Fresh off a 23-15 win to close out Northwestern’s home slate (and tenure at Ryan Field) and secure bowl eligibility, David Braun spoke to the media for his weekly Monday press conference ahead of the Wildcats’ rivalry duel with Illinois. Hear everything the head coach had to say about a broad range of topics, edited for clarity.
Opening Statement: “Really excited about the opportunities ahead of this team. Obviously, Saturday was an incredible opportunity for our guys to send the old Ryan field off the right way. The opportunity to become bowl eligible is something that I know all of us within the program are really proud of. That being said, it’s very clear from our leadership, from our team, from myself, from our coaching staff that we still have a lot of work to do. A lot of exciting opportunities ahead of us, starting with an opportunity to get on the road in a rivalry game that we’ve fallen short in the last couple opportunities.
“A team that, when we reflect on our performance on Saturday, we know that there’s a lot of things that we’ve got to clean up. Didn’t play our best football on Saturday. What an incredible opportunity to come away with a win, to know that there’s still a lot of things that we need to improve upon. Have an opportunity to be back to work and evaluate the film this morning and back at practice this afternoon is something that this group is really excited for. So with that said, we’re rolling; we’re excited. Know that we’ve got quite a challenge on our hands with a really good Illinois team that’s fighting for their own bowl eligibility and in a big time rivalry game.”
On coaching changes: “The specific areas we’re looking at right now are positions that are currently open. Within the transition, there were some support staff positions that either weren’t filled, or just due to the uncertainty of the entire program at the time, some people that took other opportunities; those are things that we’re taking a look at right now to make sure that we can continue to push the program forward. In terms of other decisions, we’ve got too much at stake with this group. We’re just really focused on making sure that we’re putting ourselves in a situation to be at our best for Illinois.
“Those conversations and that thought process will start after Illinois; but also, being very conscious of making sure that we’re doing a great job of staying present and being at our best for whatever bowl opportunity awaits us.”
On changes in recruiting pitches now that he’s the permanent head coach: “It changes from a standpoint of, you get less questions, right? And that’s great. There’s a certain level of certainty in terms of the fact that you make a decision to come to Northwestern. I can look a young man and his family in the eye and say, ‘Hey, I’m gonna be here for that.’ But in terms of the messaging, and what we have to offer here at Northwestern, so much of that stays the same. We had a young man [DE Braxton Strong] verbally commit to us this weekend, which was really exciting.
“A lot of things that I was talking about with recruits, even prior to the opportunity to become the permanent head coach, I mean, a lot of the messaging is still the same. And I think that speaks volumes to what this place stands for; the values within the university in the football program. There’s a lot of young men out there that understand what an incredible opportunity is to play football in the Big Ten, and to get a Northwestern degree.”
On the Class of 2024: “It’s unique with roster management right now. As everyone in the room knows, with still having guys on the roster that have a COVID year, it’s unique. But looking at that right now, we probably have room for two more commitments in the class as it looks on paper. Just got to continue to bend our knees and stay flexible in terms of how this continues to push forward, and some of the decisions that our upperclassmen make in terms of their remaining eligibility. But, we’re really excited about where we’re at with this class. Where it ranks on paper, we don’t know, nor do we care. We’re excited about the character, the work ethic, the competitive spirit that these guys possess — the growth potential and development potential that they have.”
On what he’s learned about the HAT: “It’s been a great learning opportunity for me to ask the staff, to ask our Leadership Council this morning, what this rivalry means to them. The consistent message is ‘Coach, we want the HAT back. It’s time to bring the HAT back.’ Just to see and feel and sense the urgency that’s within this group right now, to ensure that we’re at our best today for a Monday practice; to make sure we’re taking the steps necessary to be at our best on Saturday. One of the many things that makes college football so special. Rivalry week is something that this group is certainly amped up for.”
On if he’s seen the HAT: “I mean, in pictures, but not in person. There’s just something about rivalry games, especially when you’re playing for a trophy. Time at North Dakota State playing for the Dakota Marker, I mean, those games are just things that stay with you as a player and as a coach. You can certainly sense within this group, especially with upperclassmen — they want to make sure they continue to communicate how important it is to the young guys within this program about how our preparation this week is critical.”
On the Dakota Marker: “North Dakota State. South Dakota State. It’s basically a really, really heavy rock. You better be prepped up in the weight room to lift that thing over your head. For me, it’s been neat these last 24 hours, just to ask guys like Tim McGarigle, all the guys on the staff that had been here in our current leadership and upperclassmen, what it means to them. Continue to educate myself on what it’s all about, and what it’s going to require for us to be successful.”
On if he’ll lift the HAT over his head if NU wins: “I’ll worry about that if we’re fortunate enough to be victorious. Those are moments you’ve got to celebrate. And like I said, you better stay prepped up in the weight room and make sure you’re ready for that moment.”
On how he’s grown since the Rutgers game: “I think I’ve always felt comfortable from a standpoint of being with our players; stepping into a leadership role; trying to bring people together and pull the best out of this group. Lead from a position of just serving the group. That’s something that hasn’t changed, that stayed consistent. From a day-to-day operations and recruiting and organization and nutrition for our guys — all these things that come into play as a head coach — very fortunate to have an incredible support staff here that does such an incredible job with that.
“Where I think I’ve really grown is just understanding where I need to delegate responsibility; not trying to micromanage. Where that’s really embodied is just in our defensive prep on the defensive side of the ball. There’s certain ways that I’ve gone about it over the years as a defensive coordinator. Probably in that Week One, I was trying to do it like I had always done it, and quickly realized you can’t do that — not with the other responsibilities that are that are that are on my plate right now.
“It’s just really a credit to that defensive staff in terms of the way that we’ve kind of caught a rhythm and delegated responsibility. Guys have taken ownership in those responsibilities. The efficiency that we’re clicking at on that side of the ball, just in terms of our weekly prep and game-planning, is a credit to that staff — that group of men. That’s where I feel like I’ve had my most dramatic growth, is just balancing that along with it all with all the responsibilities that come along with the role of head coach.”
On the best version of the NU-Illinois rivalry: “At its best, you have two programs that are winning a lot of football games; that have great stories to tell, not only to their own teams, but also on the recruiting trail. I give Coach Bielema and his staff a lot of credit. I think they’ve made a commitment to recruiting the state of Illinois, in the Chicagoland area. We’ve experienced it even in this last recruiting cycle. If you want to beat an in-state rival on some of those recruits, you better be putting some good things on tape on Saturdays and find a way to win those rivalry games.”
On if he’s considered eliminating Illinois from bowl eligibility: “To be honest with you, it’s not something that’s on my mind, or that I’ll be communicating with the team. We’ve talked about leaving no doubt, and being really proud of the way that we finish this regular season. This is an opportunity to do that. It’s an opportunity for us to finish off the regular season the way that we set out to, be really proud of the way that we’re playing at the end of the season. And this team has found ways to consistently improve over the course of the season. We need to do that again this week be at our best. And again, there’s incredible motivation for us to to bring that that trophy back to Evanston.”
On strategizing for multiple quarterbacks: “In some ways, we’re dealing with a similar set of circumstances from a standpoint of Illinois having two very talented quarterbacks [Luke Altmyer and John Paddock] that have played, at times, at a really, really high level. Both bring a really good skillset; a little bit different skillset. But that can create some issues in your preparation, when you’re uncertain of will you see one or the other? Will you see both? And you have to be really honest with yourself on what Purdue was successful with, and making sure that you’re addressing some of those issues and concerns. Some of those come back to just playing with better fundamentals; better tackling; better leverage. But some of them, you’ve got to really tip your hat to Purdue and the things that they were able to attack with, with a quarterback that had the ability to carry the football — whether that be in draw scenarios or designed quarterback run game. Understand that Illinois’s a really well-coached team that’s going to see that on film, and find ways to check us and test us in those areas.”
On surrendering over 300 rushing yards to Purdue: “We did not play at our best. Again, a credit to Purdue: they did a great job; they had a really good plan. We have to play better. I will continue to praise our guys. Sometimes in modern college football, people get really tied up in the stats of yards. At the end of the day, the only stuff that matters to us is the win or the loss.
“In modern offense, good offenses are going to find ways to move the football. We’ve got to find ways to just limit our exposure to points. If they’re gonna go from fourth down, we’ve got to get off the field on fourth down. We’ve got to hold teams to field goals. But for us to think that we don’t need to improve dramatically in some areas moving into this week, we’d be kidding ourselves. We got to be honest with ourselves; take 100% responsibility. We’ve got to be better this Saturday on defense.”
On the development of Carmine Bastone: “Gosh, I’m just really proud of Carm. I’m proud of the way this program operates; the way that everyone within our program values guys that come here as walk-ons and find ways to earn opportunities. For him just to continue to improve — and not only improve, but produce. All you have to do is come out to a practice and see the way that that guy works, and the energy that he brings. It’s no surprise. A couple years ago, would you have said that it would be unlikely that he’d be having this type of impact on our program? I don’t know, maybe. But you see that guy go to work every day. It’s no surprise that he’s producing on Saturdays the way that he is.”
On his go-to Thanksgiving plate: “I don’t think I’ve had a food on Thanksgiving that I didn’t like. The hard part is how you fit it all on one plate. I am definitely a sucker for some good mashed potatoes and gravy, turkey stuffing. And don’t count out the dessert. I’ve never met a dessert, a pumpkin pie or a pecan pie that I didn’t enjoy. So, I’ll tell you what: I better get my butt on the treadmill and stay on top of my workouts this week.”
On the special teams unit’s effect on the team’s success: “It’s absolutely critical. It’s complementary football, it’s all three phases. It’s really fun to see the way that our specialists go to work each and every week. Jack [Olsen]’s done an incredible job really leading that group, but Will Halkyard... We had a mishap on that first extra point, such a credit to Will of just flushing that. Had a great game throughout the rest of the day. And again, something that we talk about with special teams is, there’s not a single guy on this roster, or any college roster, that walks into the facility Day One says it’s my dream to be the starting right guard on punt. That’s my end goal. But the way that you go to work in terms of the individual work that you put into special teams, the effort you put into special teams as a freshman, sophomore, junior, senior, is the direct reflection about how much you really care about the team. How much you really care about your teammates.
“I think of a guy like Braden Turner that continues to show up on special teams. Evan Smith continues to show up on special teams. It’s your proving ground that builds the confidence. It’s no surprise that Braden Turner had one of his best weeks of practice on defense this week. Did he get on the field defensively? No, but he’s producing on special teams. For young men in our program that have dreams and aspirations of playing in the NFL, talk to anyone in NFL personnel about one of the most critical pieces to making a 53-man roster, and it’s your performance on special teams. So, the way that our group continues to embody effort and selflessness on those units is critical to our success.”
On Garnett Hollis Jr., and his chase-down tackle on Purdue running back Tyrone Tracy Jr.: “We watched that clip about four or five times yesterday as a defensive staff. Garnett was our defensive player of the week on defense this week. Some of it had to do with his interception and other plays that he made. But, a big part of it was was was that effort play. It was an incredible play, an even better effort. And again, when people are asking about who he is as a competitor, who he is as a player, very talented young man that has continued to improve. But even more importantly, I think his consistency has continued to improve as the season has gone along. His practice habits have continued to improve. And to put something like that on tape? It’s not the first time. He makes a play against Iowa where he’s chasing it down from the opposite side. Then there was a play in Howard, just flying to the football. That’s what good defense is all about. That’s what good team football is all about. That’s a play that will stick in my mind for a long, long time of what it looks like to be a true team player. Really proud of the way that Garnett continues to improve and take strides to be one of the best corners in the country.”
On his vertical and whether he’s made a conscious choice to display more visible energy on the sidelines: “Number one, in terms of my vertical, I promise you my vertical is not gonna get me recruited anymore. Number two, I think it was more of an awareness of head coaching responsibilities, calling a defense. Really evaluating how I can better manage the game, the communication that needs to happen to do that, leaning into everyone on the staff. And starting to realize, ‘Hey, man, are you really being you? Are you really bringing your best to the table on the sideline?’ And I think post-Duke, it was an opportunity for me to self-reflect and it made me realize, ‘Get out of your own way, stop overthinking this, and just show up as the best version of yourself each and every Saturday.’ It hasn’t been a conscious effort, I think it’s been more of a just a self-reflection of, I just need to show up at my best every day for our team. I don’t know what that looks like, but I’m gonna give our guys a lot of credit. I’ve told them they gotta hold me accountable, just like I gotta hold them accountable. And at least once a game, there’s somebody coming up to me and checking me too which has been been really good. I think that’s just an embodiment of me being at my best.”
On whether particular doubts have motivated him to prove people wrong: “Honestly, that was never a motivating factor. And for those that looked at me that way, from the outside looking in, I don’t blame people for having that reaction. I think to [special assistant to the head coach] Skip Holtz and [defensive assistant coach] D.J. Vokolek. Those guys entrusted this program and said, ‘You know what? We’re gonna come and help.’ And from the outside looking in, it looked like there was little hope for this team to have — I don’t know what you want to call it — a successful season, a winning season.
“But I think what’s been really neat, and something that I’m really proud of, is those that were here with this group navigating everything that this group was having to make decisions on in the course of July, especially when the portal was open, is there was a confidence and a belief that this group could do something really special. But, you couldn’t know that unless you were here. And I think the thing that’s been really neat is, members of the media have had an opportunity to put on full display what this team has done. And we talked about writing a story, the conversations that we’re having about what this group has accomplished just makes me really proud. And again, I don’t blame anyone for having doubt in what this team could do. What I’m really proud of is the fact that regardless of any of that, our guys knew what was in this team, and what was in this facility and what we were capable of, and they’ve worked their tails off to put themselves in the situation they’re in right now.”
On invites for postseason prospect events, particularly the Senior Bowl, and whether he talked with Senior Bowl executive director Jim Nagy: “[Director of Recruiting Operations] Sam Mulford has done a really good job with our pro scouts that have come through for the facility. We’ve started to have conversations with our guys here on the team of just giving them feedback on the feedback that we’re getting from those scouts. Specifically with Jim and some of those other bowls, there hasn’t been any direct conversation. But the thing that I’m really confident in is, there is a group of seniors in this group that — at the beginning of the season, may have not caught a ton of traction on that — that those conversations just continue to trend in the right direction. There’ll be some guys that have to make a decision on whether they want to come back for another year of eligibility. It’s just our job as a staff to get them all the information and to make sure that they’re making decisions that are in the best interest of themselves and their families moving forward. But there’s no doubt that there’s a lot of guys on this team that have really put some good things on tape that will serve them well in their opportunities moving forward.”
On if Braun’s defensive rotations give recruits an incentive to come to Northwestern by distinguishing it from other programs: “I think so. If we’re gonna talk about being a developmental program, then our actions better align with that. The way that we rotate with the D-line group, it’s all about development. In some ways, it’s forced development. The way that we invest in special teams: an opportunity to develop and build confidence. It takes trust and a willingness to say, ‘You know what? This young man might be a walk-on, but we trust him to go execute and play at a high level and help us win Big Ten football games. But, the thing we’ll continue to lean into here is opportunities are earned here. And if you possess high character, toughness, work ethic, There’s gonna be an opportunity for you here. And Carmine Bastone and P..J. Spencer are incredible. I mean, Ray Niro. The list goes on and on of guys that have done that within this program and really carved out special opportunities for themselves.”
On his trust in LBs coach Tim McGarigle to help gameplan: “All you’ve got to do is sit in on one of our defensive staff meetings. I’m leaning on Tim a ton, I’m leaning on Matt McPherson, Christian Smith, LaMarcus Hicks, D.J. Vokolek. And then [grad assistants] Logan McCormick, Duke DaRe. [Quality control analyst] Chris Batti. The guys that are support staff. We have an incredible room. And it’s a collaborative environment. Lot of really smart football coaches, great teachers, great mentors. Tim’s experience, playing the linebacker position, having coached it for such a long time. There’s a bunch of guys in that room that view their role, not just as a position coach, but also view it through a lens of the play-caller, what an incredible asset. I’ve always felt that my success as a defensive coordinator has been a direct reflection of having the right room of coaches. And then it’s my job to create a collaborative environment. And then at the end of the day, be the decision-maker, and have reasons why I make those decisions. But to answer your question directly, Tim’s been a critical piece to this defense, to this team’s success, as well as the rest of that defensive staff. It’s a great group.”
On whether he expects to hire a defensive play-caller in the offseason: “I will not be calling defensive plays next year. For Illinois, in the bowl opportunity, I’ll continue to to keep that consistency. But for me to best serve the program as head coach, it’s not in the program’s best interest. That that would be selfish on my part. I have to entrust people that we hired to go do their job, not micromanage them. We’ll cross that bridge when we get to it, not concerned about that decision right now. But for me to be the best head coach I can be, that can’t involve calling plays.”
On whether he’s open to a hiring a coordinator with a new scheme: “The non-negotiables [are] going to be making sure that the scheme fits our personnel, fits our players, and there’s got to be a certain level of consistency. I think our guys have felt — and no different than when I stepped in — there’s certain things that we’re doing defensively that still carry over for from what [longtime defensive coordinator Mike Hankwitz] was doing. There’s things, even last year, that this defense was doing that we liked situationally that we kept because our guys are comfortable with it, and it makes sense and it’s sound. Guys get themselves into trouble when it’s, ‘Oh, this is my defense.’ No, no, no. This is our defense, and what puts our student-athletes in the best position to be successful on Saturdays, that’ll be the non-negotiable for me moving forward is that whoever’s making those decisions is looking through it from that lens.”