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Spring football press conference notes: Defensive Coordinator Jim O’Neil and Offensive Coordinator Mike Bajakian

The conclusion of spring ball capped off by some words from NU’s top coordinators.

After the fifteenth and final practice of the spring, defensive coordinator Jim O’Neil and offensive coordinator Mike Bajakian met with the media earlier today to discuss each unit’s progress heading into the summer.

Jim O’Neil

O’Neil’s Opening Statement: “It’s been a great spring, I thought we took some big steps as a defense, we threw a lot at the guys. We still have more to put in, but I thought we took some big steps. We are not where we need to be but that’s what we got the next three months for in the weight room and then we got all of training camp. But as far as spring ball, I am happy with how it ended today. As far as just being a Northwestern Wildcat, it’s been awesome. The players have exceeded my expectations. I told them that today. I tried to break them down mentally with all the install that we threw at them and they didn’t let me do it and then I’ve just been blown away by the culture that Fitz and these players have built here. It’s just been better than expected. A lot of people at every level and in every sport talk about culture but it’s not real and it’s real here and it’s been fun to be a part of the last couple months.”

On the linebackers: “Obviously we know about Bergin, he’s played a lot of football. But a couple young guys that I thought had really taken a step in the right direction is KJ (Khalid Jones), Cullen Coleman, Bryce Gallagher- the new Gallagher has stepped up and I think those guys that graduated did such a great job leading that room and help developing those guys and Timmy McGarigle is an unbelievable linebackers coach so don’t be shocked if those guys still play at a high level.”

On the difference between spring ball at NU and workouts/OTA’s in NFL: “It’s really not that much different with the exception that in the NFL, you are just around the guys a little bit longer during the day. But as far as the practice, it’s pretty similar as far as the length, the tempo, we didn’t do any live tackling so it’s the same thing in the NFL. The 12 years I was in NFL, we never had issue with guys showing up, so if I was a young guy and I was playing in the NFL, I would go.”

On the secondary: “These guys have been exposed to a lot of different coverages. They have a good foundation as far as fundamentals, techniques, we are gonna add some coverages and do some things a little bit different than what they have done in the past and they have embraced it and they have done a really good job. I think it is going to be one of our most competitive position groups whether it’s at safety, whether it’s at our nickel position or at corner because we have some young guys that are coming. So I told the guys: there are guys that played a lot last year, in the game of football you have to earn it every year. Just because you were an All-American or just because you were a starter last year, that doesn’t mean anything. You gotta earn it every single day at practice, you gotta earn it every game, that’s the way it is. if you get comfortable in this game, someone is going to pass you by. But I am excited about that group.”

On emerging players within the secondary: “I am really intrigued by Garnett Hollis (Jr.) coming off of surgery. He did some great things at the tail end of spring, he’s a corner. I thought Rod Heard had an unbelievable spring practice. I thought Jaheem Joseph is a freshman that came in, we moved him to safety and he did some great things. You mentioned all of the guys who are gonna have significant roles for us and do a heck of a job …but it’s gonna be competitive, it’s gonna be competitive come training camp. I thought a lot of guys this spring put themselves in a position to earn a role for themselves come training camp when real jobs are made.”

On adjusting to NFL/CFB personnel differences: “Jake (Mike Bajakian) does an awesome job with the offense. It’s an NFL offense, there’s formation variation, they are attacking personnel… it’s not that different. The biggest difference between the NFL and college football is some of the things you are allowed to do formationally with some of the unbalanced sets and the quarterback run stuff. You are playing more 11-on-11 football where that is starting to trickle into the NFL but that’s not every team right now... If you had to pin me down and you wanted to know what the two things are, it would probably be the quarterback run game and some of the formation variation stuff that is legal in college football that is not legal in the NFL.”

On the exact NFL/CFB personnel differences: “You don’t need to have an eligible receiver on the back side of a formation so you could put all four eligible receivers on one side, so that’s different from what NFL is. You can get into some crazy stuff, you just gotta have a rule for it, stuff that can break some rules so you gotta have a plan for it and that stuff can be challenging at times.”

On the approach to stopping the QB run: “It starts with the guys up front. Those guys gotta do a good job recognizing when they can pass rush and when they gotta play run technique and then I gotta do a good job helping them schematically based off the tendency, when those runs are coming in. You know, empty formations, third and three to five, some of the situations down in distances that hurt the defense last year. But it is stuff that we are aware of and its something that we have emphasized this spring. So we just gotta keep practicing it and then keep coaching guys up on some of the pre-snap readiness and pre-snap awareness stuff. But it’s a challenge, obviously you put five guys wide or whatever and now the QB is a threat to run and you are playing 11-on-11 football. You didn’t have to worry about that with guys like Drew Brees, Tom Brady and Peyton Manning so you have to worry about it down here.”

On the defensive identity: “Effort. We are going to lead the country in effort on the grass and off the grass, that’s the most important thing. Statistically, it comes down to explosive plays and takeaways, if we get more hats to the ball, (the) ball comes out, we got a chance to end up with it. And then if you got guys running to the ball and somebody misses a tackle, you got somebody there to clean him up, it eliminates explosive plays. So I would say we talk about relentless, we talk about playing as hard as you can for as long you can. Fitz has built that for years, that’s nothing that I brought, I’m just a big believer in you gotta fly to the ball; that’s what we were going to do here on defense. We want 11 hats to the ball. Alright guys, have a great weekend. Anybody wanna come over and help me unpack? I got a house full of boxes.”

Offensive Coordinator Mike Bajakian

On spring camp: “The goal for all of our guys, not just the quarterback position but across the board is to gain experience and grow up. We are in a situation where we will be replacing seven starters on offense, we have lost a lot of production, but we have a chance to be really good and even really explosive. I like the guys at all positions that have been working through the course of the spring. At the QB position specifically, all those guys, we didn’t anticipate leaving spring ball with a starter named. It’s a competition that started on the first day of spring ball and will continue through the end of training camp I would anticipate. But I can tell you this, the guys are doing a great job. As Coach O’Neil just mentioned, they have a capacity to learn quickly and to absorb a lot of information. They exhibited that since I got here a year and a half ago and they continue to do that. We threw a lot at them this spring and they handled it really well.”

On the pass catchers: “We graduated a lot of production. I’m excited as heck for all of those guys. When you think about what an exciting week it is for the Northwestern football program and for those guys as individual guys like Rashawn Slater, Peyton Ramsey, RCB, Riley Lees, John Raine, all those guys that have an opportunity. Gunnar Vogel. An opportunity to play at the next level, their dreams will come to fruition this week. Those are big losses, you are 100% right. Those guys had a lot of production on the field. But that’s the beauty of a place like this, the guys we have waiting in the wings are highly intelligent, highly competitive. Coach Fitz does a great job of targeting the right guys who, again, if you look at just the seniors who graduated, they are going to have a great opportunity whether it be at the next level in the NFL or to use the degree they’ve earned here.”

“Specifically as it relates to the wide receiver room and the tight end room, I’ll start with the tight ends. Charlie Mangieri is a guy that played a ton of football for us last year and maybe has a little bit of a different skillset than John Raine, but can play at an extremely high level. And it’s funny, we always do an exercise after the season in our self-scout evaluation and quality control and ask ourselves what are our strengths and what are our weaknesses going into next season. I listed Charlie Mangieri at the tight end position as a strength. He is a guy that, I think, is extremely solid as a blocker and may not have the speed or agility of some of the other tight ends, but very sure-handed, has a great catch radius. I think he is going to do a great job in our offense and has a done a great job this spring. The other (crew) has been great. Marshall Lang, a guy that saw some time this year as a true freshman, is playing an extremely physical game right now and playing with great effort. As Coach O’Neil just alluded to, we want to make sure that we are playing at an effort level that makes us unique. And then you add Thomas Gordon, a guy who didn’t get much time, I almost relate him to Charlie last year. Charlie had played a little bit the year before and coming into last season was a guy that we needed to play some really good football and he demonstrated to me from getting here a year and a half ago to now to really accelerating his game and playing at a high level; Thomas Gordon is playing the best football since I’ve been here and I know its only been a year and a half, but he’s another guy that adds some depth. And then Jason Whittaker is another guy that’s come back and is doing a great job. So I feel pretty good with our depth at the tight end room and we are adding some more guys this offseason.”

“And at the receiver position, I didn’t mean to leave those guys out, guys like JJ Jefferson and Bryce Kirtz and Berkley Holman who have played a decent amount of football, again, have a chance to be really explosive. All of them bring a good skillset that I don’t think will necessarily miss a beat when it comes to replacing all that production that left.”

On differences between offenses this year and last year: “We are different from a personnel standpoint. Again, you graduate seven starters, you are going to be different. Obviously, last year’s team set a very high bar. When you think about what they were able to accomplish on the field, being a top ten football program in the country while at the same time being at a top ten academic institution. They set a very high bar for this year’s team and frankly every team here after to live up to. That being said, the culture exists, the skill exists, the mentality exists in these guys that I wouldn’t say that we’re necessarily going to be vastly different schematically. But the personnel is going to be different and we need to accentuate that personnel a little differently and we’re young. I mean... we have had a full 15 practices here of spring and as I just told these guys this morning, when you break down the total number of reps that that equals, our first team offense got, and I say our first team it’s a revolving door, but the one’s got 350 reps or so of 11-on-11 team football, the two’s got almost the exact same amount, just below 340 something. That’s the equivalent of about five games. While we weren’t able to get five games of “growing up” under our belt, it’s still a far way away from our opening game next year where we need to put our thumb on what is our identity schematically, personnel-wise, who our starters are gonna be and I expect that we will continue to grow this offseason and this summer and have a very good idea of what that will look like come next fall.”

On the offense’s progress on the playbook: “I would say coming into last spring as is the case when I come into a program as a new coordinator, I anticipated that we would not be able to get a lot in. How can I phrase this? I anticipated that the total volume of scheme that ultimately I would want to get too would not be installed. What amazed me last year through last spring through last offseason when COVID hit through last training camp is that our guys are highly intelligent. Again, that is a testament to you do not become a top ten institution by allowing guys with below average intelligence to come in the door. So our guys can handle a lot more volume than any other program I have ever been around. So we were able to throw a ton at them last year and they absorbed it really well and we continue to do that this year. So, it’s not like we are taking the next step in terms of a total volume of offensive scheme that’s in, we are just taking the next step in perfecting it because they’ve been exposed to a ton of it last season.”

On tailoring his play calling to a new QB: “You have to tailor to all of your personnel not just your quarterback. That’s a big piece of the picture. The philosophy is always get your playmakers involved, right, and obviously you have to identify who your playmakers are and what they do best to be able to get them ball in that manner. And the quarterback in the offense is an integral part of that, so of course you will tailor to the skill of your quarterback and of all your skill guys.”