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Five key takeaways from Pat Fitzgerald’s Thursday availability

The head coach dished on the new facility, the quarterback situation, and the new redshirt rule.

NCAA Football: Big Ten Football Media Day Patrick Gorski-USA TODAY Sports

Head coach Pat Fitzgerald spoke with media for about 20 minutes before a tour of the Walter Athletics Center. Here are five takeaways from his availabilty:

Clayton Thorson is in a non-contact jersey, and on a “pitch count”

Fitz said the staff is planning on bringing Thorson along slow, although he also said Thorson was a bit surprised by the progress he had made by early to mid-July.

Fitz fielded a couple of questions about the battle between TJ Green, Aidan Smith and Andrew Marty, but he kept his cards close to the chest.

“If you come out to practice, there will be days, again, like we were in spring ball, where one guy will take reps with the twos, maybe the next guy will take the rep with the threes and reps with the ones, and then we’ll just rotate it the next day,” Fitz said.

So maybe we shouldn’t buy too much into who is taking reps with who, at least not yet.

Fitz also alluded to the mental struggle involved with rehabbing a serious injury, mentioning the difficulties he had after breaking his leg in 1995.

“The mental aspect is probably the most challenging, most difficult and last hurdle to get over,” he said.

“If Clayton’s ready mentally and he’s cleared physically from a standpoint of our medical team, then we’ll rock and roll and go in the opener, and if not, we’ll have a plan for that.”

Nate Hall also told me he’s been limited during the first couple days of practice, but his goal is to be back for the season-opener Aug. 30.

Fitz gushed about the convenience of the new facility as well as its amenities.

Northwestern’s athletes will spend a lot of time in the Walter Athletic Center, so their needs were the most important thing when it came to the design of the building.

“The guys just don’t want to leave,” Fitz said, mentioning the “man cave” that is the football lounge and the “little party house” that is the locker room.

More importantly, the football team has a centralized place for practice, lifting, academic support, team meetings, and treatment.

Northwestern is also catching up in the arms race that is college football facilities. For Fitz, who has been doing his best to make Northwestern a football powerhouse, the completion of construction is a significant symbolic step.

“I think from a recruiting standpoint, either you have facilities or you don’t,” he said. And you know, obviously this makes a statement of the support from the university. And now to have — it’s been called one of the top facilities in the country by those who have been around — is humbling, we’re incredibly grateful.”

He loves the NCAA’s new redshirt rule

Asked about which young players he expected to compete for playing time early, Fitz invoked the new NCAA redshirt rule, which allows players to participate in four games during the season and still use a redshirt for the season.

“Can you give me a couple weeks?” he said. “So the short answer is all of them, because I get to play them all in four games, so simply put play them all and let God sort it out, right?”

After years of typically redshirting most freshman, Fitz played six in the first half in the 2017 season opener. Given the new rule, that trend is likely to continue this year. Fitz said he expects a group of freshman to be ready to play in the opener, but he didn’t name any names.

He also spoke at length about the new redshirt rule, which he sees as an important player safety upgrade. Here’s the full quote:

“I mean we went from, when I played, with a neck roll, to what from 10 games, to now we’re playing 12 regular season [games]. If you make it to the championship you’re 13, you get in the playoff, 14, if you make it to the championship, 15 games. We haven’t added any more roster spots or scholarships. So, this, from a health, safety and well-being standpoint, is, in my 13 years a head coach, the best rule change that I can I can think of for that.”

He’ll defend the offensive line, but admitted they need to be more consistent

Offensive line has been a much-maligned aspect of Northwestern’s offense. The Wildcats return four starters, but the unit finished 97th in adjusted line yards and 77th in adjusted sack rate.

Fitz said numbers don’t tell the whole story. An offseason film study found that a portion of the sacks taken last season were on the quarterback for not getting the ball out and that a few other sacks were for less than one yard.

While Fitz said the line needs to be more consistent and create competitive depth to where he can play seven or eight linemen, he defended his guys up front.

“Well, over the last four years a majority of these young men have paved the way for the all-time leading rusher in Northwestern football history. Period. So, I think that’s fair. I think that that’s fair,” Fitz said. “I just don’t think that that story gets told. That’s why Justin, every time you heard him speak, he talked about that group because, it’s like he got those yards in spite of our offensive line was the prevailing attitude. It’s like, that’s kind of not how football works. But it is what it is.”

The team is preparing for the opener a bit differently this year.

After starting slowly (to say the least) the past two season, Fitz said he is planning on making some changes to the level of intensity in fall camp, at least at the beginning. The team started fall camp earlier than most schools, but Fitz said he hopes to take it a bit easier on the players at the start.

“I think from a standpoint of my management of the squad going at the beginning of the camp, I think we’ve gone maybe a little bit too hard too early,” he said. “And we’ve had to play catchup to get our guys to recover, and so we’re just enacting a little bit of a different plan here as we start things up and, hopefully that will turn out some different results from a preparation standpoint.”

The Wildcats will head to Kenosha on Sunday, a week earlier than usual, and then have two weeks of practice back in Evanston before heading to West Lafayette for the opener on Aug. 30.