Opening statement: “Thanks everyone for being here. I just got off the field and heard the great news of Chancellor Blank rejoining the Wildcat family, so I want to congratulate her and welcome her family back to Northwestern. I look forward to building a relationship, and I’ve been very fortunate over my time to have amazing support from our presidents, so I look forward to building that relationship as time goes along. I’ve already texted Chancellor Blank to welcome her and her response already got me excited, she’s excited to get down here next year. There’s a lot of time between now and then to start that relationship, but I’m obviously excited for her.
I’m also excited for homecoming this weekend, I’ve got a lot of my teammates and coaches coming back to celebrate the reunions of the ‘95 and ‘96 teams that we weren’t able to have last year, so it’ll be exciting to see everybody and celebrate homecoming. For a lot of our alums, this is the only chance they may have to make it back to campus, so we’re excited to welcome them to Ryan Field.
I thought we had a productive bye week. We had to get rested up for some guys, we had to put the pedal down for some other guys that are in the depth as we continue to build depth. I thought we had some really competitive practices, and then our staff got out and hit the road nationally early in the week. Here in Chicagoland, on Friday and Saturday, I was able to make a couple of games, and then take in my boys’ games on Saturday, so that was exciting.
I think Rutgers is playing very good football. Greg [Schiano] and I are very good friends, we’ve known each other for a long time, I’ve got terrific respect for him and he’s doing a great job. We saw his DNA a year ago, how it changed watching them play, and now you see how physical they are, how fast they’re playing, just being explosive on offense and creative and then being really disruptive and physical on defense. They can score touchdowns in the punt and kick return game and put a lot of pressure on you with the punt team. They’ll do the same thing with their kickoff coverage unit that’s really creative with their coverage scheme. There’s a lot of pressure on us to execute a lot better than we did in Lincoln, which should give us a chance to win a football game if we execute cleaner and don’t give the ball away.”
On how to shore up the run defense: “We need to be better on the perimeter. We obviously have given up the edge on a number of occasions and not been able to fit it properly. It starts with us as coaches and looking at things and how we’re teaching it, and more importantly how we’re fitting it and what we’re asking our guys to do to make sure we’re playing to their strengths. Internally, we’ve got to be more physical as a defense across the board. That’s one of the things we’ve talked a lot about here since the season started and we still haven’t put that all together completely. We just need to play more physical, gap-sound defense.
On Ryan Hilinski’s improvement: “First of all, he’s shown incredible toughness. That was highlighted with the way he played a couple of weeks ago. Anytime you’re new to a system, it takes time to learn it, and he’s been relentless in that work ethic. He’s doing a good job taking care of the football, and I think that’s something that as you get more comfortable with the offense, you’re kind of an extension of the coordinator, you’re able to see the signal and know what the play is before it even comes in. I think as he continues to grow in the system and continues to be more and more confident, big plays will continue to happen, and he’s made some explosive plays down the field for us which we are going to need to continue to win Big Ten games.”
On having the 1995 and 1996 Northwestern teams back this weekend: “It will be great to see a lot of my teammates. On Friday, we’ll have a reception for them and the coaches. With the last two years with COVID, we haven’t had the chance to spend a lot of time together. It’s an honor and it’s a privilege to be a part of those two teams. To see my brothers and to see the coaches and their families, I couldn’t be more excited to see everyone, from a standpoint of the celebration of the two teams that really kind of changed the trajectory of our program. There were a lot of guys in the ‘70s and ‘80s that didn’t have the support that we had, and the credit goes to Coach Barnett and his staff. It’ll be great to see all of them, and I feel really honored to represent them and be a part of that group.”
On using the bye week to rework the defense: “You start with fundamentals first. We looked at a lot of things we were doing fundamentally, then looked at the scheme to see some areas that are getting attacked and why things are happening the way they are. We presented a plan to the guys and the solutions that we believe it’s going to take to get back to where we’ve been. Then, obviously, there’s competition. Once we get to a place where we feel like we’ve got those two in order, we’ve gotta make sure we’re playing the right guys. We have some guys that are real close from a competitive standpoint, and we’ll continue to rotate those guys until we see someone really take it over.”
On where young guys have made progress so far: “I don’t really take a ton of stock on that in the middle of the season, but we’ve been able to add and we have a lot of depth, so we’re playing a lot of guys. That’s been a positive, it’s probably been more guys than we’ve ever played. At times it’s been positive and at times it’s been negative because of our lack of execution. I really love this group of guys. I think they’re a terrific group of young men, I think they’re working their tails off. What I’ve got to find a way to do is get them to take the work they’re putting in during the week — which I have zero issues with — and take that business trip mentality into the games. We’ve been too inconsistent, and that’s on me as a coach. We’ve just got to get them to trust themselves and be consistent and handle the ebb and flow of games.”
On the offensive line’s struggles/injuries: “Again, it starts fundamentally. We’ve got to be able to have our eyes in the right spot, we’ve got to be able to play with the right type of footwork and hands and pad level. We’ve got to look at the group collectively and make sure we’re asking them to do the things that they can do, but we’ve got a next man up mentality regardless of position, guys have got to step up and play to their capabilities, that’s all we ask them to do. I think that group has a lot of pride and they’re going to continue to work their tails off to get better and better.”
On arriving at NU during a historically strong year for the Big Ten: “Yeah, I don’t like to talk about it much, but I think the big thing that I can say about that is I came from the SEC. So we played, week-in and week-out, Florida, then we played Bama, then we played Tennessee. I mean, we play big teams here in the Big Ten. I think the big thing that we’ve gotta do right now is just make sure that we stick to our training, that we stick to what our coaches have taught us and that we don’t band away from each other, because that’s where it can get scary. I think right now we're in a good spot. We’re not where we want to be record wise, of course, but mentally, I think the guys are still bought into this program. I know that they are, because we came in today and everybody’s fired up. We get another week to play football, and I think that sometimes we lose sight of it not being fun. I think when we start having fun it makes the weeks easier, especially on our bodies, because there’s no doubt that this is a physical league, that these guys are going at it every single week. But I think that’s just the big thing that we need to do right now, is just have fun with it and keep making sure that we’re on the right path mentally, and I think we’ll be just fine.”
On his experience during Mental Health Awareness Week: “I thought it was really amazing to see Coach Fitz and Demetrius Fields and this whole team kind of support me in that field, of course with Hilinski’s Hope. And I know it’s not about just Tyler and our foundation, because I just want to make sure that it’s focused on all of mental health in this world, that it’s being talked about more, which is really awesome to see. It definitely meant a lot to our family, meant a lot to my parents for sure. But just having Coach Fitz address the whole team about raising three fingers in the third quarter, wearing the bands, having these shirts passed out to us, it really meant a lot to me. And then seeing everybody this past week with everything on their helmets, raising three fingers in the third quarter. It was definitely a really cool week and I’m glad it’s being talked about more, because it’s definitely a struggle in this world and I think it’s something that needs to be addressed even more so. But I’m glad it’s reaching that topic of being well talked-about, well-conversed.”
On his journey at NU, from arrival to now: “It’s been a long journey, it definitely has. It’s definitely not over yet, of course. The length of the journey is really about to come right now for this seven-game stretch, and I’m excited about it, of course. But I think it really just started from day one, when I announced that I was transferring here. I talked with Coach Bajakian over the summer a lot, during the spring, of course. Even before that, in January, we were trying to talk about plays and having ideas and all of that stuff. Talking to Stephon [Robinson Jr.] before we even came here, talking to some of the freshmen before they even came in. Just visiting with the guys. I think Coach Fitz and Coach Jake really emphasized that the guys here are the most important part, and once I get a control of that, once I feel comfortable with them — which I do now — it’s gonna all flow.
Just studying the playbook. Literally every single day, I go over the script with my dad or my brother. I have a white board, they say a play, I write it down on the white board, and we just go through it 2-3 times a day. And then I’m here until 8 or 9 at night, watching film after class, after our meetings. It’s definitely just how much you put into it is how much you’re gonna get out of it, and I realize that now as I’ve matured through the years of college football. You’re not just gonna go out there and be a gamer. Some guys are, but I feel like the more I study, the more I know about the opponent, the more I know about ourselves, I think it’s just gonna prepare me well for the games, and I feel like it’s definitely translated for me. I have Coach Jake to thank for that and Coach Scott, one of our QB coaches who’s also been extremely helpful. Everybody here on this team, all of the coaches, really, have just been extremely helpful in giving me the playbook, telling me what I need to do, telling me to be myself, and it’s all coming in really nicely, and I’m excited to see what I can do moving forward with everybody.”
On the system switch from South Carolina to Northwestern: “I’ve been through a ton of systems. In high school, I went through three OCs after I transferred from JSerra to [Orange Lutheran], we had three OCs throughout my high school career. Went to college, had a first year OC, then another offense. Then I came here. So, to answer your question, it’s been easy to pick up offenses for me, just because you gotta put in the work to study those two things. My sophomore year at South Carolina, it was more of a pro-style type of thing, more under-center, play action type of stuff, which we do a lot of here. But I really like Coach Jake’s offense. I really think he’s doing a lot of good things. I really think he's involving everybody. And it’s funny, because I’ll go through the script every day and I’ll be like, ‘Okay, I see what coach is trying to do here.’ The main difference is being a lot more active in both [shotgun] and under-center. being able to audible some of the plays that we get, seeing what I see and being able to check it, because I’m just an extension of Coach Jake on the field. I’m just trying to get the guys right, and I think he’s done an incredible job of making it fun for me. This is definitely a fun offense, and I think we’re just getting to what we’re capable of, and I think we’re right there.”
On whether he saw introspection from the defense over the bye week: “Yeah, for sure. Looking at myself is what I always try to do. I need to be more physical, my play is not where it needs to be. I need to control the line of scrimmage better, my pass rush needs to be better. I would say those are the things, right now, that I’m working on the most, things that I’m not happy with myself about. But throughout this bye week, after the game, on the plane after the game, all night, I didn’t get much sleep, and those were the things that I was thinking about.”
On his impressions of his teammates on the defensive line: “It’s an interesting dynamic because we have a lot of older guys on this team as well who have been playing a lot of football. But when you first come into a program, you kinda feel a little bit like a freshman because you don’t know anyone, you don’t even know the coaches, you don’t know where the training room is. But I think it was cool because, once we got comfortable, we were able to bounce ideas off of each other. I was in a unique situation, because this is my fifth defensive coordinator in college football, so I’ve seen a lot of different techniques, a lot of different schemes. And obviously, they’ve had a lot of success, so we were able to kinda bounce off what they’ve done to have success and the different varieties of teachings that I’ve had. So I’d say that’s probably the best aspect of it.”
On the energy at practice this week coming off of a disappointing loss: “Surprisingly good. There’s a lot of teams that, at this point, when you have tough losses, especially one like that in front of almost 100,000 people, that would start blaming each other, start turning on each other, people start to give up. But I haven’t seen any of that. I think a lot of people are more angry with themselves than anyone else, which is the best thing because, ultimately, you really can only change yourself. There’s not much else you can do. So, from that aspect, I think it was really good.”
On his transition to Big Ten play: “Awesome, it’s actually great. For me personally, the better the opponent, the better my prep. It motivates me more. I’m a person that believes that you have an incentive to do anything. So when I’m looking at film and I see a person across the line that’s really good and has a chance to play at the next level and he’s just dominating someone, it makes me think ‘alright, I need to put in extra work so that I can play,’ and that carries over to my play, personally. So I think, if anything, it motivates me and excites me.”