Big Ten: Quentin Williams
After topping the Big Ten takeaways chart last season with 29, Northwestern is tied with Michigan State for the league lead with eight through the first three games (tied for sixth nationally). All eight Wildcats takeaways have been interceptions, which leads the FBS, and they've converted them into 45 points.
Northwestern has 17 interceptions in its last six games, stretching back to last season, and junior safety Ibrahaim Campbell has picked off passes in each of the past five contests, a new team record. Linebacker Collin Ellis recorded two interceptions Aug. 31 in the season opener at, returning both for touchdowns and claiming national defensive player of the week honors.
"I don't know, maybe it's just a Chicago thing," Fitzgerald said following Tuesday's practice. "We're definitely inspired by [the Bears'] defense and really, we’ve pulled a lot of their plays off and given them as examples to the players."
The Bears led the NFL with 44 takeaways last season and were among the league leaders for much of former coach Lovie Smith's tenure. Even though Smith is gone, the Bears already have six takeaways in their first two games, tied for the second-most in the NFL.
Football coaches are known to go far and wide to find effective teaching tools for their players. Northwestern's staff simply looked "down the road," defensive coordinator Mike Hankwitz said, at what the Bears have been doing for years.
Last season, Northwestern defensive backs coach Jerry Brown had players watch video of Bears cornerback Charles "Peanut" Tillman forcing fumbles with his "Peanut punch" move. Tillman led the NFL with 10 forced fumbles last season and boasts 39 for his career.
"We took some highlights off TV and showed how they’re always punching at the ball," Hankwitz said. "And we did cause some fumbles. [Former safety Jared Carpenter] caused one, punching the ball out. Ibraheim caused two, punching the ball.
"Now that they see that it works, we're starting to build a little more of a takeaway culture."
Northwestern had at least one forced fumble in nine games last season, jarring the ball loose three times in wins against Vanderbilt and Minnesota. Campbell and three defensive linemen -- Tyler Scott, Quentin Williams and Brian Arnfelt -- all recorded multiple forced fumbles.
Hankwitz also started to mix coverages more as the season went along. The different looks, combined with increased pressure from the line, led to a surge of interceptions, including four in the Gator Bowl victory over Mississippi State.
"Like anything in life, you achieve what you emphasize," Fitzgerald said. "I don't want these high school coaches to think we're doing some magical turnover circuit or rubbing on the ball with some magic stick and all of a sudden it comes to us. It's just emphasizing it and making our guys aware up front to the quick game of, 'If you're not necessarily going to get home, get your hands up,' being aware of route progressions and where a quarterback may go."
Hankwitz credits Northwestern's linemen for getting their arms in passing lanes, noting that three interceptions this season stemmed from deflections, including both of Ellis' pick-sixes against Cal. Scott and fellow linemen Dean Lowry and Chance Carter already have combined for eight pass deflections.
The 5-foot-11, 205-pound Campbell has been the face of the team's takeaway surge. Although Hankwitz has coordinated defenses since 1982, he can't remember another one of his players recording interceptions in five straight games.
Campbell attributes the streak to simply maximizing his playmaking opportunities.
"With the time I’ve been playing, the game has slowed down tremendously," said the junior, in his third year as a starter. "I know what to look for more, and it's paid off a lot."
There's no doubt that takeaways can cover up yards allowed -- turnover margin is the game's most important metric -- but Campbell wants to tighten things up before Big Ten play begins Oct. 5 against Ohio State.
"If we have explosion plays going against us, a takeaway isn't going to make that go away," he said. "Those are still things we need to fix, but it obviously helps because you can’t have an explosion play if you don't have the ball."
Fitzgerald's goal is to have a defense built on "the complete and total commitment to taking the ball away." The Wildcats aren't there yet. Although takeaways for points seemed to rescue Northwestern at Cal, Fitzgerald was disappointed that the Wildcats couldn't corral three Cal fumbles. Western Michigan coughed up the ball last Saturday at Ryan Field, but Northwestern couldn't recover it.
Wildcats players will continue to think turnover, just like the Bears do.
"They’re great tacklers and everything like that, but they're excellent at taking the ball away," Campbell said. "That's something we're trying to create here.
"We’re right down the street from Chicago, so it would be a great thing to establish in the city."
This was one of the stronger position groups for the league throughout the season. You can see how we ranked them in the preseason here. You need both star power and depth to rate high, especially on units like these.
Here we go ...
2. Penn State (Preseason: 4): The Nittany Lions made up for the loss of 2011 defensive player of the year Devon Still quite nicely. Jordan Hill was playing as well as any league defensive tackle at the end of the year. Deion Barnes won freshman of the year honors for his havoc-inducing work off the edge. Penn State also had solid depth behind the starters and led the league in sacks.
3. Michigan State (Preseason: 2): The Spartans fielded the best defense in the Big Ten and were the toughest team to run against, and the defensive line was a big reason why. There was always a feeling that the linemen, especially William Gholston, could have created a few more negative plays. But overall, the line was really strong, with more depth and balance than sheer superstar power.
4. Wisconsin (Preseason: 8): The Badgers lacked a dominant pass rusher but were very stout up front and hard to run against. Beau Allen and Ethan Hemer did an excellent job of controlling the middle of the line of scrimmage, while David Gilbert and Brendan Kelly cleaned things up on the outside.
5. Northwestern (Preseason: 10): The Wildcats were one of the pleasant surprises among league defensive lines. They had the third-best rushing defense in the league and ranked fifth in sacks. Tyler Scott had a breakout year at defensive end, while Brian Arnfelt was an underrated defensive tackle. Quentin Williams had a pick six in the bowl game victory.
6. Michigan (Preseason: 7): This was a perfectly solid defensive line but not one that often grabbed your attention. Will Campbell finally fulfilled most of his promise as a starting defensive tackle, and Craig Roh was predictably reliable as a senior. But this unit lacked a dynamic playmaker, which is evident in the Wolverines' decent but not outstanding sack and rush-defense numbers.
7. Minnesota (Preseason: 12): A recent sore spot for the Gophers turned into more of a strength in 2012. Ra'Shede Hageman put his huge body to great use at defensive tackle, while D.L. Wilhite got off to a great start and finished with nine sacks. Minnesota's defense also had to carry a heavy load down the stretch as the offense struggled to stay on the field.
8. Nebraska (Preseason: 6): The Huskers' defensive line had its moments, and end Eric Martin emerged as a fearsome pass-rusher. Baker Steinkuhler's late-season injury hurt as he was playing really well inside, and Cam Meredith did his best to hold his ground there. But the memory of Wisconsin completely flattening Nebraska in the Big Ten title game prevents me from ranking this group any higher.
9. Purdue (Preseason: 3): We expected much more out of this group, with talents like Kawann Short, Bruce Gaston and Ryan Russell. And perhaps we are unfairly judging their performance because the unit struggled with injuries throughout the year. Still, Purdue was steamrolled by teams like Michigan, Wisconsin, Minnesota and Oklahoma State and simply didn't get enough out of its front four on a consistent basis.
10. Illinois (Preseason: 5): If there was a strength for the 2012 Illini -- and after a 2-10 season, we're not sure there was one -- it had to be the defensive line. Yet like Purdue, we expected more from a group that included athletes like Akeem Spence and Michael Buchanan, though they would have had to be superhuman to change their team's course.
11. Iowa (Preseason: 9): We feared for the Hawkeyes' youth in the preseason, but this group held together pretty well most of the year. The low ranking is in some ways a reflection of other teams playing better than expected. Yet Iowa's defensive line seemed to wear down late in the season, and the lack of any true studs was reflected in a Big Ten-worst 13 sacks in 12 games.
12. Indiana (Preseason: 11): The 2012 Hoosiers actually improved over 2011 on the defensive line but still finished last in the league in rush defense. Adam Replogle and Larry Black Jr. gave Indiana something to work with in the middle as two of the defense's rare veterans. But as it showed in the crucial Wisconsin game, this group still has a long way to go.
Now it's time to decide on which one was the best of the Big Ten bowls. Here are the candidates and their particulars:
- Minnesota CB Michael Carter: Carter had two interceptions, a pass breakup and seven tackles in Minnesota's 34-31 loss to Texas Tech in the Meineke Car Care Bowl of Texas.
- Michigan State RB Le'Veon Bell: Bell carried 32 times for 145 yards and a touchdown and also threw a pass for 29 yards in Michigan State's 17-16 win over TCU in the Buffalo Wild Wings Bowl.
- Nebraska RB Rex Burkhead: Burkhead ran 24 times for 140 yards and a touchdown and had four catches for 39 yards and a score in the Cornhuskers' 45-31 loss to Georgia in the Capital One Bowl.
- Michigan WR Jeremy Gallon: Gallon caught nine passes for 145 yards and two touchdowns in the Wolverines' 33-28 loss to South Carolina in the Outback Bowl.
- Northwestern DL Quentin Williams: We honored the Wildcats' secondary as a whole for our helmet stickers, but we'll go with Williams for this individual nomination. He had a pick-six, a sack and two tackles for loss in Northwestern's 34-20 win over Mississippi State in the Taxslayer.com Gator Bowl.
Which player had the best bowl showing? Vote now in our poll. (Tomorrow, we'll take at the best offensive and defensive units from the league's postseason).
- Minnesota CB Michael Carter: The Gophers senior had two interceptions, a pass break up and seven tackles in Minnesota's 34-31 loss to Texas Tech in the Meineke Car Care Bowl of Texas.
- Michigan State RB Le'Veon Bell: Playing in perhaps his final collegiate game, the Spartans junior once again carried the offense in a 17-16 win over TCU in the Buffalo Wild Wings Bowl. Bell carried 32 times for 145 yards and a touchdown and also threw a pass for 29 yards. He accounted for all but 53 of Michigan State's total yardage.
- Nebraska RB Rex Burkhead: The Huskers' defense struggled, but Burkhead was in beast mode in the 45-31 Capital One Bowl loss to Georgia. Fully healthy for the first time since the opener, Burkhead ran 24 times for 140 yards and a score, and he also had four catches for 39 yards and a touchdown. We can only imagine what kind of numbers he would have put up as a senior had he not dealt with a knee problem all year.
- Michigan WR Jeremy Gallon: The redshirt junior turned in a strong season-ending performance, catching nine passes for 145 yards and two touchdowns in the Wolverines' 33-28 loss to South Carolina in the Outback Bowl. He accounted for nearly 70 percent of Devin Gardner's passing yards.
- Northwestern's secondary: After some shaky moments in the regular season, the Wildcats' pass defense came up large in the 34-20 win over Mississippi State in the Taxslayer.com Gator Bowl. The Bulldogs threw for only 106 yards and were intercepted four times. Safety Jared Carpenter, who had 10 tackles, was named the game's MVP. Safety Ibraheim Campbell and cornerback Nick VanHoose also had picks. Add in defensive lineman's Quentin Williams' pick six and another interception by linebacker Chi Chi Ariguzo, and you have the recipe for Northwestern's first bowl victory since 1949.
The streak is over and the monkey is gone. Northwestern finally can celebrate a bowl win.
The Wildcats claimed their first postseason victory in 64 years after downing Mississippi State in the TaxSlayer.com Gator Bowl. Although the game didn't go as planned for either squad, Northwestern rode opportunistic defense (17 points off turnovers) and a big third quarter from Trevor Siemian to its first bowl win since the 1949 Rose. Surprisingly, there was little drama as Northwestern's defense clamped down.
Let's take a look at how it went down:
It was over when: Mississippi State quarterback Tyler Russell threw his fourth interception, a wounded duck on third-and-10, and Northwestern's Nick VanHoose returned the ball inside the red zone with 9:54 to play. Northwestern led by only seven at the time but scored three plays later to take a 14-point lead with 8:10 left. To truly seal the win, Wildcats defensive lineman Deonte Gibson dropped Russell on fourth-and-20 with 1:42 left.
Game ball goes to: Northwestern defensive ends Quentin Williams and Tyler Scott. Both of the Wildcats' top edge rushers stepped up in the bowl win. Williams set the tone for the game with an interception returned for a touchdown on the third play from scrimmage. He also had a sack and two tackles for loss, while Scott dropped Russell twice in the win.
Stat of the game: Both teams entered the game among the nation's best at taking care of the ball, but things changed in Jacksonville. The Wildcats and Bulldogs combined for seven turnovers, including three first-half interceptions by Mississippi State's Russell, who threw four picks after throwing just six in the regular season. Northwestern came in with just 12 giveaways, tied for sixth-fewest nationally, while Mississippi State had 13 giveaways (tied for ninth). Both teams ranked in the top 10 in turnover margin but looked sloppy with the ball.
Stat of the game II: Third-down efficiency played a huge part in the game, and Northwestern had a significant edge there. The Wildcats moved the chains 10 times on 19 third-down opportunities. The biggest conversion came with the game tied in the third quarter, when Siemian made a tough throw on the run to Rashad Lawrence to convert a third-and-10 in Wildcats territory. Northwestern scored the go-ahead touchdown three plays later. Mississippi State, meanwhile, was a mess on third down, converting just 1 of 11 chances.
Unsung hero: Northwestern freshman superback (tight end) Dan Vitale. Mississippi State's defense did a good job taking away Venric Mark and Kain Colter, but Vitale, a freshman, gashed the Bulldogs for seven receptions and 82 yards. He provided the receiving threat Northwestern needed against a good Bulldogs secondary.
What Northwestern learned: It can win a bowl game, for starters. After several near misses (2008 Alamo, 2010 Outback), Northwestern finally got over the hump in the postseason. Pat Fitzgerald and his staff did a masterful job coaching a young team not predicted to do much to just the school's third 10-win season. After blowing three fourth-quarter leads in Big Ten play, Northwestern made enough plays on both sides of the ball to hold off the mistake-prone Bulldogs. Northwestern needed this win to legitimize its program and should be right in the Legends division mix next fall, as most key players return.
What Mississippi State learned: Russell can be rattled. The junior turned in a record-setting season for the Bulldogs but had a miserable performance in the bowl, completing only 12 of 28 passes for 106 yards with two touchdowns and the four picks. Mississippi State wins with discipline and Russell didn't have enough of it with the football. The Bulldogs played without star cornerback Johnthan Banks for most of the second half, and his absence showed. After a 7-0 start, Mississippi State had an extremely disappointing finish and lacked any decent wins on its résumé.
Whether he's in the weight room (where Scott made his mark as a young player), the film room (where Scott spends practically all his time) or the field (where he has excelled this fall), the Wildcats junior has taken the same thorough approach. It's all about the process for him.
"He's as low-maintenance of a guy as there is in the country," Northwestern coach Pat Fitzgerald said. "He just works. He doesn't know anything other than work. He doesn't want a sticker on his helmet, he doesn't want a special T-shirt, he doesn't want a steak dinner.
And that's precisely why Wildcats defensive line coach Marty Long challenged Scott in September. See, Long believes every player should be challenged, even ones like Scott who seem so easy to coach.
"He was playing well, but we needed him to play great," Long told ESPN.com. "I made a statement that we had one D-end that was playing at a Big Ten level, and that was Quentin Williams. Ever since that point in time, I think he's been playing Big Ten-level football."
More like All-Big Ten-level football. The 6-foot-4, 265-pound Scott leads the Big Ten in sacks (7) and is tied for the league lead in forced fumbles (3).
Scott has recorded four sacks and two forced fumbles in his last four games. He has recorded at least one tackle for loss in seven of nine games for No. 24 Northwestern. And he has played most of the season with a club on his left hand, the result of a broken finger.
"I didn't take it in a negative way, more of a motivational way," Scott said of Long's challenge. "I'm always going to give the most effort I can, but for him to say that, that's kind of taking a shot at my pride because I do work so hard."
Scott is hardly an overnight sensation at Northwestern. He had to redshirt the 2009 season because of a shoulder injury that required surgery. After a strong offseason, he worked his way onto the field as a reserve, appearing in all 13 games in 2010.
He moved into a part-time starting role last season and seemed to be turning a corner before a shoulder stinger shut him down for two weeks. During a five-game losing streak, Scott lost his grandfather and admits he "lost his edge a bit."
It was a season of what-ifs for Scott, who came close on a lot of sacks but recorded just one on the season for one of the nation's least effective defensive lines. He often got too far up-field on his rushes, and he spent much of the offseason working on becoming more active with his hands.
"I don't know exactly what it is," Long said, "He's making a lot of plays, but he's upset about the ones he doesn't make. I'm happy with his play right now. He'll look at me and say, 'I'm not happy.' That's the type of guy that you want to coach."
True to form, when asked about his spike in sacks, Scott barely acknowledges the ones he has recorded this season. Instead, he brings up a scramble by Iowa quarterback James Vandenberg that resulted in a Iowa first down in Northwestern's last game.
"I didn't get to the up-field shoulder," Scott said. "I definitely came through and totally missed, swung around and he escaped the pocket and got a first down, which kind of reminded me of last year."
Long says Scott embraces Kaizen, the Japanese philosophy of constant, continuous improvement, which Fitzgerald introduced at Northwestern several years ago. That may be true, but Scott links his approach a little closer to home -- to his parents, Bette and Rodney, both of whom played sports in high school.
"A big family value is to be humble," Scott said. "My mom always tells me it's not about you as a person, it's about how the team does. The goal is winning that week. If you played well, it's because your teammates helped you get there."
Northwestern has played better team defense this fall, making sizable jumps in categories like rushing defense, scoring defense and sacks from the 2011 season. But Scott has stood out up front, putting himself within striking distance of Northwestern's single-season sacks record of 12 set by Casey Dailey in 1997.
Long likens Scott to Joe Tafoya, part of the famed "Desert Swarm" defense at Arizona, where Long coached defensive line and outside linebackers from 1996-2003. Tafoya went on to a seven-year NFL career.
"I would say he's a better football player than Joe Tafoya," Long said.
Informed of Long's claim, Scott smiles, shakes his head and mumbles some cliché about just trying to improve and help the team win. Any praise for his play is going to come from others, like Fitzgerald, who this spring proclaimed Scott is, "on the cusp of being a breakout guy nationally."
His words have proven prophetic.
"A lot of times you look at guys and you go, 'If he just worked a little harder and his work ethic matched his talent, he'd be a great player," Fitzgerald said. "Tyler's that guy who does that. He's got outstanding talent, and he matches it with a terrific attitude and a terrific work ethic."
For the second consecutive week, Northwestern's defense looked to be on the ropes in the fourth quarter, trying to protect a lead on the road.
This time, the Wildcats stood their ground.
In a sloppy game where Northwestern's offense started fast on Saturday and then disappeared, the defense stepped up in the clutch and prevented Minnesota from scoring the potential game-tying touchdown. Northwestern survived 21-13 to improve to 6-1, becoming bowl-eligible for the sixth consecutive season. Minnesota (4-2, 0-2 Big Ten) dropped its second straight Legends Division game and remains two wins away from bowl eligibility.
Northwestern had no pass rush to speak of last week at Penn State, but the front four stepped up in the fourth quarter. Defensive end Tyler Scott had a pair of sacks, including a forced fumble on the game's final play, and fellow end Quentin Williams also stepped up with a pass deflection that led to an interception. Northwestern gave up more yards (327-275) and first downs (21-13) but not points.
It could have been a different ending had Minnesota quarterback MarQueis Gray remained healthy. Gray returned from a high-ankle sprain that had kept him out two games and performed well in the first half, but he re-injured his left knee on a third-quarter run and didn't return. Max Shortell never really got in a rhythm, starting the game but exiting quickly for Gray before re-entering in the second half. He missed several open receivers, including Isaac Fruechte in the end zone, and held the ball way too long in crunch time.
The game looked like a shootout early, as Northwestern scored on the first play from scrimmage on a Venric Mark touchdown run after Minnesota fumbled the opening kickoff. Mark was masterful once again, racking up 151 rush yards and two touchdowns on 11 carries in the first half. Northwestern scored 21 points in the first 18 minutes but then began stumbling, committing a host of penalties and curious play calls. The quarterback rotation that worked well earlier in the season seemed to fizzle Saturday, as Northwestern couldn't convert third downs (1-for-9), its former trademark, and offensive coordinator Mick McCall didn't trust Kain Colter on any downfield throws. Colter certainly looked like the better option Saturday, going 10-for-10 on pass attempts and adding 26 rush yards and a touchdown.
Mark finished with 182 rush yards on 20 carries.
Northwestern definitely went conservative at the end, taking a delay of game penalty on third down, clearly concerned about the weather. While the approach paid off against a Minnesota team that made too many mistakes, it likely will cost the Wildcats down the line.
It rained for most of the game, and the outcome came down to key mistakes. Minnesota had two first-half turnovers that Northwestern converted for touchdowns. The Wildcats, while committing an uncharacteristic 11 penalties, didn't have a turnover.
Northwestern remains very much alive in the Legends Division race and returns home for two division contests (Nebraska and Iowa). The Wildcats need to be a lot better than they were Saturday but can take some positives with Mark and the defense.
Minnesota is a different team with Gray on the field and hopes the senior can return for next week's rivalry game at Wisconsin.
For the better part of the past two seasons, the Wildcats' defense too often has found itself in a, well, defensive posture. Opposing offenses have moved the ball too easily against the Wildcats, particularly on third down, which used to be a strength for the unit.
It's why Wildcats coaches place such a premium on the A-word entering the 2012 season. To get there, they bring up another A-word.
"It's an attitude," defensive coordinator Mike Hankwitz said. "It isn't just schematics. We're going to do things to try to be more aggressive schematically, but we're not going to blitz every damn play. We're going to pick our spots, and we're going to do things. But we said we want to have a more aggressive mentality getting to the ball and being more physical.
Northwestern likely will decrease its use of an ineffective three-man rush that consistently led to third-and-long meltdowns last season and dropped the team to 114th nationally in third-down defense (50 percent conversion). Defensive end Quentin Williams is the lone returning player who recorded multiple sacks in 2011, so Hankwitz knows he can't rely too much on the line getting home on its own. The Wildcats ranked last in the Big Ten and 106th nationally in sacks last season (1.31 per game).
But at times, Hankwitz will lean on the front four and expect them to cause more problems than they did in 2011.
"We've got to be more aggressive with our calls, but we've got to also be more effective when we do rush the passer," he said. "You're not going to bring the perfect thing every time where somebody comes free, so you've got to beat guys one-on-one."
After communication breakdowns plagued the defense during a five-game losing streak, Hankwitz saw improvement in the final five contests. Players embraced the offseason objectives outlined in their first meeting in January, and the strong retention between spring practice to fall camp allowed coaches to build rather than work on reinstalling plays.
Although the defense is green at spots, namely the secondary, where redshirt freshman cornerback Nick VanHoose and two other new starters enter the mix, the unit features a number of familiar faces who had their pride challenged last season and in recent months.
"Our defense was very motivated through the positive talk they heard through the blog sites and wonderful articles they had to read all offseason," head coach Pat Fitzgerald said with just a hint of sarcasm. "And they lived it. They know they were not pleased with the way they performed, and preseason, for the first time I used some outside stuff for motivation. You get what you deserve, and we deserve everything that was said about the guys.
"And they took it personally. Guys like Bus [linebacker David Nwabuisi] that have been out there and Tyler [Scott] and Brian Arnfelt and Quentin Williams, Damien Proby, Ibraheim Campbell -- they were not pleased with the way they played, and we weren't pleased with the way we coached them and we performed. The great news is I’ll be done talking about that crap [soon]."
Campbell, a safety who led the team with 100 tackles as a redshirt freshman, describes the aggressive mindset as never being satisfied.
"If you had a PBU [pass broken up], you should have had a pick," he said. "If you made a tackle, it should have been a TFL."
A defense with plenty to prove returns to the field Saturday at Syracuse, which ranked 90th nationally in offense last fall but boasts a veteran quarterback in Ryan Nassib and some good receivers. The Wildcats hope embracing the A-word can translate into more Ws this fall.
Remember, these rankings are based heavily on last year's performance and who returns to the fold, with potential considered as well. Let's get to the guys up front who make the entire defense go.
2. Michigan State: The Spartans will rival Ohio State for the league's top defensive front. You know all about end William Gholston and his unlimited potential. Marcus Rush gets overshadowed at the other end spot, but he put up an outstanding freshmen season. Anthony Rashad White should be an anchor inside. The big question is who replaces Jerel Worthy, but the team is flush with candidates. This is another very deep defensive line.
3. Purdue: Don't be surprised by this high ranking. Kawann Short might be the top defensive lineman in the league, and is poised for a monster senior season. Bruce Gaston gives him a veteran running mate. Defensive end Ryan Russell is coming on and might be due for a major breakout this season. This should be the strength of Danny Hope's defense.
4. Penn State: Devon Still is gone, but the Nittany Lions should continue to be strong up front. Jordan Hill looks to follow Still's lead and become a superstar as a senior. Sean Stanley is a speedy rusher off the edge, and Pete Massaro returns from a knee injury. DaQuan Jones and Deion Barnes could become bigger contributors.
5. Illinois: Star power lifts the Illini to this high ranking, as defensive end Michael Buchanan and tackle Akeem Spence should be among the very best at their positions in the league. It's just a matter of finding out how the others -- like end Justin Staples and tackle Glenn Foster -- raise their games around them to help make up for the loss of sack master Whitney Mercilus.
6. Nebraska: Too low for the Huskers? Perhaps. They do bring back several veterans, like Cam Meredith, Chase Rome and Baker Steinkuhler, while expecting more from Eric Martin. Still, this group did not dominate enough for my taste last season, and seems to lack the one true pass-rushing stud. But Nebraska has the potential to have a very stout line.
7. Michigan: It's probably wrong to doubt a line overseen by Brady Hoke and Greg Mattison. Yet this unit lost three starters from a year ago, including stars Mike Martin and Ryan Van Bergen. A lot depends on how Will Campbell performs as a senior, and whether Craig Roh can take his game to the next level. There isn't much experience at all behind the starters.
8. Wisconsin: Can David Gilbert stay healthy and emerge as a fearsome pass-rusher? That's the key to the Badgers' defensive line, without a doubt. Tackles Beau Allen and Ethan Hemer are rock solid, though the loss of Jordan Kohout hurts the depth inside. Brendan Kelly should be good against the run. But Wisconsin needs a fast player on the perimeter, and that's where Gilbert comes in.
9. Iowa: This is a frighteningly young and inexperienced group heading into the season for Iowa, though that doesn't mean it lacks talent. Steve Bigach is the closest thing to a seasoned veteran. The Hawkeyes will need a lot of players to raise their performance, including Dominic Alvis and Carl Davis.
10. Northwestern: This has been a trouble spot for the Wildcats, and could be again in 2012 with the loss of both starting tackles. Tyler Scott and Quetin Williams are back at end, and expectations are high for redshirt freshman Deonte Gibson. Can Will Hampton and Brian Arnfeldt hold the fort down inside the tackles?
11. Indiana: Defensive line is one of the few places where the Hoosiers have experienced veterans. Seniors Adam Replogle and Larry Black lead the way at tackle. Bobby Richardson and Ryan Phillis showed some things as freshmen pass-rushers last season. Still, this group must play better overall.
12. Minnesota: The Gophers have had trouble putting consistent pressure on quarterbacks for the past couple of seasons, and now they're replacing both interior linemen. Jerry Kill has talked highly of 6-foot-6, 300-pound junior Ra'Shede Hageman's offseason, and Roland Johnson comes over from junior college to help out. D.L. Wilhite and Ben Perry will bring speed, but not much bulk to the defensive end spots.
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?
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.
The council features members from every class on the team (aside from incoming freshmen). It meets weekly with head coach Pat Fitzgerald and organizes offseason activities like the Wildcat Games, a competition during the winter, spring and summer months that includes conditioning tests and community service projects.
Here are this year's representatives (players are listed by their academic years):
Williams is the second player to be named to the leadership council all four seasons (former quarterback Dan Persa is the other). Jensen and Scott both are repeat selections.
Colter's selection to the council is key, as he likely will be the team's starting quarterback in 2012. The senior group features a few returning starters, and Jones could be a rising star at receiver.
"Are they going to let you in there wearing that?" a team official jokingly asked Fields.
Fields turned back, smiled, shrugged, and then went inside.
On this particular day, he participated in a morning practice with the football team, taking reps as the Wildcats' first-team running back. While his teammates showered, ate and left the athletic complex, Fields changed into his baseball uniform and prepared for an afternoon practice.
The Northwestern sophomore is going through spring football drills, hoping to become the team's starting running back spot this fall. He also has started all 34 of Northwestern's baseball games as a switch-hitting centerfielder and leadoff man, batting .295 with a team-leading 11 doubles and five stolen bases.
"This is what I enjoy doing," Fields said. "I figure if it was easy, everyone would be doing it. I'm just having a blast."
Things really got crazy before Northwestern's first football practice of the spring, on March 29. Fields and the Wildcats baseball had just completed an eight-day trip to Florida and traveled back to Evanston late on March 28 after a game against Stetson.
"I got to bed at about 2 in the morning," Fields recalled. "Then I had to get up at 5:45 for spring ball, getting off a plane. So it was tough, but this is what I wanted to do."
Northwestern's football coaches have supported both Fields and defensive end Quentin Williams, an outfielder for the baseball squad, as they play both sports this spring. Fields often gets text-messages from head coach Pat Fitzgerald, a big Chicago White Sox fan, when he's traveling for baseball games.
So far, Fields' full schedule hasn't slowed him down on the football field. Though his baseball duties have prevented him from participating in weekend scrimmages, he has made progress in practice after leading NU with 302 rushing yards and five touchdowns as a true freshman in 2009. Fields won't play in Saturday's spring game, as he'll be at Purdue with the baseball team.
"That's a tough deal for anybody to take that workload on," said offensive coordinator Mick McCall, acknowledging Fields as the running back trotted by in his baseball uniform. "Not just physically, but mentally and emotionally, more than anything. You've got to know your priorities, so, 'Maybe my social life isn't what it is.' He's trying to do a good job and we're trying to help him with that."
Fitzgerald challenged Fields last season when the running back cramped up in a game, saying Fields' failure to properly hydrate was "completely and totally unacceptable." A full season on the field and a full winter in college has paid off, and McCall singled out Fields for his work during the team's winter conditioning program.
"These winter workouts were the hardest workouts I've done anywhere," Fields said. "I got stronger, faster. With other running backs out with surgery and injuries, the coaches had a chance to see how high my work ethic is."
Fields also watched more film than he ever had before, getting a greater understanding of his responsibilities, not only as a ball-carrier but as a blocker. The intense winter prepared him for a wild spring.
"I'm proud of him," Fitzgerald said. "He's doing a tremendous job. He's got to keep what's important in his life important. He's got to focus academically in the classroom. When he's at football, it's about football. And when he's on the diamond, it's about baseball. That's really difficult. The schedule, the routine, that's awesome.
"I don't think everybody can do it, and it's pretty special that he is."
Posted by ESPN.com's Adam Rittenberg
Northwestern's offseason leadership program worked wonders last fall, so it's no surprise that head coach Pat Fitzgerald will keep the same structure in place.
The team today announced its 10-man leadership council for 2009. The group establishes goals for the upcoming season, and each member captains a mini team that competes in various offseason competitions involving weight-lifting, community service, academics, etc. The winning team is excused from the preseason conditioning test, though last year Eric Peterman's team ran it anyway.
Here's this year's list:
- Senior quarterback Mike Kafka
- Senior cornerback Sherrick McManis
- Senior safety Brendan Smith
- Senior safety Brad Phillips
- Junior linebacker Nate Williams
- Junior defensive tackle Corbin Bryant
- Sophomore quarterback Dan Persa
- Sophomore wide receiver Jeravin Matthews
- Sophomore safety Brian Peters
- Redshirt freshman linebacker Quentin Williams
No major surprises on the list, though it's notable that Northwestern's top two quarterbacks were voted to the council. The group also includes three safeties and a pair of brothers (Nate and Quentin Williams).
"Our entire offseason is devoted to developing our team in all aspects of their life -- athletically, academically and socially," Fitzgerald said. "We do this through empowering our players to take complete ownership of the team. During the offseason, all aspects of our program are a competition, which helps our players excel in every phase of their life. In the end, our leadership council establishes the goals for the upcoming season."