The countdown to Maryland began Monday with Pat Fitzgerald and a handful of student-athletes addressing the media as they prepare for their first game of the season.
Ahead of the press conference, the program released its depth chart for Week 1, which featured some notable changes and decisions including Peyton Ramsey as the starting quarterback, true freshman Peter Skoronski starting at left tackle and Adetomiwa Adebawore and Brandon Joseph filling in for opt-outs Samdup Miller and Travis Whillock.
Here’s what Fitz and his captains had to say following the depth chart release and ahead of Saturday’s matchup with Maryland.
Opening statement: Exciting to get back going and fired up to get the season started. It’s been a long road to get to this point. Really excited for our seniors. Really thankful for our families. It’s been a long road to get here, so just thankful for them along with our great medical staff, Jeff Mjaanes, Kevin Kikugawa, everyone at Northwestern health that’s helped us through this process and the pandemic. It hasn’t been easy. It’s been a challenge, but we’re looking forward to game week and Saturday night at Ryan Field. Four great captains that were elected by their teammates that we’re excited to see lead us into the opener. We’re going to change things up a little bit this year. Instead of having four permanent captains, we’re going to elect weekly captains, and that will be done by the team and typically announced in this press conference. On offense with Peyton and Nik and on defense with Paddy and JR, four great guys, and I’m excited to watch them lead us out into this opener and get the season started. They can be re-elected in the future, it will really depend on what the team wants. Obviously it’s unprecedented times and it’s kind of day by day on how you’re going to go through the season. We hope and pray that nobody’s going to get a positive test, but nonetheless, we want to make sure we have enough flexibility, so we can have proper leadership day by day and game by game. We announced our guys that will not be playing with us this year. Those decisions were made before we even started camp, so we’ve operated supporting those young men and supporting their families since we started camp and wish them nothing but the best and are here for them. We’ll see how things progress for them in the future individually, but collectively, we’re all here to support them, and we’ll all be behind them. We’ll have some adjustments to game day. We’ll stay here in Evanston and then we’ll do most of our pregame routine here at the Walter Athletic Center a little bit later than we typically have. We’ll also be using Welsh-Ryan Arena’s lobby as our travel party home locker room. Our guys that are non-travelers will be in the Buehler center like they have in the past. Looking forward to the game. Mike Locksley and I have known each other for a long time. Just have the utmost respect for Locks. When I started in the coaching profession, I was actually a graduate assistant coach at the University of Maryland and Coach Locks was on the staff, and we’ve been close ever since. He’s had an amazing career and put together an amazing staff. Now in year two, as you watch as his season went along last year, you started to see that team was taking on his personality and his identity, and that will obviously continue as they went through and abnormal offseason and camp, but he’s done a great job recruiting. You’ve seen the success everywhere that he’s been, and I just have great respect and great friendship with Locks, and I look forward to seeing him pregame to say the least. I’ll be rooting for him every game except Saturday night.
On the depth chart, quarterback competition and Peter Skoronski: At the quarterback position, we had a great competition throughout starting when Mike Bajakian got here until a couple weeks ago. We’re proud of the job that Peyton has done but really proud of the entire room. They’ve learned a new offense. Jake’s done a great job with them. As we alluded to in the report, Hunter and Andrew would be the next two guys, and the job that TJ’s done to come back, he would be in that group too. We’ve got pretty good depth there, but Peyton is QB1 and excited to watch him lead our team out night one. Peter’s done a really nice job at left tackle. We feel like we’ve got really good tackles with Zach and Payne backing up Peter and Gunnar. Those two backups are really close to being in the mix and being starters, so we feel really good at that position. Peter’s very talented, highly recruited player, had a really great camp and will get his first start here on Saturday night.
On playing Maryland: This will feel like a Big Ten game no doubt about it, but this will feel like taking on a new staff and with that is your offseason preparation and going through the video from last year. There’s been some staff changes, so doing some research there and getting as prepared as we can. Nonetheless, you’ve got to plan to adjust and you’ve really got to focus on your own team, your preparation, how you go about the way you start the game and how you adjust. Our focus will be on us. We’re so fortunate to have the opportunity to play and just excited to go out there and do it.
On the new offense: I’ve been there before. This isn’t the first time we’ve been through coaching changes — we’ve been through coordinator changes in the past. More important to the game right now has been what’s led up to the game and the job that Mike Bajakian and the offensive staff have done coming together and our players being receptive to the new scheme, new points of emphasis, new attention to detail, new language — I’m really proud of our offensive players. They’ve done a phenomenal job really embracing what it takes to get prepared for this week. Now, as we look forward to the opener, obviously, we’ll learn a lot about each other. Jake will learn a lot about the way I manage games, and I’ll learn a lot about the way he calls games. We’ve gone through some situational scrimmages, so I feel very confident in our preparation up to this point, but just excited to watch our offense go out and compete.
On Maryland quarterbacks: Well, we may throw four quarterbacks at Maryland, how about that? You prepare for the video you saw in the past, you try to overturn every stone and then you just adjust accordingly during the game. It seems like every year there’s a new coach in the opener, a new coordinator on offense or defense. It’s pretty crazy in my time how much change there’s been in our opponents, so we’re pretty well-versed. Both guys are very talented. We’ve been able to look at tape on them, maybe not in a Maryland jersey, but tape of them in their skillset.
On the unique offseason: It’s been a journey, it always is. As you look at this unique 2020 offseason and into a unique start to the 2020 football season, it’s been very unique, but we’re very thankful for our players and our families and our staff. We just try to work through it day by day. We try to do a great job communicating and helping everyone through unique situations and unique challenges and just being prepared to adjust. From a standpoint of my 14 previous years, I don’t think there’s been an offseason as unique as this one, but that’s what my role is, trying to help us through it, and hopefully we’ll be prepared for Saturday night.
On Brandon Joseph earning the starting job: It’s a deep secondary, a group of guys that are very talented. Brandon, I think going back even to last year, was a guy that we felt pretty strongly about, understanding of the game, high football intelligence, really competitive and athletic young man, and a guy that has won that role, which is a credit to him. The guys that are on the second line are ready to be starters also. It’s a really deep group and a really competitive group. I look forward to seeing them play not only in the secondary but in some key roles in the kicking game. That’s probably a bigger challenge for everyone in Big Ten play is getting up to the speed of the game in the kicking game. That’s what’s going to keep us up all week is the speed and execution in the kicking game by a number of our younger players, so we’re going to have our hands full, but I’m very excited about that secondary.
On freshmen standing out: We anticipate playing every freshman that’s ready to play. The whole group has to be ready. Everyone that has taken reps in camp will be expected to be prepared to play. I don’t think there will be a discussion about redshirting anybody. Of any year, the home team has a huge advantage by being able to dress more than 74 players, and in those four games, you’ll probably see more guys that you haven’t seen in other games just because we have them available.
On why players opted out: That happened over the summer. Those were personal decisions made by those young men and their families, which I fully support, but those decisions will be kept private between their families and me.
On Skoronski earning the starting job: He comes in with great accolades out of high school in Park Ridge at Main South. It’s a powerhouse here in the Chicagoland area. Really grateful for the staff at Main South with their assistance in recruiting Peter. We thought he’d be a difference maker, and I really like all those young offensive lineman, including Zach, Payne, Dom, Josh and Charlie. That group is a young and talented group, but Peter did the best job from a consistency standpoint. That would be the reason why he gets the opportunity to go out there and start. You put him next to a guy like Nik who’s a captain, who’s been through a ton of battles, and you feel really confident that he’s going to be able to go out there and execute. He’s earned it by the consistency with which he’s gone about executing the scheme, and he’s in a competitive battle.
On coaches wearing masks: It’s my understanding that the Big Ten is mandating that we wear masks, so I’ll be wearing my beautiful, Northwestern-issued Under Armour mask on game day that I’ve been wearing in practice. If I have an option, I would wear the insta shield. I have that option in practice, but it’s my understanding on game day that we will be mandated to wear masks. If that changes, I look forward to hearing that. The insta shield has been great for practice. You can see the coach’s face and read lips even if you can’t hear directly, so I think it allows you to have that type of communication. But yes, coaches on the sideline will be wearing masks.
On the Big Ten providing updates about COVID protocols: It’s been a process, and Jeff Mjaanes is on the subcommittee, so I feel like I am getting pretty real-time information. There’s been deliberation and communication and the ability to express opinions, which has taken a little time, but I feel like we’ve been pretty well-versed with what we need to do and what we need to expect.
On teams exchanging information about COVID cases: I believe most teams are just going to have inactivity reports that are going to come out on Saturdays, but I don’t think there’s a mandate from the league that you have to.
On learning from other conferences: I’ve been in constant contact with friends who are coaches in other leagues. I know our athletic training staff has done the same and so have our assistants. We had a Zoom last night with our families, talking about certain schools and lessons we’ve learned from, so we’ve just asked our families to be very conscious of that, if they’re going to be within six feet that they are wearing masks. It’s an abnormal year, but they’ve got to do a great job of protecting their family member on our team and protecting the program. On the road, it will be going right from the locker room to the bus. At home games, they’ll go from Ryan Field right to the busses back here at Walter Athletic Center. Our families won’t be able to meet us, which I know stinks, but we get to play, so we’ve got to follow those guidelines and necessities. We’ve had a great Thanksgiving tradition where we allow our guys to go home — this year, we’re asking our guys to stay. We always open our homes up, just making sure everyone has somewhere to go to be able to eat.
On wide receivers: That group has had an outstanding camp getting ready for the opener. Veteran group and the older guys that have played a ton of ball for us. They worked really hard with the quarterbacks leading into the camp. You can tell the guys put the work in before we even got started. RCB, Riley and Kyric have played a bunch of ball for us and those guys are the leaders of the room, but that young group is talented.
On how long he’s known about having the starting job: We battled it out for quite a while. Credit to all those guys who pushed really hard and made me better every single day. I’ve known for a little bit but not too long. Like I said, those guys pushed and made the team better as well. There’s a lot of older guys in that room who have proven themselves and have a lot of trust in their teammates and their teammates have trust in them, so it went a while, and credit to those guys, awesome, awesome quarterback crew.
On the situation he’s in: I think it’s a great fit. I have experience playing in the Big Ten, playing against a lot of these defenses, playing in Big Ten weather, just kind of the whole gamut. I’ve played a lot of football. I’m really experienced coming into a great, experienced team, I think that helps a lot too. And a new offensive coordinator, the two of us have clicked. It’s been an awesome fit. I’m looking forward to it, as are the rest of the guys.
On the offense: I think we look good. We have a lot of talented guys, a lot of guys who are experienced and have played a lot of football. It really comes down to getting the ball in their hands and letting them make plays and making my job a little bit easier. We’ve got an experienced O-line too that’s played a lot of football. When you combine all of those things, the talent, the experience, then the new scheme that everyone is really excited about, we’re all looking forward to it, and we’re excited to show everybody what we’ve been working toward this Saturday.
On facing Maryland last year: I think more than anything, it’s about your preparation. I went into that week not starting but knew there was the potential for my number to be called. When I went in I was prepared and ready to go, and I think that was a testament to how hard I worked over the course of the week and to try and show any young guy that preparation is truly important, and if you know the game plan, if you understand what the other team is going to do, if you understand their tendencies, then we have that much better of a chance to be successful on Saturday. It’s not really anything that Maryland did or didn’t do, I think it was my preparation throughout the course of the week.
On his relationship with Coach Bajakian: I think he’s super relatable. He cares about us, not only as football players but as people. I think that helps more than anything, when you have a trust in each other and a good relationship. On the football side of things, I think I’ve mentioned that there’s some carry over from one of my former coaches who coached under him. More than anything, it’s the relationship piece, the way that we connect with each other and the way that he teaches the game. I think that’s probably the biggest thing and that’s why we’ve clicked so well.
On advice given to Skoronski: To start off, he is an incredible player. To come in as a freshman and to play at the level he’s playing at is huge. It’s fun to see for this year and the future of this team. The other day he pulled me aside after one of the practices and was like, “What advice do you have for me? What’s difference from practice and games?” I gave him some hints, gave him that games are a little bit faster than practices and you might get some stuff thrown at you, but the coaching staff here does a great job of getting you prepared. I told him “You’re one heck of a player, you should be confident in everything, in your talent and what the coaches have prepared us for, just go out and play. You find out it’s football, you find out football is football and that it’s a blast when you’re out there.”
On the state of the offensive line: Coach Anderson is one heck of a coach, and he will throw out the guys he feels are best prepared. He always says that the expectation is on the position, so the expectation of the Northwestern starting left tackle is to be the best left tackle in the Big Ten, which is what Rashawn was. I think Skoronski has done great, him playing next to me has helped him, I know my stuff. Communication has been awesome, we come off the sideline and have conversations. Ethan Wiederkehr at right guard, he’s played football for us before, he’s done a great job coming in and playing. We’ve lost some pieces, but we still have experience. Me, Sam and Gunnar were all starters, Ethan played a good amount of games last year, and Skoronski coming in and playing at the level he’s playing at is incredible and I think, yeah, we lost Rashawn and we lost Jared who were two great players for us, but we’re ready to go and we’re still playing at a high level.
On supporting Skoronski this Saturday: The biggest thing will be his nerves. I remember when I first started, my eyes were wide, Jared Thomas had to pull me aside and say, “Hey dude, it’s just football, now go out there, you’re prepared to play.” I feel like it could be the same with him, but I’ve been talking with him and he feels prepared, physically, so I think it might just be more nerves of excitement because coming right from high school into Big Ten football is a crazy thing, and he’s earned it. Like I said earlier, the coaches do a great job of preparing us throughout the week. Looks-wise there might be something exotic that comes up, but I’m confident in what I know and confident in what he knows, and we’ll be able to talk it out and go from there. I’m excited to see him in action for the first time.
On development under Coach Anderson: We’ve taken the next step in individual periods and technique periods to go into the more minute details of what we’re doing. Last year, I felt like we played at a high level and this year we took it a step up in our offseason grind to get those details to that next step. He’s done a great job, and we’ve all bought in and everyone else is bought in. I hope everyone on the team has realized the work that we’ve put in and are excited to see us play on Saturday.
On having Fitz as a teacher: It’s incredible. There’s no better teacher out there, no better coach out there. He’s a two time All-American for a reason. The wisdom and the golden nuggets that he has to offer, for linebackers especially, is second to none. You’re never gonna get that anywhere else. It’s awesome. I really, really enjoy just kind of picking his brain and seeing what he has to offer.
On having Ramsey as a QB after facing him last year: From what I remember, he played a half or so against us and he played very well within that half. He’s a very good player, and I’m hoping he can do the same for four quarters with us against other teams.
On possibly opting out: I was just waiting around in limbo. I was deciding what I was gonna do, was the season going to come back or was it canceled for sure. I was just kind of hanging out waiting in limbo, still working out. I had to get my wisdom teeth taken out so I went back home and saw my mom and my family. I was considering a lot of things. I was considering staying. I was considering, “Should I leave? What is going on?” I wanted to play. If they were going to come back and in the fall then I was planning on playing, but if they’re going to come back in the winter then that was a different decision that would be made with Coach. I was just waiting around just having to grasp my emotions and grasp my feelings and everything with having the news of the season getting canceled. I was really just waiting around in limbo, trying to figure out what to do.
On getting advice from his parents: I got a little bit of advice from my mom, but she just told me to follow my heart, and whatever decision I made she was going to back me and be happy with it. Most of the advice and counsel came from Fitz and McGarigle and Cody.
On adjusting to COVID protocols: The social aspect and not being able to see people outside of the football community and really our own little cohorts is difficult. To be honest, it’s tough keeping up with wearing the mask and stuff. It’s just in our nature just to kind of walk around and not have the mask because we’ve been doing it for forever until now. So again, just kind of having to really, really harp on wearing the mask and being safe, sanitizing, continue washing hands and just being safe, that’s been kind of tough.
On playing with no fans: It’s gonna be interesting. I haven’t thought about it too much, but it’s definitely crossed my mind. We’re definitely gonna have to come together as a unit to bring our own juice. BYOJ is what everybody’s talking about. and it’s true, we’re gonna have to find a way to get amped up and juiced up on the sideline. That’s gonna have to come from the guys that aren’t in the game plan and the younger guys really being “hoorah” kind of guys and just getting us ready. It’s going to be interesting.
On getting Fitz to 100 wins: It would be great. To get him to 100, that’s an awesome goal. We’re going to surpass that goal throughout the season and in the years to come, but it would be awesome to send him with a 100th win on the first game.
On Travis Whillock opting out: We’ve spoken and his heart, with everything going on, was to kind of take that next step and really put football aside. At the end of the day, he’s in a very good place mentally, physically and emotionally. He’s doing great. It hurts a little bit not to have him out there, but I know he’s making the best decision for himself, and I’m fully supporting him and 100% behind his back. He’s in a really good place, we speak often, and at the end of the day, I know he made the right choice for himself.
On having Ramsey as a QB after facing him last year: We got a dog. Peyton’s a playmaker, and we’ve been excited to watch him during camp making special plays and stuff. These are things that we’ve seen when we played him, and we’re still seeing them now all through camp. Definitely excited to watch what he’s gonna do on Saturday.
On adjusting to COVID protocols: It’s more of the social factors, realizing you have to make sacrifices and can’t do the same things that you want to do on the weekends. A lot of it is back and forth from house to facility, and that’s the only place we’re going. Mentally it can kind of mess you up a little bit not being able to see your friends and family, but it’s an adjustment and sacrifice you have to make for the greater good of the team.
On playing with no fans: It’s kind of been at the forefront of our minds since we figured out we were planning again. Obviously it’ll be a huge adjustment, but people have already been doing it, the NFL is already doing it and other conferences are already doing it, so it’s doable. It’s something to not really ignore but put into the back of your mind and realize that you’re still playing football at the end of the day. The only thing that’s different is there aren’t people screaming in the stands. It’ll probably be tough initially, but we’ll be able to handle it.
On starting alongside Brandon Joseph: I think my role is to be a leader for him and be somebody who he can look to. I’ve been in that same position before in my first season starting. I was with an older dude, a senior. I have full faith in B-Jo. He’s a young, exciting playmaker. He’s not completely new, but starting is a different beast. I’m excited for him.
On getting Fitz to 100 wins: To echo [Paddy], it would be awesome, putting Coach Fitz at the 100 mark. Striving to do that week one, it would be huge.