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Coordinators 10/14 press conference notes

The Mikes touched on a wide variety of topics in their first media availability since May.

With just over a week remaining until the Wildcats open their season against Maryland, Northwestern’s offensive and defensive coordinators, Mike Bajakian and Mike Hankwitz, spoke with the media Wednesday after practice.

Offensive coordinator Mike Bajakian

On speculation that Peyton Ramsey will start at QB: “Well, I’m not going to comment on the depth chart. That’s really left up to Coach Fitz. But I will tell you that all the guys are working really hard. I’m really happy with the room in general. We have a lot of experience on our roster, and then obviously the addition of Peyton. Those guys have been outstanding as it relates to learning the offense, applying themselves and working hard and being leaders for the entire unit and for the entire team. So I’m really happy with the quarterback room in general. And I’m looking forward to next Saturday with that group and plan.”

On TJ Green’s comeback from injury: “Well, he’s been fun to watch work. I’ll tell you what, I’ve been impressed as heck. Obviously, with his mental acumen, he stayed in it the entire time he was limited from a health standpoint. He stayed in it mentally and said things. He’s been vocal in meetings and supported the other quarterbacks who were taking the reps in a very positive manner. He’s really sharp and has a good knack and savvy for the game. So his instincts are really good. But I’ll tell you what, just from the standpoint of watching a guy overcome adversity, it’s been inspirational, I think, to the entire quarterback room and his other teammates. So I’ve enjoyed being around him. Love his attitude and here’s a guy who’s really determined and making an impact.”

On Green’s presence in the QB room: “As a veteran who’s been around for a while and been around football all his life, he’s a guy that a lot of his teammates, not just the quarterbacks, look to for leadership. And that’s not easy. It’s not easy when you’re taking a backseat because of an injury but boy, his presence is outstanding amongst all his teammates. They respect the heck out of them for how he’s attacked every challenge he’s faced, and not just in the quarterback room, but the offense in general sees him as the type of guy that you all go to.”

On the physical stage as the season approaches: “I’m happy with where we are. It’s been a process. A process unlike any other. It’s been such a strange year. But as a testament to the job our strength and conditioning staff has done and the vision that Coach Fitz has laid out, I feel like our guys are prepared from a physical standpoint, both in terms of the physicality of the game and the conditioning, because that’s been hard to manage. You’re trying to get the necessary reps needed to get in shape. At the same time, you’re limited from a time standpoint with the 20 hour rule because school is in session, so it’s not your traditional training camp. So I feel like, between the sports science and just the overall knowledge of our strength and conditioning staff, they’ve been on top of it since day one. Back when we weren’t playing even and didn’t know when we would be playing till now. We’ve ramped them up gradually to a point where I feel confident that we’ll be game ready when it comes to the physical part of it, both the physicality of the actual game and the conditioning part of it.”

On the development and importance of tight ends: “That’s a group that’s come along. I’m happy with that group, too. As experience has indicated, you can never have enough of those guys, because it’s a very physical position that does get dinged up at different times throughout the year. And I don’t care whether that’s in the NFL or at colleges that I’ve been at. So you’ve got to have good depth there. I really like our young guys, I like that John Raine has been doing a good job. He’s pretty dynamic in all aspects of the game. And the veterans, they’ve played some football, too. So I’m happy with how they’re coming along, and we’ll utilize them in different positions and different personnel groups. So we’ve just got to keep bringing them along and making sure that that’s always a position where guys are thrust onto the field earlier than anyone anticipated. But I think we have some talented young tight ends that, like everyone else, are getting to a point where they’re getting ready to show what they have on the field.”

On the biggest strength and concern heading into the season: “That’s a really good question. Number one, and this is, again, the foundation that was laid long before I ever stepped foot on this campus. It’s a foundation that Coach Fitz believes in and I’ve always thought of as very important, and that is the idea that we are going to play hard, physical football. We’re going to play with great effort and great physicality. And I think that’s a strength, and it was refreshing for me when I got here to know that that culture already existed and that we could just build upon it, because I don’t care who you are, that’s always a big difference maker in a game. So that’s number one. I feel confident that, in relation to your other question, the biggest question mark is, obviously, that I feel good about where our team is mentally in terms of grasping the offense, but we’ve yet to do it in live situations. We had limited time in spring practice, March 12 was our last day of practice. And the contact piece of it has been limited throughout training camp, as per Big Ten rules and just the calendar. So that’s the biggest question mark. Again, I feel confident that our guys will go out and execute that part of the game. But you’re always wondering as it relates to the speed of the game — it’s much faster on game day — and the physicality of the game, obviously, that we haven’t had a chance to emulate in practice as much as we would like to have. I feel good that our guys will respond, but that’s always going to be the big question, I think for anybody, going into the first game of the season, and this particular calendar year especially.”

On what happened between the postponement and resumption announcements: “I’ll go back to March 12, when they canceled the rest of spring practice. We were fortunate enough to get a few practices in. From an installation standpoint, we were able to reinstall everything. It was actually a blessing in disguise, because we could hit it again for a second time, and we had video evidence of us executing and exactly where we would need to improve and what we would need to work on. So having that video evidence, reinstalling [the offense] for a second time in great detail. We had nothing but time, so we were able to go into greater detail, frankly, than I ever had before. That’s what laid the foundation mentally for how advanced our players are. I think besides the fact that we have extremely intelligent players who pick things up quickly, the extra time that we could spend in Zoom meetings. The NCAA allowed us eight hours a week and we took full advantage of that. That was critical. Now fast forward to the summer, once the season was postponed. For me and the quarterbacks, personally, our focus actually changed a little bit. We felt like we were in a really good spot mentally as it related to the install, and so we focused as much as anything on the physical and the fundamentals that are necessary to play the quarterback position. We were able to dive into greater detail as it relates to technique and mechanics than we, frankly, had ever before in that realm. Also, you’re so limited during the season or during spring ball or even during the amount of time you can have with the players in the summer that, when you get 15 minutes of individual practice, you’re working every skill under the sun during that time. We had quite a bit of time and really not a need for the schematic install, so we focused on the physical and really dove into the depths and technique, and I walked away from those conversations thinking that they were extremely valuable, not only to our players, but to myself. I made it a two-way conversation to hear the things that they’ve been taught in the past or they’ve learned elsewhere, and focused on each individual guy and specifically what maybe he needed to improve upon. And that was very valuable”

On players who have stood out in fall camp: “One of the guys that pops into my head is Malik Washington. Here’s a young guy who, frankly, is playing like a veteran right now. He’s a guy who has learned the offense very quickly and who is performing at a high level right now. So he really pops into my head as a guy. Obviously you have your veterans: RCB [Ramaud Chiaokhiao-Bowman] and Riley [Lees]. And in the backfield, I think we have very good depth there with all those guys: Isaiah [Bowser] and Evan [Hull] and Drake [Anderson]. And the list goes on. Those guys have played a lot of football, but Malik is one guy who, when I got here, I saw on video. There weren’t a ton of clips on video from games last season, but you could tell he had a skill set that was attractive to me to be able to utilize. And, sure enough, as we’ve done in spring ball and now carried over into our modified training camp, he’s a guy that has really taken his game to a next level.”

On the first-year players’ transition amidst the unusual offseason: “I do think the spring and the time we were able to spend together post-spring was valuable for their ability to pick up the offense quickly. And then to delay the onset of the season probably benefited those guys a little bit in that they could spend a little extra time learning the schemes and the techniques that the coaches are teaching and all those different things. So you know, again, weird, strange year as it has fallen, but I think the young guys have benefited from pushing the season back for obvious reasons. They’re just given a little bit more time to grasp things.”

On his game day coaching style: “Well, obviously, I’m up in the box, getting the bird’s eye view of everything. So I’m removed a little bit from the emotion of the game, which is how I prefer things. Definitely want to think analytically about what we’re seeing and what we’re doing. So I’d say that that is my primary approach on game day. Now obviously, during the course of the week, when I am out on the field in practice, it’s quite a bit different where there’s obviously quite a bit of teaching that goes into installing a game plan or installing an offense. But you also have got to be able to bring the energy to help facilitate the tempo that we’re trying to play the game with, and the effort level that we’re trying to play the game with.”

On potential gamebreakers: “I’ll go back and revisit the veterans. Riley Lees has played a lot of football and has a lot of flexibility, a lot of different things. Kyric McGowan is a guy that I think is just an all around good football player. His instincts are outstanding, and I think he’s gonna provide playmaking ability for this offense. RCB, again, I haven’t been here in the past, but Ramaud is playing, as well as he’s played since he’s been here from what I’ve been told, and I’m very happy with what he’s bringing to the table. So those guys are doing a good job again. The tight end position is where we are trying to develop a stable of guys. The running backs, I know we played quite a few last year at the running back position. But Isaiah Bowser, he’s playing some good football. Evan Hull has a speed aspect that’s a little bit different. Drake Anderson has some agility and some ability to make people miss. The running back room together, there’s more guys in that room. So we’ll have playmakers. I feel pretty good about that.”

On Maryland’s defense: “I worked with Jon Hoke for three years at the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. He wasn’t the coordinator in Tamp, and they seem a bit different schematically from what we were doing at Tampa during my time there. But like I said, he’s a good person and a really good coach, a good teacher. So I know he’s got to have those guys playing at a very high level. You know, they’re an odd-based defensive personnel, they will bring some exotics and heat you up at different times. They will mix up their coverages, they will play man coverage. So they do enough schematically to keep you on your toes. From a personnel standpoint, they’re returning a pretty darn good corps of players. Even some players — they’ve got two players in particular — who were who were really good, started for them back in the 2018 season, and both missed last year. Okay, now both those guys are returning one of one of them is the safety. I believe it’s Antwaine Richardson. The other is what they call their jack linebacker, jack rush end, number 30 [Durrel Nchami]. Those guys are really good football players. So yeah, they’ve graduated a couple of some different positions, but they’re getting some reinforcements. Not only reinforcements, but reinforcements with experience, so they’ve got a good corps of guys returning. And they’ve got good team speed. And like I said a second ago, if they do that schematically, they’re gonna keep you on your toes.”

Defensive Coordinator Mike Hankwitz

On Paddy Fisher returning for his senior season: “Well, we’re excited because, obviously, he’s an excellent, outstanding football player. He’s a great leader for us. So we’re excited that he wanted to play because we’re excited that we’re getting to play, and it certainly helps when a young man like that says, ‘I want to play too.’ He’s providing great leadership by doing that.”

On replacing the production of Joe Gaziano and Alex Miller: “We have seen some excellent development of our young players, and I think that we can replace their production. We need to do a better job as coaches of getting them in that position to sack the quarterback and get more takeaways. But I’ve seen improvement in Earnest Brown, Eku Leota, and Jason Gold, who made some good plays last year but we feel like he very much improved. And Tomi Adebawore. So I’ve seen that improvement. For those guys, it’s their turn to step up like Joe did and Alex did. So we feel good about what we have with our front seven there.”

On coaching alongside Pat Fitzgerald as he nears his 100th career win: “He’s done a great job. I’ve been fortunate I’ve worked with some Hall of Fame coaches, but he just continues to grow a little. I think it’s his overall, the way he leads the coaches, the way he leads the players. He’s got some core values that he believes in, and he preaches them consistently. And he does a great job in recruiting. He works his tail off at those things and it’s obvious, but he’s so organized that you’re always looking ahead at what we need to do better or what other people are doing. So we try to kind of stay ahead of the curve that way. But I can’t tell you how impressed I am working for him, and he’s a great guy to work for, the way he treats us.”

On the defense’s physical preparedness for the season: “It’s been a challenge with the restrictions we had early on, that we couldn’t be in pads and we couldn’t really work against each other. So we may be a little behind in the physical aspect. But mentally we really pushed hard to get our football stuff installed. And I like where we’re at mentally. But the speed of the game is always a concern, because we haven’t been able to do as much physical work and haven’t been able to scrimmage like we might have, even though it would have been limited. We feel like we’ve tried to research it and do things to compensate for it. And I like where we’re at. We’ll have to see the game. Obviously, that’ll be the real test.”

On reaching his 51st season coaching: “I don’t know if it means anything unique. I’m still doing it because I love the game. And I love working with the players. I love the accomplishment we have when we all work together and win. I’ve been fortunate to have been on a number of championship teams, and that feeling is hard to replace, because, when you win, and especially when you win a championship, it takes everybody contributing. The scout team, every player contributes a role to winning that championship, and you can’t ever take it away from them. Some of my fondest memories are players that basically were scout players, most of them almost all of their whole career. But they stuck it out. They helped us win and they do have great pride in it. They wore that ring with as much pride as anybody else, because they knew they were an integral part of that championship. I never think about 51 years or that it goes back to 1970. It’s a while back coaching and seeing a lot of different things in college football, but that’s part of the fun, the way the game has changed. Offenses. Defenses. When I first started, we had 120 guys in scholarship, then it went to 105, then it went to 95, then it went to 85. So you’ve had to make adjustments all along. And then to see the evolution of offenses. When started it was the I-formation and the wishbone. And then it went to 11 personnel, three wide receivers, a tight end, and went to the spread. Then a running quarterback. So it’s been a fun challenge in coaching to stay ahead of the game and keep adjusting, keep adapting to the innovations. And that’s part of the fun of it, obviously.”

On the perks of having such an experienced defense: “I do think it makes our job easier because we’ve got an excellent corps of veteran guys who would have been seniors. Patty, Bergin, Blake Gallagher and Ernie Brown. We’ve had a number of other guys who have played a lot of football that I alluded to, the fact that we’ve got young guys that develop, so that does make it easier. But we have to be mindful that we have got to have more than just our starting guys ready. Because it’s a unique year, and you’re going to have to play with some young guys. So we’ve worked hard to get them ready. But it does help when you have a strong group of players that give you great leaders and we’re excited that we have those guys. And they’ve done a great job so far.”

On preparing for a Maryland team that hasn’t announced a starting quarterback: “We think that they are going to run their base offense. They had an athletic quarterback last year, and two of their projected starters fit right into that mold. So we feel like the main things they did last year are things we’re going to see and yeah, there’s some unknowns there. But the key is we have to be fundamentally sound and we have to be able to execute our defense, not shoot ourselves in the foot, make mistakes, and make them beat us. They are in the same boat, they’ve had the same challenges of not being able to do everything. You couldn’t have normal camp. So it isn’t like they have a tremendous edge on us. But we feel like the main things they did last year fit into what the projected quarterback’s going to be. So that’s what we’re planning on.”

On young players who have shown growth during training camp: “We’re excited about the growth of our young players, especially the ones I alluded to: Eku Leota, Jason Gold and Tomi Adebawore, Cam Ruiz. Guys who were young last year but got a lot of great experience. Chris Bergin started some the year before, but last year was his first full year as a starter and he’s gotten better. And we’ve seen some of our younger players, freshmen and incoming guys, that we’re very excited about. Now, they’ve still got work to do, but we’re really excited about them. There’s a number I’m more excited about — I hate to single somebody out — but we like our young players. We really do.”

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