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Northwestern Football Spring Preview with Pat Fitzgerald

Pat Fitzgerald met with the media to discuss the upcoming season and more on the first day of spring practice.

NCAA Football: Illinois at Northwestern David Banks-USA TODAY Sports

On the first day of spring practice, head coach Pat Fitzgerald sat down with the media to discuss injuries, departures, new arrivals and more. Here are some notes from his media availability:

  • Four players, including backup running back John Moten IV, will miss spring practice due to injury. All four had offseason surgeries of some sort, but Fitz expects all of them back for the fall. Defensive back Jake Murray is retiring because of too many concussions.
  • Keith Watkins II and Tommy Carnifax will be limited in spring practice.
  • Warren Long is moving to linebacker, but Lloyd Yates and Dan Kubiuk are switching positions as well.
  • On Nathan Fox and the competition for the MIKE linebacker position: “I think he’s gonna be in a heck of competition with Paddy Fisher. I think those two guys are both instinctual, I think they both have a high football IQ. They’re both big, physical MIKE linebackers that can run well. I think it’s going to be an ongoing competition between those two guys and if we can get some questions answered in these 15 practices, we will, otherwise we’ll just keep plugging along. Both guys don’t have an issue with weight, they’re big kids. I think [an ideal weight for] Nate—somewhere between 235 and 245. Same thing with Paddy, I think somewhere between 230 and 240.”
  • On the timetable of Oregon graduate transfer Jalen Brown: “He’ll graduate on a Saturday and report on Sunday. He’ll be here all summer. He enrolled early at his previous institution, and graduated in three years and redshirted. He has two years to play.”
  • On the process of getting Brown to Northwestern: “We recruited Jalen out of high school, and knew he and his family, I would say, well. There was a little bit of familiarity there. He reached out to us (after last season), and kind of picked that back up. I brought him out for an official visit with his mom and dad. And then just working through the graduate admission piece. He’s a really good student, it’s just a process we had to work through. As I was walking out of my press conference [on National Signing Day], I got a phone call that he was admitted to school. We loved him out of high school, and we thought he’d be an instant impact player out of high school. You watch him on tape, you see that explosiveness. We did some research through the previous staff, the outgoing staff (at Oregon) I guess you’d say, and they absolutely loved him.”
  • On going through the NFL evaluation process with Anthony Walker Jr.: “I thought we handled it as well as you possibly can from a standpoint of process. The rules are if a guy has a year of eligibility left, or two years left, it’s our discretion, they’re not allowed to ask us unless we say we’re going to talk about them. So in all of our research that’s the feedback that we got, it makes it a lot easier and they can do a better job evaluating if we got down their road. So we decided to do that with both Anthony and Godwin last year, with their approval and their families’ approval. We worked then off the field to be able to get Anthony to graduate early, so he’ll graduate after this quarter and be able to matriculate to OTAs. So we did all the legwork, preparing for if he decided to declare. We just worked through the process of answering the questions those guys had. It was 15, I think we had, [NFL] evaluations that we able to share with both Anthony and his family and then Godwin and his family.”
  • On Anthony Walker Jr.’s health and play last season: “I think he really took a step backwards when he got hurt in camp. It was a long process to get back in shape, but I thought he played his best football in November. He played really well in the bowl game. I think he would’ve played that way all year if he was healthy.”
  • On sustaining success at one school for over a span of 12 years: “I think Kirk Ferentz said it, ‘every year you stay at a school, your fringe fans like you 10 percent less.’ When it gets to 10 years it kind of resets. So I’m at the 80 percent mark now I guess going into year 12. I think you have to be who you are, I think you have to be focused on whatever process that you believe in, I think you have to just have an unwavering belief and a drive to get better and improve. The minute you think you’ve got it all figured out, you get complacent and you die. I mean Mike Hankwitz, how long has he been a D-coordinator, 45 years? It’s been 40-plus years and you come out and watch practice and he’s got more juice than some of my [graduate assistants]. You just keep driving to get better.”
  • On Keith Watkins and his injury: “Initially it was tough, he’s an All-Big Ten level player, he’s an NFL player. To have a non-contact injury take his year was tough. But I think his attitude was awesome. I think he really helped Trae [Williams] and Montre [Hartage]. I think he’s really hungry to get back out there. What does it mean for this year? It means that we get a dude back, I mean we get a great player back. Anytime you got competition man, it gives us an opportunity to have some strength. It’s gonna be great to get him back. We’re gonna be smart [in the spring].
  • On Watkins and Matthew Harris mentoring Trae Williams and Montre Hartage: “I don’t wanna speak for the guys, but anytime you got a veteran to emulate, it’s invaluable. It definitely hurt, early not having those guys out there.”
  • On the outlook at defensive end: “If we were starting today it would be [Joe] Gaziano and [Xavier] Washington. We’ll see where things go with [Trent] Goens and [Mark] Gooden, the Miller brothers, and we’ll see when we get Tommy Carnifax back from injury. I think we signed a bunch of good players there.”
  • On Joe Gaziano: “I think he had the big hit against Michigan State right, that everybody thought he had arrived. It’s really hard to play in the trenches as a young player, and I thought he was solid. I think he learned from a great player in C.J. Robbins. On first and second down [Robbins] was really solid for us. I think Joe really saw the work ethic and the leadership that C.J. had. It was a good first campaign, but I believe he’s going, and knows he’s got to continue to get better and improve.”
  • On early-enrollees Trey Pugh and Sam Miller in their first days of practice: “I asked ‘how did it go’ and Trey said, ‘This isn’t high school.’ I asked Sam and he said, ‘They’re a lot faster, and a lot stronger.’ I think they went to get a drink at the water fountain and got hit by a fire hose. But I was impressed with them in the last month. It’s gonna get real on Saturday when the pads come on, so it’ll be fun to watch. I’m very pleased with what I’ve seen so far.”
  • On the team’s support of the Men’s Basketball team: “[Our] guys are really supportive of our fellow student athletes. I had my 10 year-old Ryan in the student section, he wanted to stand with the guys for the Maryland game, and he said, ‘they said some words I’m not supposed to say, Dad’ and I said ‘Alright good.’”
  • On the Pinstripe Bowl victory against Pittsburgh: “People expected to tune in and watch us get killed. I wish we had another month of the season. I think we grew up a lot as the season went along. The younger players really grew and matured.”
  • On Warren Long switching to linebacker: “[Warren] and I would talk pre-practice when he was hurt. He came up to me and said, ‘hey coach what if I play linebacker?’ and I said, ‘No, get away from me.’ We got to November and we had a few guys retire because of injury, we got to bowl practice and we got to New York and talked about it as a staff. There was a unanimous decision on the staff that there would be a role. So when we came back from New York, and got back together when school started, I brought Warren in and sat down and spoke to him and said, ‘you remember that conversation we had on the practice field? What do you think? You still wanna do it?’ He like, ‘yeah I do, I wanna play more. I wanna make a difference, help the team.’”
  • On whether he feels better about the offensive line this season: “I don’t feel better about them right now. They ran around in shorts today. Let’s see how they are in pads. I like the group, I think they worked their ass of this winter. I think they’re a little young and a little green, and I’m ok with that. We gotta continue to see guys like [J.B. Butler] improve. Brad North’s gotta be more consistent, Tommy Doles’s gotta be more consistent, Blake Hance’s gotta be more consistent. After that we can figure out our fifth and go from there...As we sit here today, yeah [right guard is the offensive line spots up for grabs].”
  • On the importance of Austin Carr to the wide receivers still in the program and his shot at playing in the NFL: “It’s not about talent, it’s about attitude and work ethic. Austin just kept getting better and better and better. He was the exact same way in bowl practice. If you would’ve seen him in bowl practice, you wouldn’t have thought he was a guy that went to the ESPN awards show this year, you would’ve thought he was a freshman walk-on. I don’t know if he’ll get drafted, I don’t know any of that stuff. I think he’s gonna make it real hard on whatever [NFL] organization takes him to cut because he’s gonna learn every position, I think he’s gonna be willing to do the dirty work, I think he’s gonna be a full participant in the kicking game. I think the NFL, although they love superstars, they’re getting tired of the diva receivers. And he’s not a diva. He’s the complete opposite. I think he’ll make it. Time will tell.”

Before meeting with the media for lunch, Fitzgerald, as well as Clayton Thorson and Justin Jackson, did a more traditional interview session with reporters. Topics of discussion included Thorson’s development, Jackson’s necessary level of contact during spring practice, and much more. You can check those out below.