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What we learned from Northwestern football’s first open practice of fall camp

From T-shirts to quarterback drills, get caught up to speed after a hectic first day open to media.

Following a hazing scandal that led to the firing of Pat Fitzgerald — and which captured national headlines for weeks — Northwestern football held its first open training camp practice and media session on Wednesday. In addition to hearing from Wildcat players since the timeline began on July 7, reporters were also granted access to a 50-minute window of team drills.

Below are several of the major takeaways of NU’s first of three August media availabilities.

Northwestern coaches spark controversy with Fitzgerald-supportive shirts

Many would have figured that NU’s first practice with media in attendance would serve as a bridge back into coverage of more football, as opposed to the off-the-field issues that have swamped the program and university for the last month. However, even that goal did not come to fruition.

Multiple Wildcat coaches and staffers, including offensive coordinator Mike Bajakian, were seen wearing “Cats Against the World” shirts. These shirts also contained No. 51, which belonged to Fitzgerald when he played in Evanston. Below are two pictures of the shirts being worn on Hutcheson Field.

Naturally, the images and news spread rapidly on social media, with fans and media members alike expressing frustration, anger and even sadness regarding the staff’s lack of contrition for the severe hazing allegations. Some even indicated the decision to wear the shirts, somewhat of a tribute to Fitzgerald, might push them to cancel tickets for the upcoming year.

When asked about the apparel in his post-practice press conference, interim head coach David Braun suggested that his duty was not to intervene regarding someone’s wardrobe.

“My intentionality is going to be solely based on supporting these young men, supporting this staff,” Braun said. “Certainly isn’t my business to censor anyone’s free speech.”

Likewise, receiver Bryce Kirtz mentioned that the shirts serve as “a reminder to stick together.”

Conversely, Northwestern athletic director Derrick Gragg put forth a radically different perspective. Gragg, who was seen on the sidelines watching the team’s practice, condemned the shirts as “inappropriate, offensive and tone deaf.” Gragg also noted that he was not aware that the shirts were in coaches’ possession.

Several Northwestern players, including quarterback Brendan Sullivan, had posted images and links to purchase the merchandise since July 14. When asked multiple times about players’ or team members’ involvement in their store, Davison, Michigan-based company Hilton Screeners Inc. declined to provide concrete details.

In the short term, it’s probable that the shirts will not make further appearances in Evanston — at least, not via coaches, and not in media members’ presence. Whether any additional disciplinary action is taken by Gragg remains to be seen.

NU players decline to answer hazing questions, focus solely on season opener in presser

On July 25, the day before Big Ten Media Days, Kirtz, Bryce Gallagher and Rod Heard II issued a statement revealing that they would not be in attendance in Indianapolis. Over two weeks later, reporters and fans were finally granted the chance to hear player perspective on Aug. 9.

From the jump, all three emphasized that hazing would not be a topic of conversation; multiple questions were met with the reiterated response, “We’re not here today to talk about any hazing allegations.”

Even questions peripherally related to hazing were effectively shot down. For instance, the players were asked about hazing’s role in sports, to which Heard replied, “I don’t think we want to comment on that.”

In terms of the events of the last month, Gallagher said that the team was “devastated” when Fitzgerald was fired. Yet, all three posited that such a situation enabled players to foster closer relationships.

“We’ve really just stuck together through all of this,” Gallagher said. “Checking in on each other… Especially the younger guys.”

Later, Gallagher added, “The only people that we need are the people in this facility.” Heard echoed the sentiments, sharing, “They don’t know what’s going on. They can have their opinion.”

Further, the players reinforced their support for Braun, indicating their “full belief” in the first-year head coach. They highlighted that their focus is on preparing to play Rutgers on Sept. 3, and not what transpired from July onward.

“I think we’ve just done a great job of moving forward,” Heard said. “Looking forward to all the opportunities that we have to go out there on the field.”

Wildcats’ QB battle takes shape

Wednesday didn’t just provide another critical opportunity to hear from Northwestern’s head coach and players following the development of the team’s hazing scandal. It also enabled reporters to get first glimpses at the 2023 Wildcats as a team.

The focal position for NU is, unequivocally, quarterback — especially in light of very poor play under center since 2020. Braun noted an open quarterback competition at Big Ten Media Days, and practice reps furthered that sentiment.

Sullivan was the first quarterback to participate in each drill, from throwing on the run to screen training to deep ball accuracy to even end zone fades. From there, Cincinnati transfer Ben Bryant followed suit, with Ryan Hilinski, Cole Freeman, Jack Lausch and first-year Aidan Gray partaking.

Based on their pecking order, share of reps and working with top receivers, it was apparent that Sullivan and Bryant are the team’s top two quarterbacks. That shouldn’t come as much of a surprise, especially given Hilinski’s past struggles — which also manifested themselves in training camp, as the grad student’s accuracy was inconsistent.

Bajakian and new senior offensive analyst Sean Gleeson watched every dropback and throw of quarterback drills, while receivers coach Armon Binns provided pointers to the catchers of such passes, including about curl routes, ins, the scissors concept and fades.

Right now, Braun seems to be taking somewhat of a hands-off approach to the team’s QB competition, entrusting Bajakian with distributing reps. The coach mentioned he’s seen “really good things” from Sullivan and Bryant.

Northwestern fans shouldn’t expect to have a starter named until at least late August, which has become a familiar refrain. Nonetheless, Braun noted that “Whoever earns that starting role is going to be the best version of himself, because he’s been pushed to compete.”

Positive injury news

Following a season-ending leg injury at Minnesota on Nov. 12, 2022, Hilinski was able to participate in practice with a leg sleeve on. That’s definitely good news, especially considering he was unable to do so in the spring.

Additionally, defensive back Coco Azema and defensive lineman Jaylen Pate engaged in drills subsequent to suffering injuries that cut their 2022 seasons short.

Regarding recent injuries, first-year tight end Camp Magee did not participate in Wednesday’s practice, riding a bike and tossing around ropes on the sideline. Moreover, sophomore running back Joseph Himon II received attention on his left ankle, missing several drills.

All in all, Braun and the Wildcats are likely very content with the health of the team in the early stages of camp.

New faces/schemes getting acclimated

In an offseason of tremendous turbulence, Northwestern’s own roster is dotted with some unfamiliar names to Wildcat fans.

At receiver, NU added Michigan’s A.J. Henning and Arizona State’s Cam Johnson following several departures at wideout. Kirtz, one of few veteran returners, shared his experience with both newcomers.

“It’s been great having them in the room,” Kirtz said. “We’ve definitely helped each other out on the field.” The senior specified working together in blocking and route-running.

It can be easy to forget, but Braun himself is a newcomer — including to the FBS/Power Five level. With the former North Dakota State DC now Northwestern’s head coach and defensive coordinator, he’ll implement a new system, by which veteran ‘Cat defenders seem to feel encouraged.

“There’s definitely similarities and differences [to the past],” Gallagher said. “We’re really excited to keep mastering that during training camp.” Heard added, “I think he’s done a great job of trying to create more opportunities for the players.”