On Wednesday, Pat Fitzgerald addressed a fairly sizable media contingent inside Nicolet Football Center, his first press conference at Northwestern of the 2016 season. Here’s what he had to say:
- From the first few practices he’s seen since spring ball, Fitzgerald has been impressed. “Guys have done a really good job, I think, from January to even this morning being really focused and locked in. We’re in great shape; we’ve added a lot of lean muscle mass.”
- Even though he acknowledged it was very early, Fitzgerald thinks this is a deep roster, something he focused on a lot last year as well. “I like our competitive depth. I like the athleticism of the group.”
- Fitzgerald took time to thank the Hutcheson and Martin families, who helped lead the way for the lakeside Hutcheson Field and Martin Stadium. Northwestern will do most of its practicing there (with the exception of Kenosha), and the players reacted very positively. “There’ll be no finer practice facility in the country.”
- Marcus McShepard can best be described as “learning” right now as he transitions to wide receiver. “Everyday is something new, but he’s doing a really, really good job picking the system up. You can see the athleticism out there.”
- Solomon Vault is “a little bit further along” because he has played on the offensive side of the ball for the first two years.
- Fitzgerald then named just about every receiver on the roster when asked who could step up. He thought Flynn Nagel “was about to take off” before the injury last year. He also singled out Charlie Fessler and Jelani Roberts as guys who should progress in their second year around the program. As far as true freshmen, Ramaud Chiaockhiao-Bowman (“RCB”) has impressed with his explosiveness. Andrew Scanlan has impressed as a senior leader.
Clayton Thorson and quarterbacks
- It’s clear that wins were the biggest measure of Thorson’s performance in Fitzgerald’s mind. “When you look at the success he had as a redshirt freshman, it’s truly phenomenal. There are very few that have had the kind of success in college football that he had as a redshirt freshman. I’m not talking about all the stats; I’m talking about success. I’m talking about winning.”
- Fitzgerald did acknowledge that sometimes the team won because of Thorson and sometimes “in spite of him.”
- Matt Alviti is healthy and—though there is no quarterback competition—Fitzgerald said he’ll push Thorson. He’s seen a renewed sense of urgency from Alviti.
- Fitzgerald pointed out footwork, timing, ball replacement and trust in the wide receivers as ways Thorson has developed. “We were a work in progress throughout the entire year, I don’t think there’s any question about that.”
Other offensive notes
- “Four yards and a cloud of dust was generous,” Fitzgerald said when asked about the lack of offensive balance.
- Fitzgerald said Warren Long has earned a bigger role in the offense. “We went through our self-scout and we didn’t play Warren enough. He’s definitely gonna have a role.” He said he doesn’t think it will hurt Justin Jackson’s production.
- Fitzgerald says Jackson is a combination of several great NU running backs: Tyrell Sutton, Jason Wright, Noah Herron to name a few.
- Jayme Taylor “will definitely have a role” in replacing Dan Vitale. Fitzgerald noted he would have had a big role last year if he hadn’t gotten injured. He also noted that James Prather will have a role, but he’s not sure what role that is yet.
- Godwin Igwebuike is now in the spotlight as a leader at the safety position after learning behind Ibraheim Campbell and Traveon Henry. “He’s that guy now. You saw him getting a little bit out of his comfort zone speaking up this offseason.”
- Anthony Walker, who was voted to wear the No. 1 by the leadership council, beat out several other guys for the honor. “It’s a great honor... He’s a humble guy. He’s a guy who wants to be a great teammate, a great player and a great leader.”
- “Ifeadi is stronger than he’s ever been. It’s never been a lack of ability to rush the passer with Ifeadi, it’s just been consistency, and that’s on [his coaches] to get him where he needs to be.”
- Xavier Washington “is a young man who will be ready to fill in.”
- Defensive end Joe Gaziano has had a standout offseason according to Fitzgerald. Trent Goens and some of the younger guys—Jake Saunders, Alex Miller, Tommy Carnifax and Mark Gooden—are guys he’ll have a close eye on during camp.
- Similarly to the wide receivers, Fitzgerald listed just about everyone when asked about the secondary. He thinks Matt Harris and Keith Watkins could be two of the most talented guys he’s had. He’s been impressed with Kyle Queiro’s focus. Montre Hartage, Alonzo Mayo and Trae Williams will compete for the slot cornerback spot. He added that Williams can play multiple positions. “I like the talent in that room.”
- “I’ve got a ton of respect for (Illinois head coach) Lovie Smith.”
- As for the beef between who is “Chicago’s Big Ten team,” Fitzgerald said “I think we sent out a tweet of the skyline at our practice field so I’ll let that speak for itself. How does that sound?”
- NFL scouts have been around practice the first few days asking about and watching Walker. “He’s got an amazing work ethic.”
- THERE ARE 24 DAYS UNTIL WESTERN MICHIGAN!!!
Here is Fitzgerald’s press conference in full: