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Fitzgerald, Hankwitz talk true freshmen, defense, and more

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Both Fitzgerald and Hankwitz are excited about the freshmen.

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With Northwestern headed down the home stretch in Kenosha, we spoke with head coach Pat Fitzgerald and defensive coordinator Mike Hankwitz on various issues to get a sense of where the team stands 16 days away from the season opener against Stanford. Here's some of what they had to say:

- I asked both Hankwitz and Fitzgerald whether they thought this was the most talented defense they've had at Northwestern. Neither answered with an unequivocal yes — both mentioned the 2012 team, and Fitzgerald also pointed to the 2009 team — but Fitzgerald said that this is the best group he's had "from a competitive depth standpoint." Hankwitz said that "the key will be our youth stepping up and playing like veterans."

- Fitzgerald said no final decisions have been made on which true freshmen will redshirt and which ones will play right away, but those decisions will likely be made early next week. Expect the number of true freshmen who play right away to be high though. Fitzgerald mentioned about a dozen freshmen who have impressed him in camp, and Hankwitz singled out the following players on the defensive side of the ball: Jordan Thompson, Tommy Vitale, Alonzo Mayo and (redshirt freshman) Jared McGee.

- Greg Kuhar, who tore his ACL late last season against Notre Dame, is still working his way back from the injury. He was not listed on Northwestern's initial injury report of the season, meaning he was thought to be probable for the Stanford game. Hankwitz said he was "not ready yet," and was unsure of his status for the Stanford game.

- In addition to Kuhar, Hankwitz mentioned the following players as guys who are in the mix at defensive tackle alongside C.J. Robbins: Max Chapman, Tyler Lancaster, Jordan Thompson and Ben Oxley. Hankwitz said the staff has liked what they've seen from Thompson, arguably the top player in the 2015 recruiting class. On the young defensive tackles in general, Hankwitz said, "We recruited them to play... and they're going to play."

- Northwestern's defense ranked in the 40s last year on both first and second down, but on third down, the Wildcats slid down to 71st nationally. Hankwitz seemed to think those numbers were a bit fluky. Fitzgerald noted that the third down number also factors in first and second down performance, because if NU can force teams into 3rd-and-long, as opposed to 3rd-and-5, the offense has fewer options at their play-calling disposal.

- Hankwitz said the biggest question mark on the defensive side of the ball at this point is the linebacker position, mostly due to the still unfilled hole left by Chi Chi Ariguzo at WILL. Hankwitz said he has "great confidence" in Drew Smith, and seemed excited by Anthony Walker's prospects (which is no surprise), but it's tough to replace two starters. Hankwitz also noted that Jimmy Hall's versatility gave him a lot of scheme flexibility, and he'll have to adjust this season without Hall.

- Hankwitz on Ifeadi Odenigbo: "He's more mature. He's bigger and he's stronger. He's continued to make progress. You know, he had to learn a new position from what he played in high school. But I think he is progressing, and I expect him to be better.

"He's got pass rush ability. He's still got to learn to be a two-way player. Otherwise you're going to be [limited] to play in pass situations. And we've had some pretty good defensive ends who could do that on earlier downs, so that's why he was more of just a role player. But he's continued to get better in those areas, so we're counting on him playing more."

- Fitzgerald clarified the "1A and 1B" comment from last week, saying he did not mean that he wanted a two-QB system.

- Don't expect to see too much of the veterans and returning starters in Saturday's scrimmage. Fitzgerald said he doesn't need to see anything from guys like Dean Lowry or Deonte Gibson, but does want to see younger players who are in the mix for playing time. He also said Saturday will be a big day for the three quarterbacks.

- Kevin Trahan wanted me to ask Fitzgerald where he would rather live, Iowa or Kenosha. Fitzgerald barely even hesitated, and... you'll have to wait until tomorrow for the answer.

- On a separate note, Northwestern Athletics released the first 2015 episode of "The Hunt" Thursday. Pretty good way to get pumped for the season.