EVANSTON — Spring football is underway at Northwestern, with the Wildcats hitting the practice field for the first time in 2016 on Tuesday. Following the team's first practice, head coach Pat Fitzgerald sat down with select media members to take a look ahead to spring ball and the season. Here's what he had to say:
- Five Northwestern players, including quarterback Matt Alviti, will miss spring practice due to injury.
- There are four major position changes for the Wildcats. Ben Oxley will move from defensive tackle to offensive tackle. Solomon Vault will move from running back to wide receiver. Defensive backs Marcus McShepard and Steven Reese will also move to wide receiver.
- On McShepard's move, Fitzgerald said: "I don't have to be Captain Obvious to tell you we have to get better at throwing the ball. We just felt like his skill set athletically [couldn't be wasted] on the sideline. He's been the third or fourth corner his whole career, and this gave him the opportunity to compete to start right away.
"If today was any indication, I think it was the right move. He's an explosive athlete, picked up on the system fairly quickly. And he's a veteran player, this isn't his first spring. He was also one of the first guys in the building today, I think he's pretty excited about the move."
- On Oxley's move, Fitzgerald said: "We felt like moving Ox over in bowl practice was going to give him a jump-start. That's why we moved him over then. So far, so good. He's a big, long, athletic guy. Did some good things in bowl practice. And I expect him to push [Eric Olson] and Blake [Hance]."
- Fitzgerald said the quarterback position is Clayton Thorson's job without question. "Yeah, based on his play last year and where we've been at through January and one practice, he's the guy," he said. "It's a long way between now and the opener, so I don't have a crystal ball to predict where things may go. But I would be shocked if that were to change."
Fitzgerald said Alviti, who had hip surgery, would be fully cleared in June or July, "and how he progresses then will determine his role. But I'm going to be excited for Matt just to be healthy, he hasn't been that healthy probably his whole career."
"It's a completely different offseason," Fitzgerald said. "Last year, we had three guys and hoped someone would win the job in spring and in the fall, I told you no one [ran away with] the job. It's not like Clayton won it [going away]... [Now] it's Clayton's team, and that's how he has to operate. He needs to build trust with the other 10 guys on the field and the wide-outs just by pure repetition alone."
- Part of the reason Vault was moved outside was because of the running back depth. "There's gonna be a heck of a competition between Moten and Anderson [for the backup role behind Justin Jackson and Warren Long]," Fitzgerald said. "Auston's a little older, more experienced, but Johnny had a really good bowl practice. He's getting stronger, he's getting more confident. And Auston has battled through injuries."
- Jelani Roberts is about the same size as Venric Mark was throughout his NU career, according to Fitzgerald, but should see an increased role if he gets bigger: "Hopefully he can build from his experiences last year, not only as a receiver but also in competing to be our kick and punt returner. He's a very talented, gifted guy... His confidence is definitely higher today than it was last year."
- Fitzgerald was asked whether he thought his team was worn down in the Outback Bowl. "I don't think conditioning was an issue," he said. "We just got our ass kicked up front. I think both sides of the line of scrimmage, we got our ass handed to us. I would say the same thing about the Iowa and Michigan games too. We couldn't stop the run, we couldn't run the ball in any of those three games. It was a very common theme."
- With Dean Lowry and Deonte Gibson gone, Fitzgerald needs Xavier Washington and Ifeadi Odenigbo to become more well-rounded defensive ends who can play on all three downs. "They don't have a choice," Fitzgerald said. "They have to be able to do that.
"We're going to play our best 11 guys," Fitzgerald continued. "In the past, we had to play guys multiple positions and do different things schematically. Last year, our asset was four down linemen. We got great rush out of our four down. A couple years ago, we had to go with a three-down [linemen] package because we didn't have dynamic guys on the edge, and we had better pass rushers at the linebacker position. The key is being able to stop the run on first and second down, and make it third so we can go get after ya."
When asked if he would experiment with playing some of his more athletic defensive tackles at end, Fitzgerald said: "That wouldn't be an experiment. It would be something that we would do."
- When asked about criticism of the offensive play-calling, Fitzgerald quipped, "I'm assuming it's the same critics that bitched about our defense a few years ago... I'm assuming.
"It's ebb-and-flow," he then said. "You're trying to win the game. You're going to do everything you can to win a game. We had to run the ball. One of our best offensive plays last year was punting it. We were pretty good there. We gave up 32 total punt return yards the whole year..."
Fitzgerald said there have been times during his tenure at Northwestern where the coordinator in all three phases "feels like he has to make a perfect call. And that's not a good place to be."
- Fitzgerald on whether Tommy Vitale will be used on both sides of the ball: "Probably a little too early to tell, but we did a year ago because he earned those roles. I wouldn't hesitate, from a skill standpoint. He's a big ol' physical guy. He's much bigger and more athletic than his brother [Dan Vitale] was at this point. It's exciting. He played linebacker, superback and started on four special teams [units] last year as a true freshman. That's pretty good."
- Northwestern has suffered from a lack of production at the wide receiver position the last few years. Here's Fitzgerald's explanation for it: "We made a decision four or five years ago, we felt like we had to get longer out there [at receiver]. It worked really well for a while with some of the guys like Christian [Jones]...
"It's all encompassing. It starts in recruiting, and it ends in production. We've got to be more consistent from a players' perspective. We've got to be more consistent from a coaching perspective. We've got to be more consistent from a recruiting perspective.
"And we're a little different. This isn't a trade secret. We don't have the roster management flexibility. When guys get hurt in other programs, they miraculously get medicaled. All of a sudden, in come three new guys. And we just don't have that flexibility. We grind through the injuries. We grind through the issues. We're a developmental program. And when you don't practice, don't lift, don't train, you don't get better. It's not the guys' fault. It's not our trainers' fault. It's just a fact of life. That's not an excuse. We just need to have more competitive depth there. We just haven't had the competitive depth to overcome some of the issues that we've had. And that's on all of us... I think it's cyclical. I think it has a little bit to do with luck. It has a lot do with recruiting. It has a lot to do with development and competitive depth."
- Fitzgerald on Justin Jackson: "This will make him mad, but I don't care. Down at the Outback Bowl, we were with our hosts and one of the guys goes, ‘Who's Jackson?' And I go, ‘It's him.' Then he goes, ‘Really? He's not that big, huh?' No, he's not. That's just an area where he has to get stronger. And he is. He's totally different frame-wise then when he got here. A lot of that is because he was a multi-sport athlete in high school. That's a story that doesn't get told. He did a lot in high school. In an ideal world, we would have been able to redshirt him two years ago. But he's been a 1,000-yard rusher his first two years."
- Fitzgerald: "The guy that doesn't get talked about, which is crazy to me, is Matthew Harris. I think he's got a chance to be if not the best, in the conversation of the best DBs we've ever had. He might be our punt returner this year. He's got that skill set too."