Over a week after Northwestern’s season-opening victory over Nebraska in Dublin, Pat Fitzgerald and Big Ten Players of the Week Ryan Hilinski, Cam Mitchell and Luke Akers joined the media on Monday afternoon. Below is a summary of their statements entering NU’s home opener against Duke.
Opening statement: “Good afternoon, everybody. It’s great to be back in game week. I’ll get started with our players of the week internally from our game against Nebraska. Our offensive player of the week was the offensive line, collectively as a whole, and Ryan Hilinski. All six of those guys played outstanding football. Defensively, we had two guys play really well up front: Adetomiwa Adebawore and Sean McLaughlin. Special teams-wise, Luke Akers and Andrew Clair. Our big playmakers were Evan Hull and Donny Navarro III offensively. Greyson Metz on defense with that big fumble caused kind of shifted some momentum in that game. Our practice players of the week: Evan Smith, Jack Lausch and Robert Fitzgerald. Those three guys, collectively, really proud of the effort that they’re giving.
“Excited to get to the home opener here in Ryan Field and get back kind of into a gameday groove. To play a zero week and then have a week off, this feels much more like an opener than maybe a Week Two game for us. That’s the way we’ll operate this week. It’ll be great to get back into Ryan Field. Really impressed watching the Blue Devils, not only a little bit on Friday, but more when I watched them Saturday, and then we jumped into our game prep based on the opener. Great respect for Mike Elko, a guy that I know well. Just an outstanding football coach, a terrific family man and is gonna do a great job at Duke. He’s a guy that I’ve known for a number of years. I think he’s put together an outstanding staff. Kevin Johns, who obviously worked here with us and did a terrific job, did an outstanding job in the opener with his offense. Rob Smith, the DC, he does a great job with their defense. And then Pat Dougherty, who runs their special teams, was here on our staff along, obviously, with Adam Cushing. So they’ll have a lot more familiarity with us than maybe we will with them given their second game, but really impressed with the way they played in all three phases. Played a very clean game for an opener with a new staff.
“We’ll need to improve in a lot of areas. Thought we found a way to win in zero week but didn’t really play the way that we want to play collectively. Just a lot of work went into the end of last week and the bye, and same thing will go into this week. Also want to put a special shoutout to our 14 guys that are getting their opportunities in the NFL this week. Want to wish those guys the best of luck, and really proud of them as they get going here this year in the NFL.”
On preparing for some familiar faces in Duke’s coaching staff: “It goes back to what I said last week, getting ready for Nebraska with a new offensive coordinator, new staff. That’s your whole offseason. We did the same thing getting ready for Duke with not only their offense, but their defense, the kicking game, and then personnel and new additions that they have and where they’re moving guys around. We were able to get a snapshot out in the opener, but with how the game went, we got maybe about 5% of what they’re going to really run. You gotta do a lot of studying from what they’ve done in the past. So a lot of challenge on the staff, but it’s nothing new for us. It’s something that we’re kind of used to around here. Especially when you’ve got a veteran staff that’s been here for a long time, a lot of teams have a lot more familiarity with us than we do with them in the non-conference slate.”
On planning as if this week is the first game: “Approaching this week like the opener. You gotta execute. You gotta make sure that you take care of the football and win the turnover battle, and Duke did an outstanding job of that on Friday night the way that they took care of the ball. I was really impressed with Riley Leonard. The way that he had command of that offense, it’s not a surprise. The way I know Kevin Johns, not a surprise with the way that he played and how well-prepared he was across the board. They had multiple running backs, multiple tight ends, and multiple wideouts made plays. Their O-line was physical. It was really impressive watching their offense. So when you say all that, you just gotta focus on yourself. We’ve just gotta be one week better. It’s all three phases for us.”
On correcting miscues: “We didn’t start very fast. We gotta start faster. That’s something that’s been a point of emphasis. It was really impressive, both sides of the ball, how fast [Duke] started and jumped out on Temple a hurry. So that’s number one. We gotta finish drives. We gotta better on third down. We gotta tackle better. We gotta be just exponentially better in every unit and the kicking game. There’s a ton of work to do there. That’s just to name a few. That’s what we got going on right away when we got back from Dublin. Gave the guys a day off, but then we got right back to work and worked on the corrections day one. Day two and three were right back to fundamental execution work in all three phases. That carried over into this morning. Lot of work to do. Great to get a win in the opener, but just pedal down and just focus on what we can control and what we can improve on. That’s what we’re doing right now.”
On special teams: “We’ll put the guys out there that, number one, are executing in practice, and second of all, that are healthy. Those two things pretty much go hand in hand. The third component to the kick game is obviously how you execute in the arena. That’s all aspects. We just had a lot of first-time guys out there, especially the Big Four [kicker, punter, long snapper, holder]. When you look at our two coverage units and our two return units, there were some things that we did not execute. At some point, it kind of started to slow down for some of the guys. But something you can’t emulate in training camp or spring ball is the speed of the game. You try to, but it doesn’t it doesn’t manifest itself the way it really does in a game. And that’s the same thing for this one. Duke’s got great team speed. They’ve recruited well, not only Coach Elko’s first class but also prior to that from a speed standpoint. We’re gonna have our hands full with the kicking game. Coach Dougherty does a really good job. I mean, they’re very aggressive with what they do and how they do things, and they’re very fundamentally sound. We’re gonna have our hands full in the third phase, there’s no doubt about that. We gotta be a lot better than we were in the opener.”
On Wildcat fans and returning to Ryan Field: “It was awesome. The great support we had in Dublin was phenomenal. I was really thankful for everybody. I think mentioned after the game, that was a bowl-game-like atmosphere in Aviva. I thought that that was a great first test for our team. When you got as many young guys in the kick games as we have and then newcomers, seeing how guys handle things in-game. You don’t ever want to be down, and then to be down 11 points twice. I don’t think there was a hesitation by anybody in the purple that day. It was a big part because of our fans. You could feel them, you could hear them. It was an awesome atmosphere. I hope they all made their flights back, and we kick off at 11 o’clock central. Look forward to seeing everybody and especially our students that are in town to have some fun. Especially the way our season’s front-loaded with a bunch of home games, the way they had to go with playing in Dublin, the more the merrier. Come for a beautiful day here at Ryan Field on Saturday. Come on out and 11 and have some fun watching college football. Who knows? Maybe the point of sales will go out and there will be free beer. You never know.”
On former Blue Devil Jeremiah Lewis facing his old team: “I think JLew’s got great respect for his alma mater. He had a great career down there. He’s got great respect for his teammates. Those are the conversations I’ve had personally with him. Just like I said earlier, the name of the game is changing in college football. This was just the right time for him to be here and the right fit. I thought he played really well. Again, there are plays that he’d like to have back. But for his first Big Ten game, I thought he played really well. Learned a ton. Just really glad that he’s here. We’ve got an opportunity to have him here for multiple years, so that’s exciting, to say the least.”
On the offensive line: “That was the first time that Kurt [Anderson] and I have been together that we’ve had the entire offensive line grade out fundamentally and technically and execution-wise over 90%, so that’s why they were named players of the week for our offense against a front that’s a physical front seven at Nebraska. I thought number one, the way that we were able to execute, for the most part, was something that I think we need to continue to build upon. The pocket that we were able to create was something that I think Ryan [Hilinski] is very appreciative of. It’ll be much more challenging with the packages that coach Coach Elko and Coach Smith will deploy. They put a lot of pressure on your protection schemes and attack those things in particular. So we’ll have our hands full there. But I think across the board, the group played maybe as consistent of a game as we’ve had around here in a long time. So really proud of that group. But what I’m more proud of is the way they came out today with the focus. That group is going to lead our team; they know that. They came with great focus and were ready to go here this morning. I’m really looking forward to them continuing to kind of take ownership and take over the team. It’s becoming a more veteran group with Charlie [Schmidt] and Conrad [Rowley] and Josh [Priebe] getting more and more reps. We’re gonna need that group to continue to improve and to play well.”
On winning in Week Zero: “Power Five football: half of us are undefeated, and half of us are not for that first week. Half of us are walking in, coaching with a positive taste in our mouth and feeling good, and the other half are walking in with a terrible taste. But we all gotta get better. Just watching football all the way through last night, it’s really hard to win. More games early in the season are lost in comparison to being won, and we’ve got to just continue to get better and improve. But I think any time you win a hard-fought game, a four-quarter game against a very talented Nebraska team — I know they’ve got some new faces and are starting to jell a little bit — that’s always great. It’s always great to get ahead. You look at the Big Ten West right now, we’ve played more, probably, league games than anybody. So to be on the positive side, no matter if it’s winning by three or by 33, it doesn’t matter. You get a conference win, you get a divisional win. Those are always important, but now it’s important that we can get better and we improve and turn our focus to where it needs to be. That’s having a great Tuesday practice, getting ready for a team that I think played great against Temple and really didn’t have to play four quarters. They put that thing away pretty early, and that was impressive to watch.”
QB Ryan Hilinski
On this year’s Duke game vs. last year’s: “Definitely a crazy game last year. Will have a different outcome come this Saturday. Obviously, it started in January, when we started our offseason work, when everybody really committed to our culture and everything that Coach Fitz and Coach Hoot [Jay Hooten] and our strength staff were trying to teach us. I think it came down to that: lifting, running, learning the playbook all starting in January, and now we’ve gone this whole time just staying on each other, being competitive. Going against Cam [Mitchell] every day in practice and hearing him talk mess, going against A.J. [Hampton]. Just having these competitors, these types of players around you, it helps elevate your game a lot. I think being the second year in the offense and having most of the same guys around me as well, I think that just gives me a boost of confidence and being more comfortable and calm in the pocket.”
On what he’s proud of and areas of improvement: “I think the biggest thing I’m most proud of is that we were 9-for-9 on third down when it came to throwing and completing the football, and four of those were conversions. Of course, you want to get 9-for-9 conversions, but I think I managed the game well. I think I found completions where I could get them, whether they were for a first down or not. We were able to flip the field when you’ve got Luke Akers. The dude can punt the ball. You give it back to your defense who can get a stop, and you have confidence in them to do it. I think just managing the game well and playing within myself, I think, is a big thing that I learned this past weekend. Improvement: just make the easy plays. There was an out route where I felt that I left it inside on Kirtzy [Bryce Kirtz]. More ball accuracy. Just stuff like that, I think, is a big thing where I can improve and it could just get guys the ball with RAC yards, YAC yards after. But there’s definitely a lot I can improve upon for sure.”
On the talent in the running back room: “That room is insane. You’ve got Cam and Evan, of course, who are a one-two punch combo that could really do it all. You’ve got Tre Tyus, AC [Andrew Clair] coming in right after them and even more behind them that could come in and do the same exact thing, same job. I think the biggest thing about them is they’re selfless. They’re really good. When it comes to play action, they act like they’re running the ball through the line of scrimmage, and that’s why we got that Ray Niro III touchdown is because Evan made it look like it was such a big run and that safety came down and we had it behind. I think when it comes to being a selfless player, and as good as those guys are in that room, I think it one, you get fresher legs and you can run the ball way faster, more efficiently. Of course, when we’re up-tempo, it’s harder to sub guys, but I think they’re so well-conditioned that they can stay in for four to five plays of up-tempo. It obviously makes my job a whole lot easier when you get nakeds [naked boots], when you get play-action passes, it opens the overs and opens, the posts. It opens everything up, really. You just have a bigger window length to throw in, which definitely I would rather have than tight windows. Of course, when it comes to my job and their job combined, I just have to hand the ball off and then get a good fake afterwards. If I can take one out of the play, that’s 10 on Evan and one on me, so makes the job a little bit easier for the O-line, wide receivers and the running backs. As long as we all work together and gel, it’s gonna be a good deal.”
On WR Donny Navarro III and TE Thomas Gordon: “That guy’s [Gordon]’s my boy. He brings out the juice. He brings up the energy. He works his butt off, too. That second catch that he had, actually the over route, his shoulder was popped out. He was running over on the over route, and you can see him running with a limp. I saw it before the play; you could tell that his shoulder was out. I was like, ‘Hey, we’re going up-tempo. You need to do the play. I’ll try and throw it to you soft if you’re not open.’ Just a little bit of communication like that. But he lined out on the left, ran his over route and caught the ball. That could just tell you all you need to know about Thomas. He’s a guy that goes in there, he’s gritty. Doesn’t matter what happens, he’s gonna get the job done. And of course, Donny, coming in this offseason. The first workout that we had, he pulled out a notecard from the side pocket, told me the routes that we were gonna run and throw that day instead of me telling him what routes we’re gonna run and throw. It’s been like that ever since he’s been here. That just goes to tell you all you need to know about their work ethic, that they want to win and that they’re good guys. We all like to have fun, too. Why not win and have fun at the same time?
On regaining his 2019 form: “I definitely have felt like I’ve regained some of my play. It doesn’t really shock me that much. It just stinks that it took so long to get here. But I think with the playbook and being comfortable with that, and the guys around me, I think I just feel so calm, so confident in myself to be able to go out there and execute. The game is much smaller now. We did a great job this offseason, hiring a sports psychologist, Doc Jen [Dr. Jen Schumacher], who’s helped us all a lot when it comes to mental performance and stuff like that. She helps us make the moments smaller than they really are. That’s been a big thing to my game, too. But I think just the constant reps, two years in the system, has really done the most for me.”
CB Cam Mitchell
On playing at Ryan Field: “The fan presence in Dublin was awesome. We were getting love all throughout the city the whole week we were there. But coming back home, I’m excited to get back home in front of our crowd. It’s gonna be a little tough because we don’t have students here, but we would love to get everybody there. Pack the place out. It’s gonna be a good day for us.”
On preparing for Duke: “This week, our big thing is just taking our preparation to the next level. We thought we prepared really well last week, but this week, playing against Duke, we haven’t beaten them in the past three meetings we’ve had with them. Just taking our preparation to the next level, preparing like we lost last week, coming up with a different intensity.”
On the defensive back unit and changes he’s making: “Me personally, my biggest thing going into this season was just being more of a leader. Not just leading by example, but being a vocal guy. Just letting the defense know I can lead in all three levels. If I see something on the D-line or linebackers, just making sure I know what’s going on and being able to teach it to other guys. I felt like this year, we got a lot of competition in the DB room. I feel like we showed that a little bit in the game when a couple guys went down. I’m excited about the room. I think we got a lot of guys that can go and come in and make plays when their number’s called.”
On his relationship with Greg Newsome II: “I called Greg Newsome II as soon as I got in the locker room because we made a bet pregame. If I get a pick in the game here, send me some money. I called him as soon as the game was over. And you know, we’ve been talking throughout the week. That’s my guy. We talk all the time.”
P Luke Akers
On being named Big Ten Special Teams Player of the Week: “It was a really cool experience to be able to have that. It was really cool to have the opportunity late in the game to try to make that play — it was a huge blessing. I was really appreciative of the coaches having the faith in me to be able and go out and make that play. A bunch of guys helped me out the week before in Dublin. Ray Niro III was down there on the first punt to down it right at the one-yard line. We’ve got a lot of guys going down and making plays; it’s a group effort. I’m just really thankful to be a part of a team that really cares about special teams and makes it a priority. We all are really confident in each other. We have a good group of guys together that are able to go out and make plays when we need to.”
On how he feels he impacted the game and Week Zero impressions: “It was really cool to be able to make some of those plays. I definitely feel like I still have a lot of work to do; I’m always striving to be better. Going back and watching the film, there was definitely stuff I could still improve on. We’re always striving to be better here. I’m looking forward to getting back out on the field and trying to correct some of those mistakes I feel like I made. Overall, it was just really great. Like I said earlier, we’ve got a really good group of guys. Honestly, the whole team just meshes together really well. It was pretty awesome coming in as a transfer from another school, where I’ve been for the last two years, and coming in and just feeling immediately at home. The guys were all very welcoming to me and treated me like I was a part of the team. All the guys had a lot of confidence. I’m just really thankful to be here.”
On training with special teams coordinator Jeff Genyk this offseason: “We put a lot of work into that. All summer, we were working on those pooch punts, because those are very important to the game. I feel like sometimes, they’re neglected and underappreciated. The special teams room here, whether it’s the coaches or the players, it’s very impressive. Everybody puts a lot of heart into it. For us to really work as hard as we did over the summer and have it translate to the field for the game in big moments, it was really awesome to see. I’m very grateful to be in a place where they care about special teams so much, because clearly it’s working. It all starts with the snap. There are 10 guys that are in front of me that are doing their job perfectly for me to even have a chance to do mine. When we needed to make plays, we were able to during this last game. It was very awesome to try to help the team out and make an impact in the game.”
On playing his first game at Ryan Field: “I’m stoked about it. I got to go over to the stadium a couple weeks ago and just see it. When I took my official visit here, I didn’t even get a chance to. It was really cool to go there, and I can’t wait to see the fans there. To play my first game there will be super special. It was really cool to be able to play my first game as a Wildcat in Ireland, but I’m definitely very excited about playing my first game at home. I’m super stoked for the rest of the season.”