Dienhart: Q&A with Northwestern football coach Pat Fitzgerald
When 2015 dawned, Northwestern had something to prove coming off consecutive 5-7 seasons. Could Pat Fitzgerald get the Wildcats back on track after a run of five bowls in a row from 2008-2012? Fitz answered the bell with a spectacular 10-3 season that saw the Wildcats go 6-2 in the Big Ten (second in the West) and advance to the Outback Bowl.
Northwestern has a lot of veteran talent back to make a run at the West Division championship in 2016. The offense needs to get better after ranking last in the Big Ten in scoring (19.5 ppg) and last overall (327.1 ypg) last season. The passing attack lacked big-play ability, as NU ranked—what else?—last in the conference (138.5 ypg). No staff changes were made, so any improvement will have to come through maturation.
The defense has as much talent as it ever has in the history of the program, but more big plays need to be made along the front seven. A 45-6 loss to Tennessee in the Outback Bowl was a sober reminder of how much better Fitzgerald’s program can become, as NU was outgained 420-261.
I caught up with Fitzgerald this week to talk about spring drills, which concluded in Evanston last weekend.
Q: The offense lacks consistency last season. How did it look in the spring?
A: I think we made some position moves to really add some competitive depth to the receiver spot. I think we made progress there. Solomon Vault and Marcus McShepard I think will help add competitive depth along with our redshirt freshman class. Jelani Roberts played as a true freshman. If you include him and Cam Green, Charlie Fessler and Flynn Nagel with Austin Carr and Andrew Scanlan, we think we have better competitive depth there now.
Q: Is Clayton Thorson developing?
A: He was a different young man compared to last spring. Last year, three guys were involved in the competition. A third of the reps were split up equally. He has now played in 13 games. The trials and tribulations definitely helped him mature and improve fundamentally. He is a lot like the rest of our team—he is improved but we are far from where we want to be. He is a more confident player and we need Matt Alviti to get healthy over the summer to help with depth.
Q: How is the defense looking?
A: I think we are pretty darn good in the back half. I think our back seven is as athletic as we have had. Keith Watkins and Matthew Harris on the corners, and Godwin Igwebuike and Kyle Queiro at safety, that is a pretty formidable group of four. We also have Jared McGee at safety. And we have some young guys at corner, one played last year as a true freshman in Montre Hartage. At linebacker, we have Anthony Walker and Jaylen Prater and Joe Jones, who has been a special team stalwart for us. Nate Hall has started games for us. A guy who I was probably most pleasantly surprised with was Cam Queiro. He probably had his best 15 practices of his career. So we think we have some good competitive depth.
Q: Who is gonna bring the heat as pass rushers?
A: We are starting with Ifeadi Odenigbo and Xavier Washington at end. They both have gotten stronger and improved. Joe Gaziano is a redshirt freshman who was heavily recruited and was close to being in the rotation last year. Trent Goens had a good spring and will keep getting stronger. I like the flexibility of C.J. Robbins, who can play tackle and end. You feel good about Tyler Lancaster and Jordan Thompson inside and Greg Kuhar. We played nine, 10 guys out there a year ago. Will we be rotating nine or eight? I don’t know. And maybe we’ll add a freshman or two to the mix. A couple of those guys look good from a size standpoint. We will see if they can play in August.
Q: The last time NU won 10 games, it had back-to-back 5-7 seasons. How do you avoid a backslide coming off this 10-win season?
A: It’s a bit different circumstances. We were dealing with some off-field things that were out of our control. And I think our guys handled it very well. Unfortunately, we weren’t able to keep the elite double-digit win total going. By staying focused on what we can control, continuing to improve and staying healthy … those are keys. The first year we won five games (2013), we were a M-A-S-H unit and still almost got it done. The next year, we dealt with a lot off the field. This is a more focused and hungry squad that wants to take the next step to compete to win the West. We were a second half away from doing it. Iowa kicked our butt.
Q: What is your take on the banning of satellite camps?
A: Disappointed. I think there was a better destination for that decision. Collectively, we could have tabled that and gotten together in May with the Board of Trustees of AFCA and said let’s keep the Power Five schools on their campuses and still let the Group of Five coaches go out. I don’t think you would have had a whole lot of objection. The satellite camps have been going on for a while. I think this is a knee-jerk reaction. I don’t think the SEC or ACC had any issue with Bowling Green and Nevada and North Illinois and Western Michigan coming to our campus or Ohio State’s campus. To have that collateral damage is really disappointing because I think it limits exposure opportunities for kids to get scholarships.
Q: How do you feel about the new rule allowing unlimited texting?
A: I don’t think that’s a positive solution. We had text messaging and did it for one cycle and then got rid of it ASAP. We already have a mechanism to communicate through Twitter. Kids have to follow you in order to get a direct message. There is no ability for us to mass direct message. There already is software to mass text message kids. They will get inundated with text messages. The texting is about to go crazy and I hope these kids understand it. My staff will talk about. Don’t be surprised to see a statement from our staff about how we will go about our business. Just because the NCAA says you can do it, I’m not so sure it’s the best thing for the quality of life of the staffs and kids. We will come up with a system that is right for everyone.
Q: Are the Blackhawks gonna win the Cup again?
A: Their core knows what season is important. You will see a team that is ready to rock. If I was St. Louis, I would not be happy to draw the Hawks in the first round.
Q: As a Sox fan, how are you dealing with all of this Cubs mania?
A: I am not a Cub hater. That is how maybe I differ from some of my Sox fans brothers on the South Side. It is good for our city. A healthy Sox and Cubs organization are great for the city and summer. This is the best summer city in the world. When both teams are good, it makes the city come alive. We have had enough black eyes in this city. And the Blackhawks have carried the torch. The Cubbies run last year was great. And it was awesome when the Sox won the Series.