At the end of one of the most “disgusting challenges” in program history, redshirt sophomore offensive tackle Shane Mertz emerged from a swarm of anxious teammates and let out a celebratory roar. It rippled through Lakeside Fields like a jubilant rallying cry, as if Northwestern had just finished its regular season atop the Legends Division, a conference championship game appearance secured, two goals that slipped out of the Wildcats reach thanks to three blown second half leads.
The howl had nothing to do with football in general, or Northwestern’s 2013 season goals in particular. Mertz and his four-man entourage were preening and hollering at something smaller, a challenge.
The rules: players line up in groups of five, affix their helmets to the stub of a baseball bat that must remain planted into the ground, spin around ten times while keeping helmet to bat and bat to field, then run forward and hand transfer the bat to the next guy in line. The last part is absurdly hilarious – players are almost always dizzy-eyed and woefully off-balance by the time they finish their mandatory 10 rotations and attempt to run a straight line.
After the last player completes his bat-spinning, a hot-dog awaits, and Mertz pounced, chewed and consumed faster than any other group. He had every right to relish his achievement with a booming screech.
Saturday brought the end of another set of spring practices, and Mertz’s rallying cry doesn’t even begin to explain everything coach Pat Fitzgerald has to be excited about this spring. He’s thinking about all the tangible goals Mertz’s shriek may have been mistaken for, and he’s totally on point.
It has been one of the strongest six-week sessions Fitzgerald can remember – he has relayed that message all spring long, and he reiterated his point over the weekend.
“We’ve executed pretty well all spring long,” he said. “It was pretty good out here today. I think we had a lot of elements.”
Reaching those goals is a process that began in January, right after Northwestern’s first bowl victory in over 60 years. Fitzgerald shot down any sense of complacency and immediately turned to a creative motivation tactic. He had 5:03 emblazoned on the back of everyone’s practice jerseys to symbolize the amount of game clock standing between a 10-3, Gator Bowl-winning season and regular season perfection.
The level of intensity and upbeat nature of the workouts reflected a team buying into every proverbial second of Fitgzerald’s credo. The fact is, Northwestern was exceedingly close to finishing undefeated last season, and the lessons learned from that 10-3 campaign have become the building blocks for an even more promising 2013.
“I think our chemistry carried over from last year. I think we learned a great lesson on being a team a year ago,” Fitzgerald said. “You can see the togetherness and the brotherhood they have.”
Intangible qualities are a nice place to start. I’ll offer another reason for this team’s positive momentum: depth.
You can trace it back to losing very few players of note from last year’s group, or the gradual progression in Northwestern’s recruiting classes, or the extra reinforcements stockpiled at positions with the most roster turnover. All of those things make sense in various ways, and all help to partially explain why this is the deepest group of Fitzgerald’s tenure.
“I think it’s in the best place that we’ve had it,” Fitzgerald said when asked about his team’s depth.
Everything starts up front, and the Wildcats – despite missing projected starters Jack Konopka, Paul Jorgensen and Geoff Mogus throughout the spring – are jam-packed with young talent at the guard and tackle spots. Redshirt freshmen Adam DePietro and Ian Park plugged holes. Mertz flashed his borderline-Dinosaur size and quick feet. Reserves like Kenton Playko and Eric Olson held their own in limited action. Without ever seeing 3/5 of the Wildcats’ projected starting alignment, the offensive line showed more depth, size and versatility than at any point last season.
Running back is more of the same. Venric Mark is the obvious No. 1 ballcarrier, and Mike Trumpy will offer his usual bruising short-yardage work, but the Wildcats simply have more options to work with this season. Redshirt freshmen Stephen Buckley and Malin Jones add different skill sets – Buckley is a shifty, big-play, elusive burner; Jones is bigger back with a well-rounded style, something closer to a standard-list tailback – to a run game that finished fourth in the Big Ten last season.
Other positions got bigger, faster and just plain better this spring, too, and with the possible exception of defensive tackle, there is not a single unit that hasn’t made positive strides since the end of last season.
The depth is so good, at pretty much every position on the field, that the intrepid Fitzgerald summoned an obscure metaphor involving eating establishment adornments to offer up some measured self-deprecation.
“We rolled a bunch of guys in,” Fitzgerald said, addressing the number of player who saw action in Saturday’s controlled practice-ending scrimmage. “I kind of felt like a doormat at a restaurant with how many guys were going in and out.”
With 13 injured players expected to return for preseason camp, there will be more depth, which means more competition, and more chances for this already promising team to improve around every margin.
Spring practices are easy to get excited about. Every player is “excited” and “fresh” and “in the best shape of my life.” Maybe Fitzgerald is stretching the truth, and maybe his optimism is a shade below a truthful assessment of the state of his team. But I’ve heard various coaches offer nothing but peachy platitudes and vanilla coachspeak – even Fitzgerald will present a warped view of his team from time to time.
All spring long, and on Saturday again, there was no sign of fabrication or overzealous conjecture in Fitzgerald’s words. This team deep, excited and exactly where he wants it to be.