Wednesday, April 25, 2007

One-on-one with Pat Fitzgerald

For The Daily's cover story on Pat Fitzgerald, Wildcats Watch caught up with Northwestern's second-year head coach and asked him some questions about life, coaching and Coach Walker. Here are some highlights from the interview:

On going through his first spring as head coach:
"It’s amazing when I think back to last year, and the first team meeting and the first practice and the first practice in Kenosha -- (it was) just a whirlwind of emotions. And to be able now to focus in an offseason to prepare the team to plan, with our staff and our leadership council, exactly the direction we’re going to go with our football team, I’m going to go out and act upon it."

On the night of Randy Walker's death:
"I couldn’t believe it. Couldn’t believe it. Pretty emotional night ... I don’t even know how to put that into words, those feelings.

"Coach was always a great prankster, and always had – we called them diversions. It almost seemed like it was a diversion. Especially that night, that coach was playing a prank on us, you know, kind of testing us."

On learning of NU's intentions:
"(On Wednesday before Walker's services), Mark (Murphy) came in and visited our staff and said they were going to stay within our football program. And that wasn’t important now, but they wanted to keep the continuity of our staff, the momentum we had going, and hire a head coach from within our football family that they’re going to make some decisions and visit with us, and that’ll be some point after we had the services for coach.

"So I think everybody in the room felt confident that we were going to have a job. So that was a good feeling, and that things weren’t going to change."

On the day of Walker's services/being named head coach:
"I think it was Thursday night, Mark came over to the house, and said, you know, that president Bienen and Mark would like to offer me the opportunity to be the head coach here. And that Friday I was named, and it was just kind of a rollercoaster. Thursday was an extremely emotional day. I had the opportunity to eulogize coach from the perspective of our staff. It was a tremendous honor, and Tammy (Walker, Randy's wife) asked me and it was just – it was the first time I’d ever done that in my life.

"I don’t know if I’ve prayed as much as I prayed that night before (the services). I’m not a really outward guy in my faith. I don’t think that that’s my calling. And I’m a big believer in to each their own, (but) that was a pretty long night.

"(The service) was just a great celebration of coach’s life. It really was emotional, and (to) go home, it was just surreal. I don’t know, it just kind of didn’t really hit me until maybe that afternoon when I had a chance to meet with the staff."

On helping the team cope with the loss:
"Football didn’t really seem that important. It was more about building relationships with people, touching our program and really getting a lot of copmmunication going with our players, making sure they were – and our staff, and everybody here that supports our program – making sure they were doing OK with losing coach and helping Tammy and Jamie (Randy's son) and Abby (Randy's daughter) through it. So it was a long stretch, a long stretch. Tough."

On whether he is comfortable in his role:
"Yeah, I mean, I’m doing what I love to do. I’ve always dreamt of being a coach, since I can remember thinking about getting a real job back in high school. And now, to have this opportunity, to be here at my alma mater, I don’t know if it gets any better."

On how settled he is as head coach, and on the program itself:
"Just from an organizational standpoint, from a management standpoint, I felt very comfortable taking over the position, but now to go through it for a year ... I’m still analyzing the entire program, if that makes sense.

"You asked me about my stamp, I think what you see from me is a guy that’s really organized. I think our staff does a great job, I think everybody around our football program is extremely organized and understands exactly what I want to do and how we want to do it, and that our kids buy into it. They want to win, they’re hungry to win, they’re hungry to be successful and I think there’s not a team and a staff that’s tighter than us. I’d like to meet them if they are."

On developing a 'family' atmosphere:
"We talk about family around here a lot, and that’s just something I believe a football team needs to have. You’re not going to be everybody’s best friend. That’s not what I’m looking for. But I’m looking for you to be a teammate. To be a teammate, I think you jneed to be a great family member, which means if we’re teammates together, you need a hug, you’re going through a tough time, I’m there for you. I’ve got your back. But when I need to kick you in the pants, I’m going to kick you in the pants as hard as I possibly can. That’s being a teammate, and that’s being a part of a family. That’s being responsible for your actions, being someone that you can trust and that’s loyal, that’s dedicated and can sacrifice to be a part of that family and put that family above you as the individual. And I think that’s how you win.

"That doesn’t mean they all need to be going out and watching movies together and hanging out, but it still, when they’re here, they’re part of a family."

"That’s one thing that I think recruits see. That’s not just lip-service, that’s program wide, and I think that helps them in the transition, that helps them through the growing process, and we believe we’re here to develop these young men and prepare them for life after football."

On his personal relationship with players:
"I think I’m brutally honest with them. I think I shoot them straight. I think I hold them accountable for what they do, and I think I present them with a plan to help them develop on an everyday basis."

On whether his age plays a role in relating to players:
"Yeah, I’m (young). I mean, I played Sega. I can’t say that I’m part of the PlayStation or Xbox generation, but I understand some of the things they’re going through, and I really understand some of the things they’re going through here at Northwestern."

On how he spends his 'down time':
"It’s a lifestyle. And there’s down time. When we have our vacations, we have our vacations. I probably won’t take my computer with me, but I have my phone, contacting recruits a lot. There’s a lot of downtime there that you can contact recruits – sitting in the airport, driving in cars, calling high school coaches. I spend a lot of time. There’s not down time.

"It’s more of a lifestyle than a profession. I mean, there’s just certain things you do. At five o’clock, the job doesn’t end. I don’t go home and leave my job in the office and I come back and I analyze my widgets the next day. It’s a 24-hour-a-day, seven-day-a-week job."

On his favorite quote, from Tiger Woods:
The quote: "I hate sitting still. I hate being stale. I've always got to be moving. I've always got to be challenged."

"When I read that, I was like, ‘Yeah, that’s the way I look at it.’ I’m stealing it, but I like it. I don’t like sitting still. I don’t vacation very well. … I’m still text messaging recruits and talking to our coaches and our kids, and it’s just kind of the nature of the beast with this profession."

On his 'free time':
"I guess the best way to describe it is, I don’t have my time ... My time is my family time. When I’m with my wife and my family and my two boys (Jack and Ryan) and our immediate family, that’s my time. I really enjoy that time. I live for it."

On his work ethic:
"I’m not going to ever let anybody outwork me. I’m never going to be able to look at our coaching staff and say, ‘This coach outworked me and that’s why I lost that recruit for you,’ and look at our players and say, ‘We lost to University X because their head coach and their staff outworked our staff.’ I’m never gonna look at Mark Murphy and President Bienen and say, ‘We didn’t get that money raised because I didn’t go out there and help the athletic department,’ and I’m not going to look at our student body and say: ‘You know what? Your college experience (wasn’t) as exciting as mine, just because I wouldn’t come out and see you and make people passionate about Northwestern football, Northwestern athletics.’"

On whether he's noticed his own progress as coach:
"I think I’ve been so caught up in it, I haven’t really had time to think about it. Not that I really want to think about it. I just want to stay the course."

On last season's 4-8 record:
"Last year there are some obvious reasons why we lost, and it starts with me. I take full responsibility for that."

On pressure to succeed this season:
"I don’t worry about outside expectations or outside pressures, because they won’t even come close to the expectations and the pressure that I put upon (us) and upon our team. So I’m not really worried about that."

On whether this fall is critical:
"I think every fall’s critical. In the development of a football program, I think you have to lay a foundation. And if that foundation’s laid with success, then everything kind of falls in place ... you fill the stands up with fans, your players are playing at a successful level, they’re winning offseason awards, they’re getting individual accolades, the football program is looked at in a high regard, so then that helps recruiting and you get better players, you become a better coach, your success then continues to mount, and it’s just a really positive snowball, so to speak."

On wanting to coach at NU:
"It was always a dream and a goal of mine to be a coach here at Northwestern, and the opportunity I was given to earn a Northwestern education, be a part of the student culture here, and obviously be a student athlete here ... I wouldn’t trade that for all the money in the world. And I feel like I’m giving back, just the smallest amount, by having the opportunity to coach here and giving young men the opportunity to come here to be a student athlete."

On his future at NU:
"I expect to be here for a long time. I expect to see my boys play for me, and maybe at that point, maybe it’ll be time for me to move on. But I expect to be here for a long time, and I expect for us to win a lot of championships and be very successful, and continue to do it with the excellence in education that we’ve had."

On his vision of NU:
"I’m looking for this program to be the model of college programs throughout the country – win championships and to do with the highest order of excellence in academics and the highest order of excellence in character. And if you get the right people here, they’re going to be extremely successful academically, and it’s obvious we have the right people here in our program with the success we’re having academically.

"That’s my vision – is not to sacrifice anything that we believe in, and to win at the highest level. I believe that we’re on the cusp of doing that on a consistent basis, and we’ve just got to continue to bring the right players here and continue to tweak our plan as we move forward."

... and with that Wildcats Watch is taking a break. Keep an eye on The Daily for any further NU football updates. Thanks for reading!

--Patrick Dorsey

More Rees trouble

This was supposed to be just a series of exerpts from Wildcats Watch's recent interview with coach Pat Fitzgerald, and we'll get to that. But first, a more pressing issue: Senior center Trevor Rees has been suspended again.

Just a year after he returned to Northwestern from an academic-related suspension (which eventually landed him at Houston Baptist University), Rees was suspended indefinitely Tuesday, according to a release from the athletic department. Though NU declined to explain, the Pioneer Press is reporting that Rees was charged with three traffic violations, including driving under the influence, stemming from an incident early Sunday morning.

It's anyone's guess how serious this is. If the reports are true, Rees faces charges similar to those faced by offensive coordinator Garrick McGee earlier this offseason. McGee came out of it with a reckless driving conviction, and was back on the sidelines for all of spring practice.

So will Rees be able to return in time for summer camp in Kenosha, Wis.? Given NU's history of second (and third) chances, it wouldn't be a surprise. But if he doesn't, where does that leave the Wildcats and their already thin and inexperienced offensive line?

Heading into spring, it appeared the offensive line had four solid starters (Rees included) and one spot -- right tackle -- up for grabs. Sophomore Kurt Mattes appeared to fill that spot. But now, with Rees possibly gone, there's another spot that could be open.

The logical choice is senior Adam Crum, who played pretty well at guard last season after spending his first two years at center. Crum is projected to start at left guard, meaning someone green -- from the group of sophomores Desmond Taylor, Ramon Diaz, junior Alex Rucks, and redshirt freshmen Mike Boyle and Keegan Grant -- would have to fill in after Crum's shift.

The guess here: Taylor, who started one game last year at left tackle in place of an injured Dylan Thiry (and had to deal with Purdue's Anthony Spencer, a possible first-round pick this Saturday). He's built like a guard (6 foot 3, 285 pounds) and has the experience -- at least more than the other options. But again, that's just a guess. A lot can happen between now and Sept. 1, including a Rees return.

The point is, the offensive line already was NU's weakest unit. If this Rees suspension lasts, that cripples it even more. And because a solid offensive line is the key to an efficient offense, the otherwise formidable Cats might have trouble scoring points and staying on the field in 2007.

--Patrick Dorsey

Tuesday, April 24, 2007

Spring game, Fitzgerald and more

Due to travel and moving, Wildcats Watch has been out of commission for about a week, and also was unable to attend the Spring Game. However, The Daily's Chris Gentilviso offered his recap for Monday's paper here:

Also, on Friday The Daily's Spring Guide came out, and it included the cover story on Pat Fitzgerald, who now is settling into his job after a year of turmoil.

Coming soon: Exerpts from Wildcats Watch's one-on-one interview with Fitzgerald, a lot of which did not make it to The Daily's print edition.

--Patrick Dorsey

Monday, April 16, 2007

Text twist

Northwestern begins its final practice week Tuesday, and while the focus clearly will be on the team, NU's technology-savvy recruiters still might send out some text messages to prospective Wildcats.

That's just the way it is these days.

In 2005, The Daily ran a story (link below) about technology and recruiting, as did many other papers. It's quite a fascinating subject -- nearly unlimited contact with recruits (except during designated "dead periods") -- but clearly problematic. Many NU players weren't of the five-star variety, but they received some texts during their recruitment. As for those blue-chippers, some of them receive texts before they woke up and after they went to bed. A lot.

As coach Pat Fitzgerald, then NU's linebackers coach and recruiting coordinator said at the time, "I think it's a positive as long as the people that don't have restrictions on them don't take advantage of the kids."

Well, clearly some do. Now the NCAA might do something about it.

According to the Associated Press, the NCAA management council today and Tuesday will address an Ivy League proposal that bans all text messages -- which was proposed mainly because it invades the recruits' privacy, overwhelms them and, because text messages are far from free, often saddles them with quite a cost.

Clearly, with the NCAA traditionally being slow-moving, it might prove difficult to successfully eliminate these invasions, especially with technology developing as quickly as it does today.

"I think we all struggle with it in different ways," Kate Hickey, chair of the management council and associate athletic director at Rutgers, told the AP. "You struggle with it when you buy a computer or a cell phone, because the next day you know something better is going to come along."

But, in this writer's opinion, banning text messages would be a start.

When I spoke in 2005 with Miechelle Willis, a member of the NCAA Division I Management Council, she said, "(E-mails and text messages) are viewed as non-invasive, and students can choose to read them or not to read them."

And while this is true, that's no different from phone calls, which are restricted by the NCAA. In these days of caller ID, people can choose to answer the phone, or let it ring.

Also, it's free to receive an e-mail, or even a Myspace or Facebook message -- two other potentially problematic ways for coaches to contact recruits. But not so much to receive a text.

So, while some might fight for a cure-all solution, if the NCAA moves on anything technology-based, it would be wise for text messages to be placed in the same realm as phone calls.

After all, back in the old high school days of five years ago, texts were used for weekend plans and homework answers (double-checking them, not giving them out, of course). Shouldn't it stay that way?


  • NU completed another 60-play scrimmage Saturday. Junior quarterback C.J. Bacher, who returned to practice Tuesday after missing the first two weeks while recovering from offseason toe surgery, did not participate. Junior running back Tyrell Sutton, who sat out NU's first scrimmage with minor injuries, played in the first series and recorded a 15-yard run, an 11-yard reception and a 1-yard touchdown catch.

  • Wildcats Watch mistakenly reported that the Big Ten Network might carry NU's Oct. 19 game against Eastern Michigan at Ford Field in Detroit. Since it is considered a home game for the Eagles, the Big Ten does not have rights to the game, according to an NU spokesman. Comcast typically carries Eastern Michigan games.

--Patrick Dorsey

Thursday, April 12, 2007

High school football moves up NU-Eastern Michigan game

Originally scheduled for Saturday, Oct. 20, Northwestern's mid-season, non-conference matchup with Eastern Michigan at Detroit's Ford Field has been moved up to the evening of Friday, Oct. 19.

The reason? Not TV, according to an Eastern Michigan spokesman, but high school football.

According to the spokesman, the Wildcats-Eagles game was pushed ahead because of the Detroit Catholic High School League's playoffs. Representatives for Ford Field and the Catholic League could not be reached for comment Thursday afternoon, but a schedule released on the Catholic League's Web site says the league's Prep Bowl is scheduled for Oct. 20 in Ford Field. Ford Field's online schedule lists very few events, showing neither the high school game nor the NU's game -- as well as no games for the NFL's Detroit Lions.

TV for the 6 p.m. game has yet to be determined, the spokesman said, with Eastern Michigan's games typically being broadcast locally by Comcast. ESPN will carry the Louisville-Connecticut game that evening.

--Patrick Dorsey

Taking the offensive (2007 preview: offense)

Tuesday and Wednesday marked the first two practices of C.J. Bacher's spring season -- meaning every projected offensive starter had taken the field at some point during the spring.

And that's a big deal for Northwestern. The Wildcats' typically heralded offense sputtered in 2006, doomed by coaching mistakes, inconsistency at quarterback and some shoddy line play. Now, despite some questions on defense, nearly all eyes will be on how this unit -- for lack of a less NU-ingrained word -- responds.

Here's a position-by-position breakdown of a unit that finished 92nd nationally last season.


Running back: Two words -- Tyrell Sutton. Instead of asking "Why me?" after a 2006 campaign during which he was grossly underused, the junior now is taking on a stronger, more vocal leadership role, and apparently really impressing coach Pat Fitzgerald in the process. Also, though he had 474 fewer yards in 2006 than in 2005, his yards-per-carry was nearly as strong last year (5.3) as in 2005 (5.9).

Add senior Brandon Roberson (whose injury in 2005 opened the door for Sutton), and NU appears to have as strong a one-two combination as anyone in the Big Ten. The only problem: depth beyond No. 2. Junior Omar Conteh has missed all of spring and only has 12 career carries, senior Nathan Shanks switched to superback and redshirt freshman Stephen Simmons is, like all redshirt freshmen, unproven.

Wide receiver: Where are the stars? Actually, here's a better question: With this unit, who needs 'em? Assuming senior Kim Thompson (broken leg) gets healthy, this unit could go 10 deep with scholarship players. Granted, three of those are redshirt freshmen, but add to those seven diverse, multi-skilled players who all have multiple catches in an NU uniform, and you could have serious matchup problems for an unchanging group of opposing corners.

Junior Ross Lane has emerged as the top player in this group, using his size (6 foot 3) and speed to his advantage. Thompson (6 foot 4) also is tall and fast, while juniors Rasheed Ward and Eric Peterman have shown flashes. Nobody in this group is truly special (yet), but the depth is pretty much unparalleled.


Quarterback: QB? A question? But didn't Bacher clearly show he's ready to take over, navigating NU to two wins in his final three games? Yes. He did. But he also missed the beginning of the season with an injury, and, as mentioned before, missed the beggining of this spring with a different ailment. So durability is a question. As Bacher said himself Tuesday, "You need to learn how to stay healthy."

But that's not all. After the way Fitzgerald and offensive coordinator Garrick McGee handled the quarterback situation last season, this position doesn't look to be 100 percent settled until Bacher takes that first snap against Northeastern ... and takes the first snap against Nevada, too. Sophomore Mike Kafka was the opening-day starter last year, and redshirt freshman Joe Mauro has looked impressive this spring. You never know, but in all likelihood, only injuries will force Bacher out of the lineup -- meaning NU indeed might have its Brett Basanez replacement.

Superback/Tigh end: Hard to call this a weakness when the position traditionally has little impact in NU's spread offense, but if the Cats' bevy of recruits the last two years develops, this actually could turn into a weapon. That includes sophomores Mark Woodsum and Brendan Mitchell (a somewhat-touted recruit in 2006), along with three incoming freshman. Cameron Joplin, who looked like an absolute monster in his highlight tape, could make an immediate impact.


Offensive line: This unit struggled more than any other in 2006. The line lost All-Big Ten right tackle Zach Strief and, more importantly, offensive line coach James Patton (who left for Oklahoma) -- and it showed. The Cats allowed 26 sacks in 2006, compared to 11 the year before. The 2005 Cats rushed for 2,323 yards on a 5.0 average, while the 2006 Cats totaled just 1,705 yards on 4.0 yards per carry. Now, tackle Ryan Keenan and guard Joe Tripodi are gone. Can coach Bret Ingalls and seniors Dylan Thiry and Trevor Rees get this unit to jell? It might be the key to the Cats' success.

... One thing not mentioned above is coaching. After all, NU had most of this talent last season and did very little with it -- instead spending most of the early part of the season with an attack so conservative it would put *insert really conservative Republican here* to shame, and one that seemed to go out of its way to not give Sutton the ball. Will that come back, or will the balanced attack seen late in the season continue into next? It seems that's a question, too, and maybe that's the real key to the Cats' offensive success.

--Patrick Dorsey

Tuesday, April 10, 2007

Not-so-Big Ten? (2007 preview: conference schedule)

A week ago, Wildcats watch previewed Northwestern' 2007 non-conference schedule and determined this: Assuming no major injuries, anything less than 4-0 is a disappointment, while anything worse than 3-1 is downright embarrassing.

But what about the other eight games? The big ones -- the ones that earn bowl berths and, during those rare years, conference championships?

So, in Part 2 of our 2007 preview, we'll analyze the Cats' conference schedule. But instead of breaking it down game-by-game, the contests will be lumped into categories.

Addition By Subtraction: Wisconsin and Penn State

Before they even play a game, the Cats are big winners for avoiding these two teams. Bret Bielema, in his coaching debut, pushed the Badgers to a one-loss season, and they should be just as dangerous this season. Meanwhile, after looking like a program in peril a couple of years ago, Penn State has returned to its intimidating status thanks to a remarkable job by Joe Paterno. Missing these two isn't quite as big as skipping Michigan and Ohio State, but it's close.

The Highly Unlikelies: at Ohio State (Sept. 22), vs. Michigan (Sept. 29)

As usual, these are the two least winnable games on NU's slate. The Cats have been rolled by Ohio State the last two seasons, and this year should be no different. Even though the Buckeyes will lose Heisman-winning QB Troy Smith and several other playmakers, most of their stifling defense will be back.

The Wolverines, meanwhile, are the opposite (several defenders gone, most of the offense back) -- but still likely too much for the NU, which lost at home to Michigan in 2005 when it arguably was the better team.

The Tough'n's: at Purdue (Oct. 27), vs. Iowa (Nov. 3)

Curtis Painter and Purdue's prolific passing attack will be back, but Purdue's been shaky on defense the last couple of seasons. Also, some offseason turmoil involving a stabbing and a DUI arrest give the already-mediocre Boilermakers a little to be concerned about.

The Hawkeyes, meanwhile, stumbled to a 6-7 mark in 2006, and lose QB Drew Tate. Still, while Iowa often struggles with NU (it lost 21-7 at home last season), never underestimate coach Kirk Ferentz.

The Questions: at Michigan State (Oct. 6), vs. Minnesota (Oct. 13)

Two teams, two loads of talent, two new head coaches. The Spartans underachieved at record levels the last few seasons -- and lose QB Drew Stanton, to boot -- but they did put up that ridiculous, record-breaking 35-point comeback on the Cats last year. Still, can former Cincinnati coach Mark Dantonio (not to be confused with Phoenix Suns coach Mike D'Antoni) halt the underachieving?

As for the Golden Gophers, they were on the wrong end of an epic comeback last season (blowing a record 31-point lead to Texas Tech in the Insight Bowl), which cost coach Glen Mason his job. Instead of hiring in the college ranks, Minnesota went pro, snagging Denver Broncos tight ends coach Tim Brewster. Only time will tell whether Brewster will resemble Charlie Weis or Ron Zook, but it doesn't hurt the Gophers to have 1,200-yard rusher Amir Pinnix back and former NU offensive coordinator Mike Dunbar heading up the attack.

The Should-Wins: vs. Indiana (Nov. 10), at Illinois (Nov. 17)

These teams still are the bottom-feeders, though they've become much more competitive recently. It's not "Who's that?" anymore for the Hoosiers, who went 3-5 in the Big Ten last year (better than NU) and came one win short of being bowl-eligible. Indiana still has a long way to go, however, having lost to UConn and Division I-AA Southern Illinois last season. Sophomore QB Kellen Lewis might give NU's defense fits, though.

As for the Illini, the aforementioned Zook's off-publicized recruiting class probably won't help them this year. Neither will Zook's horrific track record as a coach. And that hyped QB Juice Williams? He completed just four of 17 passes in Illinois' season-ending 27-16 loss to NU, the Illini's fourth straight Sweet Sioux Tomahawk defeat.

... So what does this all mean? Aside from the typical trouble with Michigan and Ohio State, all the other games are winnable. But, if 2006's mistakes continue, each could be lost, too.

One thing's for sure about the Big Ten in 2007: With two new coaches, five new quarterbacks and a whole lot of turnover, questions greatly outnumber the certanties. NU looks like it can win anywhere from two to six conference games this season. But which one will it be?

--Patrick Dorsey

Monday, April 9, 2007

With Bacher out, Cats look Kafka-esque

Junior quarterback C.J. Bacher has missed all eight practices this spring while recovering from offseason toe surgery. But he'll still be the No. 1 quarterback when NU faces Northeastern on Sept. 1.


Mike Kafka thinks otherwise.

"I mean, obviously my goal is to go and get the starting job," said the sophomore, who started NU's first four games last season, "and that’s what I’m going to try for every day."

Bacher's injury is giving him the chance. Though coach Pat Fitzgerald keeps saying there is no first team and no second team, Kafka has been playing with all the players who, well, are expected to take the first snap of this season's first game.

That included a "start" in NU's 60-play scrimmage Saturday, during which Kafka completed 10 of 17 passes for 97 yards and an interception, according to

All those reps are just what Kafka needs, Fitzgerald said.

"He can't get enough reps," Fitzgerald said. "He just really can't.

"Going into Mike's career, he's about a thousand reps behind -- only really playing one year of quarterback in high school. And the amount of reps he's getting right now, it couldn't be any better."

Fitzgerald said he was impressed with Kafka's demeanor Saturday -- the quarterback shrugged off his early interception -- but said he wants Kafka to make more plays, to "make some things happen."

"The one thing I don't want Mike to be is a robot," Fitzgerald said.

But Kafka also must learn to make plays with his arm.

Although he occasionally used his athleticism for big runs (he tallied 111 yards against Nevada) last season, he often settled for the carry instead of the pass. Many times, he appeared to make just one read down the field before tucking and running.

While the run has been used quite often by past NU quarterbacks (see: Zak Kustok and Brett Basanez), it's the prolific passing that made those two so special while in Evanston.

Also, the pass is what made NU's offense click under Bacher -- and what made Bacher, according to Fitzgerald, the likely No. 1 next season. Even if Kafka completes his metamorphosis.

  • Speaking of Bacher, the quarterback is expected to be active Tuesday, though Fitzgerald said Bacher likely would participate in about 20 percent of the Cats' drills. "I'm looking for him just to get back out there and get back in shape," Fitzgerald said. "He hasn't done anything since his surgery."

  • Junior running back Tyrell Sutton was held out of Saturday's scrimmage due to "some little injuries," but Fitzgerald shrugged it off. "I think I know everything I need to know about Tyrell Sutton," the coach said. "I need to know a lot more about Brandon Roberson and some other guys." Roberson, a senior, made some shifty runs and notched 52 yards and a touchdown on 12 carries.

  • Center Trevor Rees and backup offensive lineman Tyler Compton both left the scrimmage with leg injuries. Fitzgerald said Rees would be fine, but Compton's status is to be determined.

--Patrick Dorsey

Friday, April 6, 2007

Closing time

When NU released its spring practice schedule, one thing stuck out like a sore toe on a starting quarterback: Only four practices would be open to the media, and none to the public.

Previously, about twice as many were open to the media and all of those were open to the public. On some Saturday practices, the Wildcats would run drills in Ryan Field, and a few of Evanston's die-hards would take a seat in the stands and watch.

Not this year.

But amid all the grumblings about young coach Pat Fitzgerald's strictness and paranoia (some admittedly coming from myself), the fact is this: NU still is pretty lenient. Just look no further than West Lafayette, Ind.

According to the Lafayette Journal and Courier, Purdue coach Joe Tiller became fed up Wednesday and decided to close not only his spring practices, but his fall ones as well -- both to media and the public.

Why? Tiller said there are "a lot of reasons," but mostly he appears to be blogged down by Internet postings.

"I'm tired of blogging and guys talking about our practices, and postings, and all that (B.S.)," Tiller said. "All's it is is more problems than it is value."

Tiller's hardly the first to feel this way. College coaches everywhere are just as bad -- or worse. Texas Tech's Mike Leach in 2005 decided to allow only two -- two! -- players talk to the media all season. And no, the Red Raiders weren't going native and playing six-man football, like many West Texas high schools. They were in the Big 12, thank you, with Big 12-sized rosters. Still are.

So, with Purdue, another football program's media friendliness bites the proverbial dust. Here's hoping Fitzgerald remains closer to the accessible Randy Walker than the restrictive Leach, Tiller, Nick Saban and Co.

After all, it's not as if you can't succeed with a relatively open program. Walker did.

--Patrick Dorsey

Wednesday, April 4, 2007

Thompson's comeback attempt on hold

A tweaked leg that didn't seem like much Saturday turned out to be a small fracture, meaning senior wide receiver Kim Thompson will miss the rest of the spring. Still, an NU spokesman said he should be healthy in time for camp in August, meaning the embattled Thompson will get one more comeback attempt after injuries, a suspension and a leave of absence.

Read about it here:

Tuesday, April 3, 2007

It's football season (2007 preview: non-conference schedule)

With Florida beating Ohio State for the basketball national championship Monday night, it's now just 282 days until Florida beats Ohio State for the football national championship.

Or something like that.

Point is, from Columbus to Gainesville and all the way to Evanston, football season essentially is here.

And in Evanston, it's pretty welcome. For many reasons.

Coach Pat Fitzgerald's redemption year. Tyrell Sutton's revenge year. C.J. Bacher's starting year. And so on.

But if anything sticks out about NU football in 2007, it's something even simpler: the schedule. And, particularly, its non-conference slate, the Wildcats' easiest in recent memory.

Let's break it down, opponent by opponent.
  • Sept. 1 vs. Northeastern

Northwestern vs. Northeastern. Get it? Well, that's about all that'll be interesting about this matchup between the Cats and the Division I-AA Huskies. Sure, NU had that dreadful 34-17 loss to I-AA New Hampshire last season, but at least New Hampshire was a playoff team in 2006. Northeastern went 5-6. Still, the Huskies bring back their top two passers, rushers and receivers, for whatever it's worth.

  • Sept. 8 vs. Nevada

The Wolf Pack beat NU 31-21 last year in Reno. But that was with quarterback Jeff Rowe, running back Robert Hubbard and wide receiver Caleb Spencer. All are gone, and an already mediocre Nevada team (which went 8-5 as a member of the weak WAC and lost to lame duck Larry Coker's Miami in its bowl game) must replace these three contributors, and then some.

  • Sept. 15 vs. Duke

Duke is a real threat to NU. No, not in this game. In the loss column. The Blue Devils have dropped 22 games in a row, and are one winless season shy of matching the Cats' 34-game losing streak. If Duke drops its first two (at home against UConn and at Virginia), NU would be a tad embarrassed to lose to such a dismal team -- and to allow its streak to live on.

  • Oct. 20 vs. Eastern Michigan (at Ford Field, Detroit)

Time might be running out on Jeff Genyk. The Eagles are 9-25 since the former NU assistant took over the Eagles' head coaching job, including an abysmal 1-11 last season (with a 14-6 loss to NU in Evanston). So for a "road" game, this isn't as treacherous as NU's previous trips to TCU, Arizona State or even Nevada. Still, NU is 0-1 at Ford Field, dropping the 2003 Motor City Bowl 28-24 to Bowling Green.

... In short, 4-0 isn't just possible here. It's expected. These teams went 9-28 against Division I-AA opponents last season -- and eight of those wins belonged to Nevada.

But remember this: The last time NU went undefeated in non-conference play was 1963, when Ara Parseghian's Cats won both their non-Big Ten matchups en route to a 5-4 finish.

Coming next: An analysis of NU's conference schedule, which also sets up well for the Cats.

--Patrick Dorsey

Saturday, March 31, 2007

One down, three to go

Week One of Northwestern's four-week spring football session is done and, according to senior wide receiver T.J. Jones, the word of the spring is "competition."

There's competition at wide receiver (which could go a whopping 10 deep), superback/tight end (where sophomore Mark Woodsum and others are battling, even before NU's three freshmen show up for camp), offensive line, linebacker and nearly every other position.

"We're competing well," coach Pat Fitzgerald said. "And that's what spring ball is all about."

But, as usual in the spring, all that competition only adds up to ... more competition, once summer camp starts up in Kenosha, Wis.

So, according to Fitzgerald, NU likely won't lock down its starters until the week leading up to its Sept. 1 matchup with directional rival Northeastern.

Still, although no competitions have been settled, a few things emerged from the first week of practice.
  • Despite strong competition and a good attitude, Fitzgerald said he left the field feeling a little uneasy about NU's concentration. "We’ve got to really start to sharpen up our focus," he said. "The smallest attention to detail is the most important thing, and we’re just too sloppy. I’m just not happy with where that’s at right now, and that’s why you practice. You come back out, you get back to work at ’em. The key thing for me is, if our attitude’s in the right place, and we want to get better, we will. And that’s where I feel our guys are at right now."

  • Junior quarterback C.J. Bacher (toe) and junior safety Brendan Smith (shoulder) sat out all four practices. Fitzgerald said he expects Bacher to run soon and might be in drills as soon as late next week. Smith also is on schedule for a quick return, but Fitzgerald still said the safety won't participate in contact drills all spring.

  • Fitzgerald, on NU's Saturday board drill (which pits an offensive lineman against a defensive lineman): "That might be the best board drill we've had in a couple years."

--Patrick Dorsey

Thursday, March 29, 2007

No slow Cole (report from Pro Day)

For years, buzz about cornerback Marquice Cole's exceptional speed spread throughout the Northwestern program.

At NU's annual Pro Day on Thursday, the former Wildcat finally showed it off for NFL scouts.

Word around the Pro Day was that Cole ran a 40-yard dash in 4.35 seconds. Cole, meanwhile, claimed he clocked in at 4.33.

A little slow, by his standards.

"It was OK," Cole said, "but I could have run faster."

Even so, he might have run fast enough to place himself back onto draft boards for next month's NFL Draft.

Considered a possible mid-round selection heading into 2006, Cole instead struggled on the field and with his health -- eventually being supplanted by freshman Sherrick McManis at the right cornerback position. But, with scouts and general managers placing high value on raw numbers, Cole's 40 time clearly had the scouts in attendance impressed.

Even if it was only 4.35, not 4.33.

At the NFL Scouting Combine in February, only one of the 55 defensive backs invited to Indianapolis ran faster than Cole. That was Arkansas cornerback Chris Houston (4.32), who is ranked by Scouts, Inc., as the 27th best prospect in the Draft.

Also, only one player at the combine even matched the 4.35 figure: LSU safety LaRon Landry, considered the No. 7 prospect by Scouts, Inc.

And even if the rumored time was a hundredth of a second or two on the kind side, only eight defensive backs ran 40s in the sub-4.4 range, and five of those were 4.39s.

That bodes pretty well for Cole, who can use coaching changes, a struggling offense and injury woes as excuses for a sub-par 2006, especially after he snagged five interceptions and earned honorable mention All-Big Ten honors during his junior season.

Plus, despite his (possibly coaching-strategy-induced) lack of numbers as a punt returner, he also has a reputation as a strong special teams player, and ranks as the No. 5 return specialist, according to Scouts, Inc.

These all might not add up to having his name called next month, as his durability and on-the-field production bring up a number of questions. But one thing's for sure: That dazzling 40 time, be it 4.33 or 4.35, certainly didn't hurt his chances.


He pushed and pushed to rehab his broken leg in time for the Draft.

NU even scheduled its Pro Day a little late, one coach said, so he could have the chance to work out for scouts.

But after all that preparation, linebacker Nick Roach's draft prospects remain in jeopardy after he pulled up lame about 10 yards into his first 40-yard dash.

The prognosis: not further injury to the leg he broke last year against Michigan State, but a reaggravated injury to his left hamstring, which he said he tweaked less than three weeks ago.

"I had a feeling that it might give me trouble today," Roach said. "I was just kind of crossing my fingers and praying and hoping it wouldn't go bad.

"It's not a complete tear or pull or anything, it's just a strain that will keep me out of workouts."

Naturally, Roach was disappointed, scowling in frustration as he limped away from his failed 40 attempt. Coach Pat Fitzgerald was saddened, too.

But, Fitzgerald said, he's not worried about Roach getting down on himself.

"He's a fighter," Fitzgerald said. "For the last two years he's been battling injuries that are just freak injuries -- they're not because of anything else besides that's just what's happened. He's dealt with them great. He hasn't pouted, felt sorry for himself. He just keeps competing, so who knows where he could be if he didn't have these little dings and injuries over his career."

The problem is, these injuries could be his downfall -- at least in terms of draft position. While he's been productive on the field (he averaged a team-high 7.75 tackles in eight games last season), he hasn't been on it that much. It's these durability issues that might prevent a team from taking a chance on him with a late-round pick.

Still, Fitzgerald and nearly everyone else raves about his character -- something that's becoming more and more important in the new NFL.

Also, Fitzgerald had another perspective on Roach's injuries.

"I that's why the NFL is in love with him, is because he's got a great upside," Fitzgerald said. "He hasn't hit the ceiling of where he's going to go."


  • Other ex-NU players who participated in Pro Day were offensive linemen Ryan Keenan and Joe Tripodi, running back Terrell Jordan, wide receiver Shaun Herbert and fullback Erryn Cobb. Of that group, Keenan appears the most likely to be drafted.

  • While most players trained at NU after the season, Cole in December moved to Redondo Beach, Calif., and spent two months training and living in the Los Angeles area with a few other NFL Draft hopefuls, including former Washington State defensive end Mkristo Bruce, a second-team All-American. "We formed together like a brotherhood and we helped each other out," Cole said of the group.

  • Remember me? Two years after being dismissed from NU's football team after a series of violent incidents, tight end Braden Jones participated in the second half of Pro Day, featuring players from nearby non-Division I-A colleges. Jones spent the last two seasons at Southern Illinois, last season catching 32 passes for 521 yards and seven touchdowns.

    --Patrick Dorsey

Wednesday, March 28, 2007

McGee avoids DUI, still under microscope

After initially being charged with misdemeanor driving under the influence, stemming from an incident on Dec. 24 of last year, Northwestern offensive coordinator Garrick McGee pleaded guilty on March 21 to reckless driving, according to Tulsa (Okla.) County court documents.

Punishments for this conviction, along with McGee's guilty plea for driving 16 to 20 miles per hour over the speed limit, according to the court documents, include $635 in penalties and 24 hours of community service.

As for school-related punishments, a spokesman for the NU athletic department Wednesday said all punishments (or the lack thereof) are undisclosed, per university policy. But, considering McGee was on the sidelines for the first two days of practice and even participated in a video interview for on Tuesday, it appears the university will not reprimand McGee significantly.

With the plea, both NU and McGee dodged a potential bullet, each avoiding the ugly (if slightly overblown) stigma of a DUI conviction and stopping the further spread of negative press the university has seen in recent years.

Still, the second-year offensive coordinator will carry another dubious distinction into next season, this one coming on the field: McGee was in charge of last season's 92nd-ranked offense, down 88 spots from the Wildcats' No. 4-ranked unit in 2005.

Whether another poor offensive performance this season would put McGee's job in jeopardy is pure speculation. And while 32-year-old head coach Pat Fitzgerald might need some more experienced assistants around him (nobody on the offensive coaching staff has been with the university more than four years), letting McGee go would be highly unlikely, given NU's utter reluctance to fire assistants -- especially ones with only two years on the job and a strong track record leading up to 2006.

But it's something to keep an eye on, considering NU's recent reputation as an offensive powerhouse. Also, with perennial All-Big Ten candidate Tyrell Sutton at running back, a slew of wide receivers in tow and C.J. Bacher seemingly the answer at quarterback, the talent is close to the level of 2005.

And, while McGee was not convicted of the DUI charge, and while DUI charges are relatively easy to come by, those three letters never are pretty in the public eye -- especially at a university still in the shadow of a few recent scandals.

--Patrick Dorsey

Monday, March 26, 2007

Wake up, time for spring football

Northwestern's first spring football practice didn't start with a bang Monday. It started with a wakeup call.

A 4:30 a.m. wakeup call, according to Eddie Simpson.

"Coach (Pat) Fitz(gerald) is a morning guy," the senior linebacker said.

And so goes the story of NU football this spring. Practices that used to take place in the afternoons now start at 7:25 a.m.

"It takes a little bit of getting used to," Simpson said.

"I was against it at first, you know, (because) that means I have to go to bed at like 8 o'clock," junior running back Tyrell Sutton said.

But now, Sutton said, he likes it. And Fitzgerald claims there's a method to his morning mindset. Or maybe a motto.

"My way of thinking is, you go to bed thinking about football and you wake up thinking about football," Fitzgerald said, speaking in his usual upbeat manner after a practice that Simpson could only sum up in one, not-so-unexpected word:


But more shook out than just a little rust Monday.

Here are some items of interest from Monday's session, one of just four open to the media this spring (none is open to the public):

  • Junior quarterback C.J. Bacher, who stared NU's last five games (for a 2-3 record) in 2006, sat out practice while trying to recover from offseason toe surgery. Fitzgerald said he's optimistic Bacher will perform in some drills next week and might be ready to go full-speed in the spring's final two weeks.

  • Fitzgerald also said that, unlike last spring, defenders will not be able to hit quarterbacks. "(We need to) make sure to keep these guys healthy," Fitzgerald said.

  • With Bacher out, sophomore Mike Kafka and redshirt freshman Joe Mauro were NU's only available quarterbacks. Like the rest of NU's incoming freshmen, quarterback Dan Persa won't join the team until the summer.

  • Where's Andrew Brewer? The sophomore who started three games last season under center has made the full transition to wide receiver. He now is listed atop the depth chart at one of NU's four listed wide receiver positions.

  • Several other players sat out Monday, most notably junior safety Brendan Smith (offseason shoulder surgery). Smith, who recorded 68 tackles and three interceptions last season, could be back sometime this week, according to Fitzgerald, but likely won't parcticipate in full-contact drills all spring.

  • With the absences also came some returns. Players who finally made it to the practice field after undergoing injury troubles include once-touted linebacker Chris Jeske, now a sophomore, and defensive end Corbin Bryant, who played in two games last season as a true freshman before sustaining a broken leg in practice.

In addition to its practices, NU will hold its yearly pro timing day Thursday, where former cornerback/punt returner Marquice Cole, linebacker Nick Roach, offensive lineman Ryan Keenan, wide receiver Shaun Herbert and other 2006 seniors will participate.

--Patrick Dorsey