I caught up with Northwestern offensive coordinator Mick McCall after the Wildcats' practice today to discuss the quarterbacks, last year's woes, how he thinks the offense can improve, and more. And since McCall is the king of coach speak, I also provided some coach speak translations.
How's everything going with three quarterbacks competing?
McCall: Good. There's some ups and there's some downs, but those guys had a better day than they did on Tuesday, so that was a good thing, just as long as we keep improving. But they're making strides. They're making strides.
Translation: Today was encouraging, but it's a process.
When they talked to us, they said Zack has the strongest arm, Matt is the fastest and Clayton's a combination. Would you agree with that assessment?
McCall: Uhhhh ... I don't know. They all can make the throws they need to make. That's number one. I don't worry about that. And they all can execute the offense. Some of them are a little bit more elusive and faster, and some of them are a little bit bigger and stronger, but I'm not worried about that so much. We'll get to that part when we decide who the guy is, we'll get to that thing. But right now, I'm not worried about that.
Translation: They'll work on designing the scheme to the starter's strengths once they figure out who the starter is. Right now, it's just about spread basics.
So what's the process right now? Is it really general stuff?
McCall: Yeah, it's basically general stuff. There's a little bit of movement, there's a little bit of five-step, there's a little bit of three-step. Everybody's running the option, so we're running that kind of stuff. So they're all doing the things we ask them to do, what our offense is. They're all doing the basic offense. And then, as we get going, it'll be more game planning, and it's gotta be toward the guys that we have on the field, too. Not just the quarterback, but the other guys we have on the field, as well.
Translation: Pretty straightforward.
What do you need most at receiver right now?
McCall: We just need guys to be consistent and execute our offense. That's the bottom line. And it doesn't matter if it's a fast guy, a possession guy, it doesn't matter. We just need guys that want to be consistent and catch the ball consistently so we can move the chains. And then, every once in awhile the defense makes a mistake and we're going to get a big play. So that's the kind of guy we need right now.
Translation: DON'T DROP THE DAMN BALL. Also yay for Christian Jones being back.
Last year there weren't a lot of those big plays. Was that defenses playing you guys well or was that just dropping longer passes?
McCall: You know, we dropped a lot of balls. Some things we didn't have the matchups that we wanted at that point in time. So there were a lot of different consequences. Or we didn't get the ball to them, or we did get the ball to them and we didn't have the right guy in positions. So, it's all about guys that are gonna play being consistent. And when they're consistent, they have a chance to make a big play when the defense makes a mistake.
Even when the defense is on, we should still beat people with timing and ball placement, and that's what we've always done in the past. So that's gonna continue.
Translation: From quarterback to receiver, the passing game just wasn't very good last year.
When you look at your potential backfield, those are all guys that a lot of schools wanted. Have you ever had that much potential in a backfield?
McCall: Potential is one thing. Executing it and doing it is a whole other thing. That's why you're doing it, that's why you coach, that's why all those people that recruited everybody in the world, yeah, it doesn't matter. It really doesn't matter. When you get to the point where you get put in a situation and you've gotta make a play and execute, that's the most important thing.
So is it nice to have those guys? Heck yes. I love them. They've just got to continue to get better and be consistent in the way they play. Not just one hit wonder here and one hit wonder there and then they miss three or four plays. You can't do that at quarterback, especially. You can't have two big plays and then have three awful plays, because that's how you get your team beat.
Translation: They have to prove it in college, but hell yeah I'm happy about having players this good. Suck it, Iowa and Texas (just kidding).
Just watching the rest of college football, from the Auburn pop pass stuff to the Oregon triple read option stuff, it seems like there's more of an ability now to do that here.
McCall: Oh yeah. Maybe not so much a year ago, but we've always had that ability to do that. It's just now you've got to go execute it. And we did some of that stuff a year ago and we didn't execute it. So we've gotta execute, that's the bottom line. And when that happens, we'll be alright.
Translation: We've done innovative things before. We have to execute for it to look good, but we have the personnel to run it better now than we did last year.
The superbacks said last year that you're using them a little bit different than you have in past years and you're using them on the line to block more. Is that a conscious change you've made as a result of the personnel you have?
McCall: The biggest thing is, a year ago, we didn't know what we were gonna have. We thought Garrett (Dickerson) could do some stuff, but we didn't know. And now we know, we've got three guys in that room, where before we had one guy and some guys that were "ehhhh, maybe they can help us a bit." And now, those guys have become more of a part of who they are.
That could happen. As time goes on we'll see. I think those guys can also pay in space a little bit. Garrett's a good football player, and he can do some things in space, not just Danny (Vitale) or not just Jayme (Taylor). But all three of them have the ability to do that. So that's very much a possibility for us sometimes to align an in-line guy like Garrett, and he can do that.
Translation: The superbacks are all really good, and they'll play a major role in the offense in a variety of ways.
Yeah he seemed to go from a blocking guy mainly earlier on, and then later he was catching those passes up the seam, which was really impressive.
McCall: Sure, sure. And he's gonna get more and we're gonna use him more as time goes on, because he's a good football player, and he does things right and he's working at it. Again, it's gonna go back to, our best players, we need to get them on the field, and he's vying to be one of our best players.
Translation: That guy that Alabama, Michigan, Ohio State and Stanford all wanted is a very good football player!
The question I've gotten most from fans: Why is it going to be different this year? Why can it be like 2012?
McCall: I'm not gonna compare it to 2012 or anything else. I just think that we're able to coach them right now, and coach (Fitz) has said this too before, and I'm not going to grind on that, but we're able to coach them and coach them hard. I think we've got a pretty good group of guys and we're going to go execute it, but it's gotta be consistent in execution. That's not gonna happen just because we snap the finger and I said the magic word or anything else like that.
It's going to be because we work through this process and get better each day and more consistent each day, just like we did today. We got better today because we paid attention to our mechanics, our fundamentals, our footwork, and I'm just talking the quarterbacks right now. And across the board, that happened today. And so we need to put another practice back-to-back on Saturday, and another practice back-to-back on Tuesday and Thursday and Saturday, and just keep doing that. That's going to be the difference, that we're going to put those back-to-back.
Translation: It's hard to pinpoint something right now, but we need to be more consistent. And as I mentioned above, we have personnel capable of being more consistent. We just need to do it now.
Is there something you can point to right now to say this is a reason to be excited that maybe now we can have that execution?
McCall: You're always optimistic as a coach and you're always positive, but you've gotta go do it. So I'm not saying that it's gonna — I truly believe it's gonna happen, because we're gonna work hard and go do that, but I'm not saying it just happened because we just put a magic wand or I said this, or I made this comment or we phrased it as that. It doesn't matter what I say or do, it's how act and how each one of those guys acts or does. And we need to do that consistently and do things back-to-back-to-back-to-back. When we do that, we'll get more confidence, we'll build on confidence, and that's what I hope will springboard us into that kind of situation.
Translation: Basically the same thing as above.
Do you see more of a Kafka kind of offense or a Persa or Colter kind of offense?
McCall: I don't know if you can put a tag on it. I think we're going to go back to our basics, we're gonna run inside zone, we're gonna run outside zone and we're gonna run the option play, and then we're gonna get the ball out of our hands quickly as a quarterback in the passing game, and once in awhile we'll play-action and get the ball down the field, and that's who we are, but we've gotta get the ball to our playmakers.
You talked about some guys, Christian Jones, Danny Vitale, Justin Jackson, the running backs, Solomon Vault — we've gotta get the ball in the playmakers' hands and let them play.
Translation: I'm not gonna label it, but we need our most talented players to ball out.
It seemed like I saw a lot more inside zone last year than other times, at least (I'm comparing to 2013 here, not 2012) ...
McCall: You saw more outside zone than we've ever run, and that's because we got better at that, and we're gonna continue to work that. So that's where we, I thought we made an improvement running the football was running the outside zone play. And we're going to continue to work that, but we also didn't run the speed option or triple option as much, and we're gonna come back and do that in some different ways.
Translation: We're gonna run more option again and do some more innovative things on offense, because now we can.