Pat Fitzgerald Q&A: 'I think we’re the best player development staff'

Sandra Dukes-USA TODAY Sports

Pat Fitzgerald Q&A: 'I think we’re the best player development staff'

Proof that time flies: This will be the 10th season at the helm of Northwestern for Pat Fitzgerald. And, it has been an interesting ride.

[ MORE: Watch replay of Northwestern’s spring practice on BTN2Go ]

From building a five-season run of bowls, to winning the program’s first postseason game since the 1948 season, to seeing his team make a move to unionize, the 40-year-old Fitzgerald is now a seasoned veteran who has the second-longest tenure of any Big Ten coach (Kirk Ferentz is in his 17th season at Iowa.) Fitz also is NU’s all-time winningest coach, with a 60-53 mark. And his 30 Big Ten victories also are a school standard for “Mr. Northwestern.”

But NU is coming off two sub-par seasons, missing a bowl by going 5-7 each of the last years. And the Wildcats have been just 4-12 in the Big Ten in that span. Fitzgerald wants to get Northwestern back on track. I caught up with him following the conclusion of spring drills.

[ MORE: Get Tom Dienhart’s Northwestern NFL draft snapshot ]

Q: What were you pleased about during spring drills?
A: To be able to compete and focus on football for 15 practices was fun. We also improved this spring. We are a better team today than when we started practice. And I also think we have a very highly motivated group, but we aren’t close to where we need to be. These 12 weeks leading up to training camp are critical.

Q: What’s the status of the quarterback spot with Trevor Siemian gone? Matt Alviti, Clayton Thorson and Zack Oliver all battled.
A: Nothing has been decided. We thought maybe someone would separate either up or down by playing above everyone or someone making a bunch of mistakes. That competition has all three plugging along. All did well and all made some mistakes. We aren’t close to having a decision made. These 12 weeks leading up to camp and probably the first two and half weeks of camp will probably determine where we start the season and what direction we go.

Q: What areas do you feel the best about?
A: I feel we have three quarterbacks who all want the job and all three can play at this level; it will come down to who can solidify the position. This is probably as deep a running back position as we have had with Justin (Jackson) back. Warren Long, Solomon (Vault), Auston Anderson are talented guys. Their skill set can do a lot of things. I also feel good about our Superback position with (Dan) Vitale, (Garrett) Dickerson and (Jayme) Taylor, those three are good.

On defense, I feel good about our end position with (Dean) Lowry, (Deonte) Gibson, (Ifeadi) Odenigbo and (Xavier) Washington. We have to get some guys healthy inside. I think we are talented at linebacker but have some roles to fill. And this is probably the deepest secondary we have had with (Nick) VanHoose and (Matthew) Harris on the corners, (Traveon) Henry and (Godwin) Igwebuike and (Kyle) Queiro at safety. We also have guys like Marcus McShepard and Keith Watkins who give us depth and competition.

Q: What are some areas of concern?
A: We have one starting spot solidified on the offensive line in (tackle) Geoff Mogus. We have to solidify the other four spots. We have competition but are nowhere close to where we need to be. The receiver position because of injury, we are behind. Same thing at d-tackle. But there are guys and competition. We have a lot of work to do for an opener that’s a huge one (vs. Stanford).

Q: Who surprised you this spring?
A: On the offensive line, I was pleased with Shane Mertz. The big fella has been hurt most of his career. We moved him inside to guard and he had a solid spring. That was a big positive. I saw improvement from Odenigbo on the edge on first and second downs where he had primarily been a third-down player. I think Kyle Queiro at safety had a productive spring.

Q: Can you believe this will be your 10th year as head coach?
A: I still would love to just be the linebackers coach for Walk (Randy Walker). We all think of him each day and hopefully continue on his legacy. It is night and day for me. At the ripe ol’ age of 40 I’m a wily vet. I have pretty much seen it all and am incredibly proud of our staff, helping our young men develop. I think we’re the best player development staff in the nation. We have graduated each player who stayed four years and put everyone into full-time employment who has used our program. To see the success of our graduates is humbling. It’s a credit to our staff and the young men. Off the field, I think we’re an A-plus. On the field, we have a lot of work to do to become a consistent bowl team. We have made too many mistakes of late. I think we have enough of the pieces but still have to develop them. We are in a better place at the end of this spring than we were at the end of last spring.

Q: What was it like not having the issue of unionization hanging over the program, which was the case last year?
A: The guys had fun this spring playing and building relationships. We spent time on that, which is why we have had consistent success in the past. Last offseason was a different deal. Last year, we spent football time educating our guys on other items. That took a lot of time. We had to take that out of our eight-hour clock from the NCAA. Other programs were doing other things and we were talking about things out of our control. To just have time back was good. It was time well spent doing what we do, getting back to what it means to be a Wildcat instead of talking about and working on the other things we had to do.

About Tom Dienhart BTN.com senior writer Tom Dienhart is a veteran sports journalist who covers Big Ten football and men’s basketball for BTN.com and BTN TV. Find him on Twitter and Facebook, read all of his work at btn.com/tomdienhart, and subscribe to his posts via RSS. Also, send questions to his weekly mailbag using the form below and read all of his previous answers in his reader mailbag section.

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