best blitzers, the best stunters, and put them in that role."

Hankwitz has been impressed with junior end Corey Wootton and senior tackle John Gill, who is suspened for the season opener. He's finally getting a live look at Mims and tackle Adam Hahn, who were injured this spring, and likes the line depth provided by Marshall Thomas, Corbin Bryant, Jack DiNardo and Vince Browne.

"I like our kids," he said. "We're going to make the best of what we have. We'd all like to have an All-American at every position, but we're not going to have that. But I like our attitude."

The players' ability to pick up the scheme could allow Hankwitz to call more defensive audibles this fall, but he doesn't want his defenders "too cerebral" where they outthink themselves on the field.

Safety Brendan Smith looks forward to the prospect of more blitzing this fall, but the players first have to earn Hankwitz's trust. 

"Every coach has blitzes and those schemes in their playbook," Smith said, "but if the players aren't playing fast and getting to the quarterback, then you look bad and then [opponents] are throwing it deep because there's not enough guys. So you've got to cut those out. But we have players that want to make plays and want to play fast. It gives coach the opportunity to open up his full playbook." 

Posted by ESPN.com's Adam Rittenberg

The rankings switch to the defenses today, and things begin up front. Like their offensive trench mates, defensive linemen are best graded as a unit, so that's where we'll start. But because there are so many standouts in the Big Ten, I'll follow-up with individual rankings for interior linemen and defensive ends. Examining the personnel at Penn State, Illinois, Ohio State, Michigan, Wisconsin and Iowa, defensive line is arguably the league's strongest position group.

Here's the rundown:

1. Penn State -- It's tight at the top, but the Nittany Lions get the nod with an experienced and talented group. Defensive ends Maurice Evans and Josh Gaines lead the way after combining for 26.5 tackles for loss and 16 sacks last season. Aaron Maybin provides depth at end, and the interior line features Jared Odrick, Ollie Ogbu and the reinstated Chris Baker.

2. Illinois -- Coach Ron Zook was extremely high on this group coming out of the spring, and for good reason. The Illini are stacked at end with All-Big Ten selection Will Davis, Derek Walker and Doug Pilcher. They must replace mainstay Chris Norwell at defensive tackle, but former walk-on David Lindquist comes off a strong 2007 in which he recorded 4.5 sacks.

3. Ohio State -- It's rare to see the Buckeyes outside of the top two, but they certainly have the talent to jump up the list. The main concern is the loss of defensive end Vernon Gholston, who tied for third nationally in sacks last fall. But the Buckeyes have a capable replacement in Lawrence Wilson, who returns after breaking his leg in the 2007 opener. Blossoming end Cameron Heyward helps the pass rush, and Ohio State has four capable interior linemen.

4. Michigan -- All four starters are back, and the line should be Michigan's strongest position group entering the season. End Brandon Graham had a strong summer after recording 8.5 sacks last season. He'll team with Tim Jamison to provide a formidable pass rush. The Wolverines will use multiple fronts but should operate mostly out of the 4-3, giving senior tackles Terrance Taylor and Will Johnson the chance to do damage.

5. Wisconsin -- Health and depth are the major questions entering camp, but there's little doubt the Badgers have loads of talent up front. End Matt Shaughnessy earned second-team all-conference honors last season and should have a stellar senior year if he recovers from a broken fibula. Senior tackles Jason Chapman and Mike Newkirk also come off injuries, as does end Kirk DeCremer, who recorded 5.5 sacks as a freshman.

6. Iowa -- The Hawkeyes boast the league's best interior line with senior tackles Mitch King and Matt Kroul. King has started the last 32 games, and Kroul's starts streak stands at 37. If Iowa can find disruptive pass rushers to bookend King and Kroul, it will shoot up the list. The spotlight will be on sophomores Christian Ballard and Adrian Clayborn, who had their moments as reserves last fall.

7. Indiana -- Greg Middleton headlines the group after leading the nation in sacks last season with 16. Indiana's challenges will be identifying a second pass-rushing threat and becoming sturdier against the run (159.7 ypg allowed in 2007). Junior end Jammie Kirlew recorded 12.5 tackles for loss and 4.5 sacks last season, numbers that should increase with the double-teams Middleton will draw. Senior Greg Brown and the Burrus twins (Keith and Kevin) must solidify the interior.

8. Purdue -- Cliff Avril's departure hurts, but the Boilermakers return several experienced players up front and could easily leapfrog some teams by the end of the season. Seniors Alex Magee and Ryan Baker could be the best defensive tackle tandem in coach Joe Tiller's tenure, and Keyon Brown finished last season with 2.5 sacks in the Motor City Bowl.

9. Michigan State -- I'd be surprised if Michigan State doesn't jump up the list, but it's hard to minimize the losses of standout ends Jonal Saint-Dic and Ervin Baldwin. Trevor Anderson, a transfer from Cincinnati, steps into one spot and gives the Spartans a proven pass rusher. Hopes are high for tackle Justin Kershaw in his senior season, and sophomores Antonio Jeremiah and Oren Wilson will compete at the other tackle spot.

10. Northwestern -- With four multiyear starters back for the fall, the Wildcats should be much higher on the list. But a disappointing 2007 season leaves the group with plenty to prove. Tackle John Gill is a fail-safe NFL prospect and 6-7 end Corey Wootton provides size on the edge, but the line simply doesn't make enough plays. Northwestern must finish off sacks after collecting only 18 last season, and senior end Kevin Mims must step up opposite Wootton.

11. Minnesota -- This will be a familiar spot for Gophers defenders until they prove otherwise. Minnesota generated a league-low 11 sacks last season and got gashed for 229.3 rushing yards per game. Defensive end Willie VanDeSteeg tries to regain his 2006 form (10 sacks) after a disappointing junior season. New coordinator Ted Roof must find two capable tackles and could look to the team's crop of junior-college transfers.

Posted by ESPN.com's Adam Rittenberg

 
 Jerry Lai-US PRESSWIRE
 Pat Fitzgerald took over a tough situation, but sees improvement from his squad regularly.

EVANSTON, Ill. -- The Northwestern football office is filled with memories from Pat Fitzgerald's playing career. Visitors are immediately greeted by one of his National Defensive Player of the Year trophies, and a display case several feet away holds several other awards given to the former Northwestern linebacker, who headlined the 1995 Rose Bowl team. More items are on the way when Fitzgerald gets enshrined into the College Football Hall of Fame next summer.

The Hall of Fame selection provided Fitzgerald the chance to reflect on his on-field accomplishments, but his focus has switched back to his current responsibilities. He wants to bring more hardware to Evanston, this time as a head coach. Northwestern underachieved in 2007, falling short of a bowl game, and Fitzgerald's missteps cost the team at times. Fitzgerald's legacy a player is undeniable, but he still has plenty to prove as a coach. No longer the novice who took over following the sudden death of Randy Walker, Fitzgerald understands the significance of this season.

After a family vacation to Florida during which he did not get a tan -- impossible, he claims -- Fitzgerald sat down last week to discuss the Hall of Fame, the upcoming season, his two new coordinators and his evolution as a coach.

How has your life changed since being selected for the Hall of Fame?

Pat Fitzgerald: (laughs) I don't know if it's changed at all. It's an incredible, humbling honor. Someone asked me what it meant to be on the ballot. I think it just shows how strong of a football team we had. My career in the NFL was not very long, probably the shortest of anybody being enshrined this year. So I look back to what we accomplished here and I look at this honor, and it's my name, but it's more of our team that's going to be inducted into the Hall of Fame.

You're obviously asked about that team a lot, but did this make you reminisce about it even more?

PF: As you get a little bit older, you look back at that time in your life and you really appreciate the experiences you went through and the people you were with. For me, still living it every day, still being here every day, I think about it almost daily. We had a little milestone with the 10-year reunion the last couple years, and hopefully for some of my teammates, this opportunity to celebrate our team will be an opportunity to reconnect again.

Given all the places you've been and the experiences you've have since then, does the Rose Bowl feel like a long time ago?

PF: Yeah, it does. So much has changed, not only for myself, but a lot of my teammates. Most of them are married now, most of them have children, so we've all taken another step in our lives, milestone-wise. It seems a little distant now. We need to get back.

Coaches talk about finding their voice. Do you think you've found your voice now more than before?

PF: I'm more set on what I want. Looking back to Year 1, there were things I felt strongly about, but now as we've gone through a couple years of it, I'm very confident in what I want to have. I'm excited about this year. We've got a lot of experience coming back, a lot of guys that have been around me and know what I expect. I think I'm doing a better job of articulating that.

With (quarterback) C.J. (Bacher), what's been the biggest difference in him, leadership-wise, from when he took over as the starter?

PF: He's confident. He's kind of run the whole gamut you go through at quarterback. He was the backup, watched a great player (Brett Basanez) have a great end to his career, got hurt, had to battle his way to a starting job, won it, we didn't have success, then got us to bowl eligibility last year, was not satisfied with that. Now he's poised to have a great year. He's worked hard, he's strong. I'm encouraged with where he's at.

Mick (McCall) is his third offensive coordinator in four years. How did it go with those two in spring practice?

PF: Mick came in with some automatic credibility to the development of two All-American quarterbacks (Josh Harris and Omar Jacobs) while he was at (Bowling Green). So C.J. was excited to work with a coach like that. Not that things weren't going great with Garrick (McGee), but to have this opportunity and to watch the job C.J. did, learning and growing, giving extra time to get to know coach McCall better, I'm excited where that relationship is right now.

Will fans notice dramatic differences with what you do on offense with Mick calling plays?

PF: Mick is smart enough and our offensive staff has got a good dynamic where they're not going to ask C.J. to do things he doesn't do very well and put him in an area where he's strong. I don't think it'll be dramatic. Will there be some nuances? Yeah.

More dramatic on the defensive side?

PF: Hopefully in being a little bit more successful, but from a scheme standpoint, we're trying to attack and be more aggressive. What does that mean? As we solidify that top 11, 12, 13, 14, 15 guys, what do they do best? I would assume we'll be four-down most of the year, based on where we're at health-wise right now and the strength of our defensive line. But who ends up being that nickel guy? Do we keep two linebackers in? Do we keep one linebacker in? Is it a corner? Is it a safety? Those are all left to be determined. But Mike Hankwitz has run just about everything you can run, so the flexibility in our system will give us an opportunity to be successful.

How beneficial has having him around been for you, as a young head coach?

PF: Both him and Mick. Mick's been a former head coach for a number of years, and for me, it's great to have those two guys in the room. I like being in a staff room where there's not a bunch of yes-men, where anything I say, they bobblehead, 'Yeah, yeah.' That's what I enjoyed the most about the spring, the challenge of being able to say, 'Do you have any ideas? We did this a certain way.' And they say, 'Well, OK, we did that a couple years ago, too.' To talk through those things, the growth that happens is tremendous.

Who needs to step up on that side of the ball?

PF: The experiences we had there are going to hopefully make us a better defense. You think of the experience up front, Corey Wootton being a multi-year starter, John Gill being a multi-year starter, Adam Hahn being a multi-year starter, Kevin Mims, as we sit here today, being a multi-year starter. And they're being pushed every day by the Vincent Brownes and the Corbin Bryants and the Marshall Thomases. I'm excited about that group, but that group needs to step up. We had good pressure last year. Now we need to finish the job. That's kind of indicative of our whole team. We had some games that we need to finish the job in and we didn't and stayed home for the holidays. At linebacker, Malcolm Arrington had a very solid spring. In the secondary, I'll rattle off more names than we've ever rattled off. (Brendan) Smith coming back off
injury and (Brad) Phillips, two guys that have made a lot of plays for us. They're going to be pushed by David Arnold, who we were going to play as a freshman but then got a little banged up. Same thing with Brian Peters. At corner, Sherrick (McManis) is being pushed by (Jordan) Mabin and (Mike) Bolden and then on the other side, you've got (David) Oredugba and (Justan) Vaughn fighting it out for a starting job. That's six names at corner. We've never had six names at corner of guys I feel confident about. We need to figure out which 11 pieces fit.

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