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Big Ten Media Day Press Conference Notes

Featuring quotes on the upcoming season from Fitz, Brandon Joseph, Sam Gerak and Cam Porter.

NCAA Football: Big Ten Conference Media Days Robert Goddin-USA TODAY Sports

Last Thursday, July 22, Big Ten Media Days took place inside Lucas Oil Stadium in Indianapolis, and present for Northwestern was Head Coach Pat Fitzgerald, as well as safety Brandon Joseph, running back Cam Porter and offensive lineman Sam Gerak. Here is what was said during Pat Fitzgerald’s opening press conference with the media, as well as the players’ interview with Big Ten Network’s Dave Revsine later on during the day.

Pat Fitzgerald

Fitzgerald’s Opening Statement: “There was something different last year, we were obviously able to find a way to have success while not having our great fans in the building. It’ something that I know our student-athletes, our staff and myself are looking forward to [this year] to say the least. To our frontline health care workers and those that have provided our health and safety, I want to say thank you, especially to our medical team up in Evanston. They did an amazing job last year, Jeff Mjannes in a team position, Kevin Kikugawa and his staff as our head athletic trainer. To go through the entire season without one COVID positive, I think the education that our medical team gave our players with the execution of the plan, and being incredibly unselfish, and really, truly sacrificing, arguably as much as anybody did in the country, is a credit to our players. I’m just really thankful for the job they did a year ago. It was great again to be back in Lucas Oil to represent the Big Ten West. And you know, that’s obviously our challenge again this year, is the to build the team and apply the finishing touches during fall camp and have ourselves in position to get ready to play a Big Ten opener against Michigan State. It’s going be on us here pretty quickly, but our guys had terrific summer, and I know they’re excited to get to get into camp and get things rolling.

It’s some exciting times in Evanston. Two out of the last three years to be the Big Ten West champs, to have have to first round draft picks last year, and we’re incredibly proud to have three guys drafted and that all 11 of our young men who worked out at the Pro Day had an opportunity to get into the pro camp, and we wish them the best. And couple that with having the highest graduation rate in the country, again, I think surely shows our model. What we do and how we do things about being the best player development staff in the country is actually turning around the benefits on the field, but more importantly, preparing our guys for life, and that we’re incredibly proud of.”

Fitzgerald on the Quarterback situation: “I think we got really good depth and I think we’ve got really good talent. You know, Andrew [Marty] and Ryan [Hilinski] and Hunter [Johnson], all three have gained experience. Hunter with us, Andrew with us and then Ryan in the SEC. All three of those guys are gonna compete here as we start camp, and we’ll make a decision and finalize that decision some time during camp. All three guys who have solid spring practices, and we’ve got younger guys behind them too, so I think we’ve got really good depth at the quarterback position.”

Fitzgerald on what it’s been like with new DC Jim O’Neil: “So far we’ve had some familiarity. Jim was a GA for us, so we’ve known each other for a long time. You don’t replace Mike Hankwitz. You look at 400 wins, 51 seasons — Hank was a true coach’s coach. A great mentor, a great teacher to all of us on the staff and amazing with our players.”

“Jim brings an energy level, and he’s committed to making this our defense. I believe I’ve got the best group of assistant coaches on defense in the country with Marty Long up front, Tim McGarigle with the linebacker position and Matt MacPherson with the DB’s, so it’s going to be a collaborative effort.”

Fitzgerald on the new NIL opportunities for college athletes: “I think the NIL opportunity for all student athletes is outstanding. I’m not gonna lie to you, I’m a little jealous. I mean think about in the mid-nineties the dough I would have made. I mean, c’mon — Autry, Schnur lives here in Indy and could probably get a free cup of coffee. Y’know there’s a lot of opportunity for growth and improvement in college football in the NCAA, and I think and NIL is the first step. I love listening to all the coaches in the SEC and all the guys [Big Ten coaches] before me saying, ‘We’ve got the best opportunity of NIL in Evanston and Chicago,’ and we’re all trying to figure this thing out. So we need to get off thinking that we’ve got the best, and we’ve got to work hard to educate our young men and their families, and then eventually put things in place to educate from the NCAA and the Big Ten level for our prospective student-athletes and their families. This is a great opportunity if used the right way, but it’s a job. And you have to have the right resources around the student-athletes to support them and support their families. So I think we’re going to all learn a lot through these next 12 to 24 months, but it’s a positive first step, I’m just a little jealous.”

Fitzgerald on potential changed in preparation due to the team’s inexperience: “Your preparation always changes based on your personnel, and it also changes in coaching staff. So there were tweaks and changes, but nothing earth shattering for me to announce today. But I knew the focus today would be on what we’ve lost, but I couldn’t be more excited about what we have. You look at the way we’ve recruited, you look at the way we’re recruiting right now — it’s an all-time high during my tenure. I’m really thankful for Jonny Kovach and our entire recruiting staff, Todd McShane and Bryan Payton, I mean, it’s a relentless group. I’m missing a bunch — Michael Conway — I mean they are just relentless behind the scenes, along with our coaching staff in recruiting. Also more importantly, getting on campus in June and getting around our players is why we’ve had such great success, and that hurt us a little bit in COVID, butI think we’ve come out of it strong. We’ve got exciting, exciting locker room, and I think we’ve got as much depth and talent maybe in my time, but we’ll see how it plays out in camp. We’re gonna find out right away with a challenging opener on Friday night against Michigan State at home, and so we’ve got a lot of work to do in these next six weeks getting ready for the game.”

Fitzgerald on getting his team ready without being able to be as physical as they were in the past during practices: “There won’t be a ton of changes to my routine, and we morphed it a little bit from a standpoint of how we practiced a little over five years ago, and it was all based on a long study that I did with our sport scientists, our athletic trainers and our strength staff to really put together training camps to build our guys up getting prepared for the opener. I think it’s really hard, just in general, to teach tackling right now with the way the rules are, so we work that fundamental and technique footwork wise, and fundamentally from the minute we start our offseason workouts, so you may not be taking someone to the ground, but we’re talking, teaching and working tackling every single day. The physical component to it, yeah it might been limited a little bit this year in camp, so you got to be a little bit more creative in the way you do drill work, more creative in the way you do structured practices.”

Fitz on what he’s told his players about NIL: “I just told the guys in our team meeting and, ‘Listen, you have to understand this is a job and use it the right way. Use all the resources we have around you, including your family, to make sure that you’re locking in smart deals, great deals and also understand the big picture here. A lot of you guys will be NFL players. Let’s not put your market level down here. So be really patient and work through it the right way, and again, I think as we sit here at this time next year, I think we’re all going to have a really good idea where this is at. I just think it’s comical listening to all us head coaches talk about how great our fan base is and our Twitter handles are for NIL for our players and it has nothing to do with that. It’s been humorous to watch.”

Fitzgerald on his confidence in the secondary: “I’ve got great confidence in the back end, you know, that group is deep. You mentioned a handful guys, there’s more, that I believe Matt MacPherson and our recruiting staff have done a really, really great job recruiting in that area. But that that culture and brotherhood is owned by our DB’s, you know, they call themselves the Sky Team. And you go back a number of years, and the legacy and success of that group has been spectacular. To have Greg Newsome be the 26th pick overall shows where we’re going, and we’re really excited about that.”

Cam Porter, Sam Gerak and Brandon Joseph’s Interview with Dave Revsine

On being back in Lucas Oil after last year’s Big Ten Championship appearance:

Porter: “Pulling into this stadium, there was a little bad taste in my mouth because of how we left it, but it’s always good to be back here.”

Gerak: “I think we feel a little comfortable here, being back a couple of years in a row. Really hoping we can make it as a team back here again.

Joseph: “It’s great man. We didn’t win last year, but to be in a stadium like this, it’s a blessing. It’s an opportunity that not a lot of people can get, and I’m not going to take it for granted. I love being back here in Lucas Oil.

On their most memorable highlight from last season:

Joseph: “For me it was beating Wisconsin, because that was that fifth game when we started 5-0, and that’s something we haven’t done in a long time at Northwestern. So getting that fifth win over over Wisconsin was a big one, it really set the standard for what what we wanted the season to be.”

Gerak: “Personally, I think it was that first drive against Ohio State in the Big Ten Championship. It felt like we belonged after that and understood that we could match them talent-wise.”

Porter: “Personally, for me, it was that Ohio State game. Even though we came up short, it honestly just made me realize that we can play with anybody in the country, and that gave me motivation coming into this year.”

On being picked 3rd in the Big Ten West preseason media poll:

Porter: “We honestly know what we’re getting into every single yearThey always count us out, but we always prove them wrong in the end. That’s kind of our mindset coming into each year. We understand that we’re going to be doubted year in and year out, but we just got to prove them wrong.”

Gerak: “At the end of the day, the media rankings don’t matter. What matters is how we end the season and what we put on the field.”

Joseph: “To echo in both of them, it’s nothing new to us. We go to Northwestern, we get a low preseason ranking and we put it behind us and we go play our game. We know we’re Northwestern football, and we know what we can do and that’s what we’re going to go out and do.”

On what position rooms might step up on this young team:

Porter: “A big room, in my opinion, that’s gonna stand out this year is the wide receiver room. We’ve got a lot of guys, younger guys that are going to step up this year, and we’ve got a couple transfers, and I feel like that’s going to be a big room, and it’s going to be a big improvement in our offense.”

Gerak: “Offensive line room is incredibly deep this year. We’re going to have so much competition for the returning jobs, and I’m really looking forward to seeing what guys can do in camp.”

Joseph: “I like to say one position has has a little edge over the other but I think that our D-line returning, we have some great young stars that haven’t even been seen yet. Linebackers, same thing. And then DB’s we got to see a little bit of Cam Mitchell at the end of last year and AJ Hampton throughout the season, and so us three back there along with whoever we put it as a safety, I think we’re going to have a strong chance on defense this year.”

On Joseph’s preseason accolades and recognition:

Joseph: “Man I got God on my side. It’s been a blessing. It’s been a crazy experience going through all of this, and like I said, I lean on God through all of it. It’s a learning process too, and I went out there not knowing what to expect last year. I didn't know what it was like to play in Big Ten games. I redshirted my first year and played in four games, so to go out there and really trust in Coach Hank’s plan that he had for me, and to go out there and perform at the level I did, that’s a tribute to my coaches and a tribute to my teammates on the field. And it wasn’t just me last year, I think we lost about five guys that are working to be on an NFL team or are on an NFL team right now, and playing alongside of them, I learned so much and it’s allowed me to excel the way I have.

On Joseph’s one-handed interception against Ohio State and how many time he’s watched it:

Joseph: “I couldn’t tell you man, I’ve watched it too many times, too many probably for my own good. When I made that catch, it was something on my wrist and it said ‘All for God’, and it’s something that you don’t see every day. It was a blessing and it’s something that I expect from myself, but I’m not over here practicing one hand catches all the time, but I know I have hands and it’s something that I just thought I could do.”

Porter (on Joseph): “Dude is insane. I mean, he make plays like that all the time in practice, so we weren’t really that surprised, but yeah he’s a great player.”

Gerak (on Joseph): “From the moment he stepped on campus, we knew he was an extraordinarily talented guy, and he just keeps showing it on Saturdays.”

On the progress the offensive line has made this spring:

Gerak: “I think with a new defensive coordinator in Coach O’Neill, a lot was thrown at us as an offensive line and a lot of different looks. I think our offensive line handled that well, and we have a couple new guys that will be stepping into positions, and I think they’ve handled that transition well.”

On the main thing learned from playing under Mike Hankwitz:

Joseph: “The main takeaway I learned from Coach Hank was how to play in a schemmatical defense. Coach Hank had us making complex calls, and the things that we do in Coach Hank’s system, it’s not easy. And it showed last year with the success that we had and the fact that we were able to play the schematics and for it to turn out the way it did. The interceptions we created, the turnovers we created, all of that was from what Coach Hank taught us in practice, and I’ll never lose that.”

On new Defensive Coordinator Jim O’Neil:

Joseph: “He’s bringing in an NFL perspective to us that we haven’t had, and it’s something that I’ve already started to learn and I’ve already started to develop myself. He’s coming in and bringing in techniques that that you don’t really see at the college level, and it’s a next level thing. I think Coach O’Neil will be nothing but great. He’s going to teach us things that we never even knew, so I think Coach O’Neil is going to be a great addition to this defense and in camp.”

On the 2021 quarterback room:

Porter: “It’s a bunch of talented guys competing each and every day, and they all bring something a little different and unique to the table, but it’s going be an interesting camp because they’re going to battle it out, and they’re gonna compete to the end.”

On Ryan Hilinski:

Porter: “He has great arm talent. He can make every throw. He has the talent. He has the skill level. He’s a smart guy. He came in mid-spring and learned the whole offense, so that’s something that sticks out to me personally.”

Gerak: “I agree with what Cam said. I think one of the best things that Ryan does is he gets the ball out of his hands quickly. He knows what his outlets are, and he knows what he needs to do on the field, and I think the other two guys that are in competition are extremely talented as well.”

On opening against Michigan State:

Joseph: “It’s a huge one. It was one of our only losses in the regular season last year, so for them to be an opener, it’s a big game for us. But just like any other Big Ten team, they’re a great team. They’re a team that we’re going to have to go out trust in the game plan, go do what we know we can do and perform, but yeah, Michigan State is going to be a great game to open up with.”

On playing Purdue in Wrigley Field this season:

Gerak: “For anybody that lives in Chicago or been to Chicago, Wrigley is that place. It’s the place you visit with so much historical significance to it, and it’s an honor to be playing there this year.”

Porter: “I’m very excited to play in that game. To have the city behind us, it’s going to be awesome. It’s going to be fun. It’s going to be a great game.”