Big Ten Conference Football Media Days

Monday July 25, 2016

Pat Fitzgerald

Northwestern

THE MODERATOR: We'll begin with Northwestern head coach Pat Fitzgerald.

COACH FITZGERALD: Good morning. It's with heavy heart and great sadness that I kick off here this morning. Obviously, the tragic news the passing of Sam Foltz and Mike Sadler over the weekend. On behalf of Northwestern, our football program and all our players we'd like to express all the thoughts and prayers to their families, Coach Dantonio, Coach Riley and the Spartan and Husker families on their tragic loss. We recruited Mike and know him well. And just sad, tragic news and our thoughts and prayers are with them.

And then obviously at Northwestern, the passing of Coach Green and the trail blazer, first African-American football coach in our program's history, in the Big Ten's history. Unbelievable track record in the National Football League.

So to start off with a heavy heart and great sadness and we lift their families up in our thoughts and prayers.

Changing gears to football, rewinding back to 2015, with our squad, an exciting year for us to get to double-digit wins again, two out of the last four years, to be able to do that, was exciting on the field. Obviously some unfinished business in three of our contests, but still very pleased and proud of the accomplishments that our young men had a year ago.

And then to go through the season the way that we did and then go out of it and have the academic success -- it was our best academic year. We had a team GPA of 3.15 for the calendar year. So to have if not one of our most successful seasons on the field and to piggyback that academically is outstanding, and I am proud of the young men.

As I look to 2016, this may be the strongest football team that we've had. I just got an updated text message from our strength coach. I think Justin and Matthew set two PRs last night, so we're at over 400 personal records in the weight room throughout the course of the summer. Our guys have been doing a terrific job working with Jay Hooten, our strength coach, to improve an area that we feel we really need to get better at.

Our three losses a year ago we got dominated at the line of scrimmage. We've got to improve our strength up front to take the next steps to where we want to go to put ourselves into position to compete to be in Indianapolis and to be in that type of conversation.

So we've got a lot of work to do as we get things going here on August 7th. But like every coach that's been before me at the other kickoff lunches and media days, excited to have things start up.

Excited and want to welcome Chris and DJ and Tracy to the Big Ten head coach's fraternity to Rutgers Maryland and Minnesota respectively. Questions?

Q. You were so good last year in close games. As a coach, how do you cultivate that trait again going into the next year so you can be so solid in those games that came down to the fourth quarter?
COACH FITZGERALD: I think five of those, five wins in single-digit games and three of those were on the road. It was really the hallmark to our success a year ago.

I think it's in the way we prepare. We try to put our guys in adverse situations during practice throughout -- this is going to be year 17 on staff, 11th as the head coach. We've been in a lot of close games. I can't tell you why. And our guys are confident in that situation.

I think it really goes back to the way we prepare and the way that we practice, try to make it as game-like as we possibly can, and hopefully we can draw upon that success last year to have it again be one of our staples this year.

I prefer, trust me, not to be in those kind of games, but it just doesn't seem to be the way we play our style of game.

Q. Anthony Walker, big push by your marketing department in terms of superhero type stuff. How do you feel about that push and what does he need to do to get better?
COACH FITZGERALD: Teddy, I think it's kind of cool. I'm sure the Tribune has done something, put a bobblehead together for you, right? Absolutely. We've done it in the past with Danny. And, first of all, I think it's great for Anthony. He's earned that to be a returning all-American, the same way that Danny was, back a few years ago.

I think it shows our commitment as a university to think outside the box. First of all, the only way we can do it is if a young person is humble enough to understand what we're trying to do, and both Dan and now Anthony -- Anthony really didn't want to do it, but said let's have some fun with it.

And the tag, the franchise was given to him by his teammates. I think that's something that's really neat. His teammates are having a blast with it. They're totally making fun of him, which if you can't laugh at yourself and have fun with things like that, that's what college football is all about.

So having some fun, enjoying it with a great player and hopefully he can live up to the hype. But he's a special player. He's got a lot to improve on, but he's a sideline-to-sideline physical player that can play great in the run game and pass game. And had, what, 20-plus tackles for loss a year ago. Very talented player.

Q. Last year's team had some similarities to one of the opponents in your days that they had a very strong central back, kind of carrying the load. Remember Robert Holcombe and the Illini in '95. Do you see Holcombe in Justin Jackson or is there any other back that you played against in the Big Ten that Jackson kind of reminds you of, like a throw back to those days, the black and blue division of the Big Ten?
COACH FITZGERALD: When I look at J.J. he reminds me a lot -- different styles a little bit, but just in my time at Northwestern, some of our backs. Similar to Tyrell Sutton with his vision. And Noah Herron, how Noah was a big back, but didn't seem he really got hit that hard. Was always able to slip tackles.

And maybe Jason Wright with his ability to catch the ball out of the backfield. So maybe a combination of all three of those guys is kind of what I see in J.J. -- very talented player from a standpoint of being able to do everything. Just not a first-down back or third-down back. He's a complete back. Still has room for improvement in his game.

But a young man that we've got to have more balance offensively to get people out of the box. I think most games we saw eight, nine guys in the box and we've got to be able to throw it more efficiently to be able to loosen some people up to respect our passing game to be quite frankly more explosive offensively this year.

Q. Obviously you have a really tough October stretch here, and Northwestern being on the quarter system you guys don't start school until September. How are you prepared to deal with that considering that five- or six-game stretch there?
COACH FITZGERALD: If you look at throughout my time it's been a month that's been a challenge for us. It's typically very good opponents. We do start school. But that's an excuse.

And so what do we do? We heighten our guy's awareness of the challenge that will be ahead in training camp and we kind of close that drawer and we'll come back to it when we get to October and turn our focus back into ourselves and then getting ready for the opener.

But there's no question if we want to be in position to have our name talked about in November to compete for this trophy to my right, we've got to be more consistent in October. And I think you get there by, number one, being a little bit lucky and staying healthy. Obviously on our end as coaches putting a plan together to win challenging football games, and you know our October schedule this year it's going to be daunting.

And then go out and execute in the moment and find a way to win. So I think there's a lot of working parts when it comes to that. But there's no question it will be something I'll talk about during training camp.

Q. In the three games that you guys lost last year, they were not really that close. How do you limit the damage this year when you're playing these tough teams?
COACH FITZGERALD: Thanks, Charlie, for the reminder. Kind of wiped that out of my memory bank.

All three games were unique. The Michigan game, obviously getting off to the slow start on the road. I thought they played outstanding. When you get on the bus and you pop the tape on that's the first thing you do as a coach. You pop on the tape and you go: We should have done A, B, C. But wow do they do it well. And you tip your hat and you move on, get ready for the next week.

I thought the way we came back and responded in the first half against the Hawkeyes, we were playing well enough to be competitive in that game and then, quite frankly, did not do a good job playing good team football. We turned the ball over. We couldn't move the ball offensively against a very good Iowa defense and gave up more explosive run plays in that game than any other game until we got to Tennessee.

In the bowl game, we just could not get out of our own way it seemed like in all three phases. We didn't execute well. Obviously that starts with us as coaches.

Looking again as we get to postseason next year did we ask our guys to do too much? And I've had fun like you guys have and probably most of you have been around the country covering the other media days. Tennessee is a pretty good team.

And they played well against us. And so you tip your hat to them. But a lot to learn and grow from. When you talk about motivation in the offseason you don't have to look any further than those three games and a lot of specifics that we'll talk about internally in areas that we need to improve on in all three phases for us to win those games.

And again ten wins is a special year no matter where you're at, Northwestern or Alabama. Doesn't matter anywhere between. To get to the 11 and get to 12 and get to the Big Ten Championship Game and to get in the playoff, you're in pretty rare air there and it's a high standard and the way you need to play to win those games.

For us to take the next step as a program we've got to do a better job collectively as a program to win those types of games.

Q. Defense was obviously very good last year, probably I guess maybe the best part of the team. But you lost a little bit of production from graduating seniors -- Deonte Gibson, Dean Lowry, (indiscernible), Treveon Henry all gone. How do you deal with that turnover and make sure it's as good as last year?
COACH FITZGERALD: Recruiting, you hope you recruited well. A couple of years ago you probably wouldn't have asked me about those four names. It's recruiting player development, and to see the career those four young men had, incredibly proud of them. Keith Watkins has played a lot of football for us at corner and expect him to jump in there right away and fill that position that Nick graduates from. Same with Kyle Queiro at the safety position. And the up front Xavier Washington and Ifeadi Odenigbo had outstanding seasons. I don't know if you saw Ifeadi's tweet the other day. You guys are on social media. He's stronger than he's ever been. So those are four names.

But then hopefully you've got four more to back those two guys up and we feel pretty good about that group. So we've just got to continue to develop depth. We've got to continue to develop our young talent. A year ago we were not afraid to play young guys as you saw on our rotation especially on the defensive line and also in the secondary and that was to prepare for this year knowing that we were going to graduate some very productive football players.

Q. You mentioned in the spring that Anthony had a chance to be the best linebacker at Northwestern. I was wondering when you're watching the tape, what stands out that will catch attention at the next level?
COACH FITZGERALD: First of all, I think, it's his athleticism. You watch from the opener Stanford to Tennessee in the bowl game, two very explosive football teams with great talent offensively. And there was a non-issue when it came to athleticism, speed, not only playing in the box but more importantly playing out in space for Anthony. His ability, I think, to play in all aspects of the linebacker position -- against the run, against the pass, and then rushing the passer from the standpoint of when we pressure him or when he's being aggressive.

And maybe using the scheme to his advantage. You couple that with his leadership, his ability to be a servant leader. He's done a terrific job of taking younger players, the rest of the defense under his wing, showing them how to prepare in the film room, in the weight room and then just how to carry yourself on a daily basis.

He's a returning all-American. He's going to have a bull's eye on his chest. He'll see more people playing below his waist than maybe ever in his career. People will be playing cut block and things of that nature to slow him down, and he's got a lot of things to improve on. That aspect will be something that will definitely something he has to work on in training camp. He's poised to have a special year and poised to be one of the best we've ever had, exciting times for him and for us.

Q. You don't have a lot of experience at the wide receiver position this upcoming year who. Do you expect to be the leader of that group and who also do you look outside of that leader to make the plays this year?
COACH FITZGERALD: I'd say definitely Austin Carr our most experienced player coming back. He and Andrew Scanlan have done a terrific job this summer. Not only that position but I would say across the board what I have learned about our squad so far since Father's Day when our freshmen reported?

Our upperclassmen, the brotherhood and chemistry we have had might be the best that we've had in my 11 years as a coach. We have a big brother program, most people do, I don't think it's unique to Northwestern. But to see the way our upperclassmen are taking the younger guys under their wing, it's what we'll have to draw upon when we face adversity which we will. I hope we don't face a lot. But in the name of college football you're going to.

So A.C. and Scan have done a great job. And we moved Marcus Sheppard over from corner. Played a lot for us, played receiver in high school. I thought the 15 practices he grew exponentially in spring ball, and practice 16 will be August 8. Looking forward to see where he's at. Same thing with Solomon Vault, moving him from running back. I think we've all seen his dynamic play-making ability as a kick returner. With Warren Long in the backfield along with Justin as our two experienced backs, we felt. Moving Solo to the outside could definitely give as an opportunity to be more explosive. I was impressed with Flynn Nagel until he got hurt last year and he's a guy I expect we'll see production from out there pretty quickly from an experience standpoint. I know it was only a handful of games but definitely.

Then I think we've got competitive depth. We're back to having competitive depth out there, which as a coach that's what you want. If you're not getting the job done you get to meet my friend, the motivator called the bench. He's awesome. He's the best motivator in the world. To be able to play a lot of guys when you think back to when we were in the top whatever, you want to say offensively when we had talent, and we had competitive talent in the wide receiver room. If you weren't getting it done you were going to watch. And wow that really changes the dynamic. And I think we're inching our way, but I think we're much further along today than we were this time last year.

THE MODERATOR: Thank you.

FastScripts Transcript by ASAP Sports
Rev #2 by #19 at 2016-07-25 18:15:00 GMT

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