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Northwestern Spring Football Primer: Lunch with Pat Fitzgerald

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Jerry Lai-USA TODAY Sports

Pat Fitzgerald met with select members of the media Tuesday, and provided updates on injured players, position changes, and just about anything you could reasonably expect him to update us on. Here is everything of note he had to say:

- Injuries -- The following players are out for all of spring practice:

G Matt Frazier, DT Tyler Lancaster, DT Greg Kuhar, LB Drew Smith, CB Parrker Westphal, LB Anthony Pierce, CB Troy Sheppard

Fitzgerald said Westphal has had multiple surgeries on different body parts, but said the outlook is still "real good. It's just going to take time."

Fitzgerald was explicitly asked whether he thought any of those seven players would be out for fall camp. After deliberating a bit, he said, "at this point, no, I think they'll all be ready."

- Injuries -- The following players will miss the start of spring practice, but could be on the field after the team returns from spring break:

OT Blake Hance, S Traveon Henry, G Geoff Mogus, DT Sean McEvilly, OL Kenton Playko

Fitzgerald said he thinks it's the healthiest his team has been going into spring practice in at least a few years, and hopes that makes for a more competitive spring.

- Position Changes -- Fitzgerald said he and his staff had made decisions on the following position changes:

Connor Mahoney from defensive line to offensive line -- "We felt like we were one older guy away from competition at all five spots [on the offensive line]," Fitzgerald said. Mahoney played both sides of the ball in high school. Fitzgerald said Mahoney would have been a rotational guy on the defensive line, "but we think this gives him an opportunity to go in and start."

Tom Hruby from defensive end to superback/fullback

Linebackers and defensive backs -- Fitzgerald: "Just figuring out the pieces of the puzzle in the back seven defensively. I don't think there are going to be any positional moves, but... we make our corners, safeties and outside backers learn mirrored positions. [For example], we don't play one guy at SAM and one guy at WIL, we make them learn both. So we'll see how that evolves. That will be a big question mark from a personnel standpoint."

- Quarterback -- When asked if the offense would be different schematically for different quarterbacks, Fitzgerald said, "potentially." He said the competition is roughly 95 percent about who performs the best in camp, and 5 percent about who fits in with the rest of the offensive personnel. "The quarterbacks are all going to run the same plays," Fitzgerald said. "We're just going to split the reps up into thirds."

Fitzgerald said "the team needs to know who's going to go out there," so he would like to name a starter as soon as possible, but that announcement won't necessarily be made public. Also, Fitzgerald said he'd prefer to have just one quarterback as opposed to a two-quarterback system. "It gives everybody around the quarterback a better understanding of who's in charge, and who to follow." He said the two-QB systems of the past were more "out of necessity."

- Offensive line -- Two offensive linemen are out for the spring, but Fitzgerald said there will eventually be competition for all five offensive line spots. He said the center position is a competition between Brad North and Ian Park.

Fitzgerald on the 2012 offensive line class that included Adam DePietro, Ian Park, Eric Olson and Kenton Playko: "The time is now. Too many this, too many that, too many of the other. Too many issues--injuries, off the field, this, that and the other. They need to start to produce at a high level... and I believe they can do it."

- Solomon Vault -- Fitzgerald said he wasn't sure whether or not Vault, who was primarily a running back in 2014 as a true freshman, would play more receiver in 2015 as a sophomore.

"He's got a really impressive skill set," Fitzgerald said. "I think he would have had a breakout year as a kick returner last year if he didn't get hurt." Fitzgerald said that after Vault pulled his hamstring against Penn State on the opening kickoff, he was never at 100 percent the rest of the year. He said that even on the kick return touchdown against Illinois, Vault wasn't at full speed.

Fitzgerald said competition would determine who will return kicks in 2015, "but I'd be shocked if [Vault] wasn't in the conversation in the fall. I think he's got a chance to be pretty explosive there for us."

- Injury prevention -- Fitzgerald said he and his staff had examined their own methods for injury prevention, as well as studied the methods of other programs who had been healthy the past two years, and didn't find any telling trends. He did say he thinks his players maybe generally weren't as prepared "mentally, emotionally and physically" as they should have been though, especially last year.

"If there's any spike," Fitzgerald says, "it's that we're seeing a lot more shoulder injuries coming out of high school than there has ever been. And that's because the game used to be done like this [puts his forearms out in front of his chest] and it's now like that [extends his arms so his hands are wider than his shoulders]. Kids are playing with their arms out here, and now they're blowing their labrums out." Fitzgerald also mentioned that a lot of high school players are over-training nowadays, which puts them at increased risk of soft tissue injuries.

Fitzgerald said this offseason, the program was less focused on conditioning and more focused on lifting. "We felt like because of some of the injuries guys had had, they were a little bit behind with strength."

- The offseason for the coaching staff -- Fitzgerald on the offseason: "You look first of all at yourself. You cut up every play. You do that in all three phases. You take a look at your strength and conditioning program. You do a 360 of the program. We do exit interviews with every senior.

"And then we go out, unfortunately the last two years, during bowl season and watch some people practice. We'll hit some OTAs in the NFL. But now with the sharing of the NFL tape--we've got all the NFL tape in house now--we take a look at some teams, pick up some schemes. There are a few things we picked up last year that were pretty succesful for us. I think that evolves every year.

"And then I'll meet with anywhere from one to five or seven coaches and just talk. Predominantly college guys, a lot of high school coaches. The pro guys are kind of in a little different routine than we're in. But coach Tres [Marc Trestman] was great, Lovie [Smith] was great, and I've already exchanged some messages with Foxy [John Fox]. We'll see where that goes."

- Tommy Rees -- Rees, who was hired as a graduate assistant, will actually be working with Northwestern's wide receivers to start. As Fitzgerald explained, "That's going to help Tommy grow and be a better coach. He's played quarterback, he's been a quarterback his whole life. I think it'll give great perspective to those wide receivers too... to see exactly what the quarterback is seeing."

After joking that Rees is a GA and would be "setting up soda stations and picking up recruits from the airport," and saying that he'd never been asked a question about a GA before, Fitzgerald said, "my relationship with his dad goes a long way back, and when Tommy get let go a year ago [by the Washington professional football team], he came up once or twice and we sat down and talked about life. He said, 'I think I want to get into coaching,' and I wanted to know, 'do you think? Or do you know?'

"So he went into private business for a while, came back at the end of last year, and it was a couple weeks before the Notre Dame game. And he said, 'I'd love to come back and talk to you, but I don't think it's right that I do that before the game.' And I said, 'I totally agree,' so he came up a couple weeks after to talk, and said 'I definitely know I want to do this.' So then it was a process of getting into school, and that was not a problem for him.

"We try to keep it in house, we try to have the guys go quality control to GAs, but sometimes I circumvent that just because of a myriad of reasons. And I'm obviously close with Tommy and his family. So I think he's a great addition. He's got a great knowledge.

- Process of deciding who redshirts and who plays right away -- Fitzgerald explained his five step process for deciding which incoming freshmen see the field right away:

1. Fitzgerald said that "80 percent of freshmen redshirt themselves," and in all seriousness, he thinks the number one reason for that is "that girl [from high school] that is just stuck to them... When I was in school, if I wanted to talk to Stacey [his future wife and high school sweetheart], I had to wait in line for the pay phone. And you weren't going to put your butt in front of the pay phone because all your boys would make fun of you for calling your girlfriend. Now, with this dang thing [holds up his cell phone], he can't get away from her. That's the number one reason why they redshirt."

2. Fitzgerald: "What kind of functional strength and conditioning do they have? So they can stay safe, and so they can compete. Some guys just aren't ready. Especially in the trenches."

3. Fitzgerald: "Do they pick up our system? Now with the summer time, we're able to work with them a little more, and that helps, but nobody hits back in the summer. It get's a lot different in camp when the game gets physical.

4. Fitzgerald: "Do we need them to play? I would prefer not to waste a guy's year on covering kicks and just being involved in the kicking game. Fitzgerald says if a guy is going to play over 100 scrimmage snaps, then he'll considering removing his redshirt.

5. Fitzgerald "If we get one through four, number five is, 'do you want to play?' In my nine years, we've had no one tell me 'no.' We've had, in my time at Northwestern, one guy tell us 'no.'

"But after we have that conversation, then we tell them to call home and tell them 'hey, it looks like I'm going to play.' And that might be the most important practice of that kid's year, that next day, now that they've realized that they're no longer fighting to play, now they are playing.

"And we have had a couple of guys that when we go to that next day, all of a sudden reality hits them in the face, and we go right back to [step] one."

- Justin Jackson's workload -- Fitzgerald on if he'll make a concerted effort to limit Justin Jackson's workload in 2015 and mix other backs in more: "I don't know. I don't know. That'll come down to competition. I mean, Justin won the job. We were excited about him, but we didn't know where things would go.

"Knowing Justin, if he were here right now, he'd say, 'hell no. I'm carrying the ball every play.' But the rest of the room [wants to be involved], so I think competition will determine that."

- What needs to change in 2015 -- Fitzgerald: "We just have to be more consistent, first and foremost at the point of attack... and we've got to continue to develop offensive cohesiveness. That was probably what jumped out to me most last year. We had a lot of different parts in a lot of different games, and it just didn't click.

"Defensively, we've made some strides, but we've got to play with better technique consistency. We've got to continue to build on our takeaway culture. And we've got to play more physical at the point of attack.

- "Year of Readiness" -- Fitzgerald said he hadn't studied the idea of freshman ineligibility (note: it is not yet a formal proposal by the Big Ten or any other conference or the NCAA, it has just been discussed). "I'm always for whatever makes the student-athlete experience better," Fitzgerald said. On the issue as a whole, he said "I think this is one piece of a larger puzzle."

Fitzgerald: "When there's structure put in guys' lives, they usually do pretty well. When they have a lot of time on their hands, the four letter word creeps in--they get lazy.

Fitzgerald said he thinks the fact that he got to play as a freshman made him a better sophomore. "You know, I enjoyed playing," he said.

Fitzgerald said that in any discussion of change, "you have to think about the unintended consequences."