After an offseason no one will ever forget, the beginning of the 2023 season — the first without Pat Fitzgerald as head coach since 2005 — has arrived for Northwestern football. Ahead of the Wildcats’ clash in Piscataway, New Jersey, with the Rutgers Scarlet Knights, interim head coach David Braun spoke to the media Monday afternoon.
Opening statement: “Well, we’re here. Game week. I know our staff, I know this team, is really excited to embark on this. We got into rhythm and routine last week. This will be a full week of prep. Our guys have today off; we’ll be back at it tomorrow, and then get into our weekly progression. Know that we have quite a task on our hands. Having the chance to look at Rutgers over the course of the last few months, and having an opportunity to just observe what Coach Schiano has done over the years, we know that we’re going to deal with a team that’s well-prepared, well-coached, very fundamentally sound. We’ll play a physical brand of football that certainly fits Big Ten football well. Opportunity for this team to go on the road and really see where we’re at. Very confident in the way that our guys have navigated fall camp.
“This past Saturday was a great opportunity for us to get back over to Ryan Field, and really get into a gameday rhythm and routine — for a young football team, for a football staff that has a lot of newcomers, including myself. Just to get into that gameday routine and what that looks like from a warmup standpoint, in and out of the locker room, what halftime looks like, I know was really beneficial to our group.
“You can sense the level of anticipation, excitement of where this team is at. We have a confident football team right now. I think a group that understands that there’s some really outstanding veteran leadership complemented with a lot of youthful talent. There’s no doubt that myself and the rest of this group is excited to compete against someone else, other than their own teammates, and to do it in a Big Ten format on a Sunday with a lot of eyes on us. An opportunity for this group to really start writing their own story is something that all of us are really looking forward to.”
On the team’s starting quarterback: “We’ve made that decision. We’re keeping that decision in-house right now.”
On the Saturday scrimmage: “It was very mock game-ish. Everything we were doing were scout looks. An opportunity for us to continue to prepare for Rutgers. My takeaways were, No. 1, this group has been on a slow build, and they’re amping up to that point where you can tell they’re ready to play. The other takeaways from it were just, really have seen this group overall mature throughout fall camp. You can just tell in terms of the way that the offense is operating, the way the defense is operating, some of the quirks that we maybe had to work out from the first live scrimmage have started to work themselves out. You can tell that we have a focused group right now.”
On naming captains: “We have held a vote for it. We have not announced those names yet, but that’s something we plan on doing this week. Excited to announce those names. Not only excited about the results of those, but also just really impressed by the number of young men that were voted for by their teammates. I think it reflects not just a small group of leadership; there’s leadership throughout our locker room right now that has been absolutely necessary as we’ve navigated late July and into August.”
On the team’s RB room: “Cam Porter is, gosh, he’s awesome. Just his maturity and the way that he carries himself in that room. Tre Tyus III continues continues to step up. Just a big back that, as he gets more reps and creates more confidence, certainly going to be what you would want out of a traditional Big Ten back, and provide some depth at that position. Joe Himon II continues to just really impress me. I’m only coming from a perspective of someone that’s looking at it from a defensive lens. Just has an explosive quality that we’re really excited about. Jake Arthurs just continues to impress. Local kid that’s done everything that we’ve ever asked of him; incredibly reliable. Someone that we’ll lean on a ton this year. Caleb Komolafe is a young man, true freshman, that we’ll see what his role looks like moving forward. Don’t know exactly what that role looks like. Not sure if he’s going to redshirt or not, but as a true freshman, someone in that room that has definitely turned some heads as we’ve gone through fall camp.”
On players playing special teams: “All of them are going to be prepared to, specifically Caleb [Komolafe] has positioned himself to be someone to be considered. We’ve kind of got to weigh those options as a true freshman. All those guys that we mentioned have taken reps, whether it be in individual drills in special teams, or specific scheme. One thing that we’ve identified as a staff, considering our current situation and roster numbers: everyone is going to have to play a critical role.
“One thing our guys understand: your effort on special teams, in my opinion — having been a special teams coordinator before — is the ultimate reflection about how much you truly care about the team. No one comes into Northwestern saying, ‘Hey, I want to be the starting right guard on punt!’ The effort and intentionality and preparation that you put into those special teams, direct reflection about how much you care about the team. All of the young men that sit in this team meeting room have dreams and aspirations of playing football beyond their college years. There’s no better way to create value on an NFL roster early on than to show your value on special teams. There’s no doubt in my mind that our team understands the value, not only for this team, but also the value for them moving forward individually.”
On knowing that his team’s prepared: “I think it’s a good question. I think you just get a sense from our team, from our staff: they’re just ready. They’re just ready. They’ve galvanized; they’ve come together. Leadership has stepped up. They’re ready to go compete. You can feel that in the building. There’s no doubt about that.
“I think it’s a group that’s coming off a 1-10 season. A group that certainly has had to navigate a unique time. A group that’s hungry to put on full display what they know they stand of in terms of just the resilience, continuity, togetherness that they’ve displayed these last few weeks.”
On readying for his first game as a head coach: “That’s a great question. I think the element that I bring to this role, I’m not going to say it’s unique. It’s just, I know who I am. I am extremely confident in my ability to lead, to inspire, to meet people where they’re at, to pull people together for common purpose. I also believe I have a unique ability to identify the things that I don’t know, or don’t understand, and wholeheartedly admit that I don’t, and seek wisdom and expertise to help me navigate that. Some of that’s going on right now with, ‘How am I going to manage a game while still calling a defense? Who am I leaning on? How much are we leaning into analytics?’ All these things that are going on. I think Step One, not having experience doing that, not having experience doing that at the Big Ten, at the Power Five level — Step One in identifying, I said, ‘I need help here.’ I think I have a personality that allows me to do that, and seek out that wisdom.
“Very confident in my ability to lead this team. I know I’ve been put in this position for a reason. I’m confident that I’m up to the task, up to the challenge. I’m up to it because there’s incredible people around me. Our players, our staff, support outside the program that I’ve been able to lean on, mentors, people that are willing to pick up a phone call. ‘Hey, I really need to pick your brain.’ There’s so many thank yous that I owe throughout this whole process — I’ll continue to owe as we go throughout the season. I know I’m up to the challenge, but I’m up to the challenge because I’ve got great people around me, and I’ve been willing to lean into that.”
On communication: “I think with the team specifically, transparency is key. Just being genuine, who you are, is absolutely critical. That’s how you build up credibility. A lot of people want to throw around the word ‘trust’; you can’t demand trust. That’s something that you build through your actions. I hope that anyone that’s interacted with me since I’ve arrived at Northwestern would say that I’ve tried to do my best in both those worlds — of just being as transparent as I possibly can be, and just truly being myself. I think that’s what I’ve learned with opportunities to connect with media, some of which I’m close with, have known previously, others that I’m meeting for the first time. Just speak with passion; speak from the heart. Be true to who I am. Regardless of how other people interpret that, at least I can walk away from that interaction knowing that I was being myself.”
On players not speaking to media Monday and fielding allegations-related questions: “My policy on that is, we’re less than a week away from our first football game. I’m here to talk about football. Our players are ready to talk about football. That’s what we’re going to focus on.
“Our players are going to be available based on requests and merit of their performance on the field. Our players are ready to focus on football, so that’s what we’re going to focus on.
“Our players have been available. We’re focused on Rutgers, and moving forward into game week, to make sure that we stay focused on Rutgers, I felt like it was an opportunity for me to speak on that and allow them to focus on the gameplan.”
On what factors led to determining a starting QB: “It was a difficult one. There’s a ton of depth in that room right now. Ryan Hilinski has a ton of experience at this level. Brendan Sullivan started multiple games for us last year; has performed really well. Ben Bryant as a transfer, navigated an interesting circumstance, only arriving here in June. Jack Lausch is a young man that has shown flashes of being someone that, as a program, we’ve got to find ways to get on the field. Really excited about the depth in that room. It was not an easy decision. Very confident that there is depth in that room; we will continue to lean into that depth. This program and this locker room is hungry for a starting quarterback, and someone that everyone can look to and say, ‘That’s our starting quarterback. That’s who’s going to lead us to victories.’ We’ve made that decision, but just choosing to keep that information in-house at this time.”
On the impact of quarterback mobility in Mike Bajakian’s playbook: “Just observing it from a practice standpoint, tremendous amount of respect for Mike. He’s done it at a high level multiple places. There’s no doubt that the element of a dual-threat quarterback finds ways to stress a defensive playcaller. There’s no doubt about that. I think it limits the looks you see coverage-wise, especially on first and second down, because people are saying, ‘How willing are we really to play single-high defense against an element of quarterback run? How much are we willing to play back-to-the-ball defense, man coverage, if this guy can scramble on a consistent basis?’
“There’s certainly elements to that, but there’s also, a true pocket passer that can be efficient with quick game, screens, RPOs and dropback pass — that’s a weapon in and of itself. Mike’s going to find ways, regardless of if he’s got a pocket passer or dual-threat back there. Great coaches find to lean into the strengths of their players, and I’m confident that Mike will do just that as we navigate this season.”
On what fuels team motivation: “Brotherhood. There’s a bunch of guys right now that, they’ve come together; they’ve leaned into one another; they’ve pushed one another through offseason workouts, fall camp; they’ve seen some of their teammates go through some things personally, in their personal lives and their family lives outside of football that have been incredibly difficult to navigate. They’ve seen injuries that have occurred — which are inevitable in the game of football — but helping guys navigate through that process. If you were to talk to our football team specifically, our leadership right now and just describe to us one thing that drives this group right now, I think unanimously — I don’t want to speak for them, but I think a very common answer would be the brotherhood, and camaraderie in the guys that have come together in that locker room.”
On playing freshmen: “I think it stems to some of the things that we’ve done in terms of our fall camp model. We’ve found ways to try and double-rep some of our team run, to find ways to make sure that our 3s are getting opportunities. With our roster number, where it was at, maybe those double reps weren’t as numbered initially as I may have liked, because we were managing that balance of straining through fall camp, but also keeping our health. Those reps add up.
“That was intentional in its design, because at some point, we’re going to have to lean on a freshman to go play a ton of football for us this year. We’re going to have to lean on a young man that is a 3 right now, but all of a sudden, it’s Week Seven, and he’s going to be starting for us. The fact that that young man has accumulated reps and built trust with his teammates, there’s going to be a bunch of guys out there that can look to him and say, ‘Hey, he’s got this.’ And he’s going to be able to look at his teammates and say, ‘You know what, that’s what all these banked reps are for.’ It’s going to have to be a ‘next man up’ mentality. We can’t be in a mode of excuses or explanations. We’ve got to be in the business of being solutions-based. Who’s going to be our best next option moving forward? At times this season, that’s going to involve some young guys. That’s okay. We’re excited for those guys to shine when they get their opportunity.”
On coaches that have reached out to him: “I’ve been so impressed with the Big Ten coaches. Whether it be at Media Day in person — which, it was only half the group that day; they split it up into two days — but just a quick hello, or just Coach Schiano in a waiting room, taking five minutes to check in on me and everyone. Text messages, phone calls. It’s a special group. They may not understand what I’m navigating, but they’ve certainly done their best to show their support. That’s something I know myself, our staff, my family really appreciate.”
On if he’s talked with Pat Fitzgerald: “I’m focused on running this program, and running this program right now is the people that are in this building day in and day out.”
On gameplanning for a Scarlet Knight offense led by a new OC: “It has been a challenge. You’re meshing the current personnel at Rutgers, which certainly has its strengths. Been impressed with positions and some of the transfers that they brought in. Okay, let’s find film on meshing all those pieces together, on top of a new scheme coming from Minnesota. What I can say is Coach Ciarrocca, he’s done a tremendous job over a long period of time. Certainly knows what he’s doing. Knows how to attack defenses. We are certainly very aware, as a defensive staff, of the task that we have on hand for us.
“We can study past years, last year at Minnesota, his time at Penn State — we can go back as far as we want. We know that he’s going to find some new things to dress up, and give us some different looks. As a defensive staff, and a defensive side of the ball, we’re going to have to do a tremendous job of identifying what looks we’re getting early in the game, and being willing to make adjustments as we go. That process started back in May; that process has continued. We certainly have a great awareness, especially with our defensive staff, that has a lot of Big Ten experience of the level of coaching that’s going on, and the task that we’re going to have on Sunday.”