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Three questions for Northwestern football heading into Big Ten Media Days

The possibilities are endless amidst a program-quaking hazing scandal.

NCAA Football: Southern Illinois at Northwestern
LB Bryce Gallagher takes down a Southern Illinois running back. Gallagher is expected to take on a greater leadership role heading into the 2023 season.
David Banks-USA TODAY Sports

Note: This story was published before 3 p.m. CT, when Northwestern’s three player representatives — Bryce Gallagher, Rod Heard II, and Bryce Kirtz — announced that they would not be attending Big Ten Media Days in Indianapolis on Wednesday.

Imagine you had the chance to ask a genie three questions of your choosing. The opportunities would be endless. How old would you be when you died? How successful would you become in your career? Would your favorite NFL team win a Super Bowl in your lifetime?

Now imagine that genie is an assortment of Northwestern’s football personnel and your three questions are actually a 60-minute, all-you-can-eat buffet of queries. Suddenly, the questions would become much more pointed and much more impactful.

For a few of Inside NU’s own, the chance to probe interim head coach David Braun and a trio of players will present itself on Wednesday at Big Ten Media Days. The ‘Cats’ representatives are set to take questions from journalists for a short window, opening the door for the public to get a glimpse into the state of NU football.

Braun, linebacker Bryce Gallagher, defensive back Rod Heard II and wideout Bryce Kirtz will be the first members of the program to officially address the media in the midst of a hazing scandal that brought on the firing of Pat Fitzgerald and a plethora of lawsuits against a variety of school officials.

The nature of the media outing is to discuss the upcoming season, so the odds are high that the coach and his players will refuse to comment on any of the events from the past few weeks. Still, that doesn’t mean they are exempt from having to talk about the ramifications of the scandal on the looming season, which lingers just weeks away.

Today, we’ll dive into the biggest questions that await Braun and Co. in Indianapolis, where the Media Days are being held.

1. For Braun, what is the message to the locker room heading into the season? How do you gain players’ respect and keep them invested in the success of the program?

Braun is facing one of the most unique challenges in college football. After serving as a defensive coordinator at an FCS school — albeit a high-caliber one — he’s been catapulted to the role of head coach at a Big Ten university.

After such a meteoric jump in program pedigree and now coaching players who came out of high school with three or four stars attached to their name, the question for Braun has to be how he can command the respect of a locker room rattled with adversity. He’s already made it over his biggest hurdle — keeping most of his roster out of the transfer portal in the wake of Fitzgerald’s firing.

Still, with no proven track record on the FBS level and a resumé that was tailored for a coordinator role, Braun needs to address his methodology for the upcoming season. Is he attempting a culture overhaul — one that seems desperately needed after the reports of the past few weeks? If so, how does he get his guys to buy in?

2. For Gallagher, what impact might the hiring of a new — relatively inexperienced — defensive coordinator have on the ‘Cats’ defense heading into the season? What areas are most important for a new DC to be able to improve within NU’s system?

Gallagher was a standout on last year’s 1-11 team. He’s one of the few elite players on the team who either didn’t enter the NFL Draft or hit the transfer portal. Now a junior, he’ll be expected to be the voice of reason on a team overflowing with anger, manifested in the form of Twitter debates and anonymous appearances in ESPN articles.

Football Scoop reported last week that Braun is working to close in on hiring Jeff Copp, Eastern Washington’s defensive coordinator, in the same position at NU. The move would be surprising if it happened, given that Copp’s defense boasted the second-worst total defense in the FCS last season.

Assuming Copp joins the staff, it’d be interesting to hear Gallagher’s outlook on the season ahead. In general, how does a new DC change the team’s approach and philosophy? More specifically, is there any reservation among players working for a coach whose track record is less than scintilating?

Doubtless, the ‘Cats have many departments to improve in on the defensive side of the ball. When a unit gives up 28.3 points per game and almost 200 yards per contest on the ground, reformation is necessary. Gallagher’s insight into his own wishlist for a new DC would add some good context to the hiring process.

3. For Heard and Kirtz, how have the various transfers (both those coming in and those leaving) appeared to impact the receiving corps?

One of the most dynamic position groups for NU over the last six months has been the wide receivers. In 2022, it was also one of the shakiest spots for the ‘Cats, as the wideout room only contributed 10 touchdowns and just over 2,500 yards the whole year.

Malik Washington and Genson Hooper-Price departed Evanston for UVA and Coastal Carolina, respectively. Washington totaled 694 receiving yards last season — almost triple the yardage of the team’s next best receiver. Hooper-Price tallied played in 11 of the team’s games, but he never made a significant impact. Before Fitzgerald was axed, he managed to bring in Cam Johnson and A.J Henning from other Power 5 schools.

With so much change in one of the most pivotal position groups on the team, it’d be of interest to hear how Heard, a staple in the secondary, and Kirtz, now the team’s most seasoned pass-catcher, expect the receivers to fare in the 2023 campaign.