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Three storylines to watch during Northwestern’s training camp

After an unimaginable offseason, the ‘Cats are back on the field to prepare for the 2023 season.

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: JUL 26 Big Ten Conference Media Days Photo by James Black/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

After an unthinkable offseason for Northwestern football, the ‘Cats have reported to training camp and have begun preparing for the 2023 season. With multiple allegations of sexual hazing and racism having rocked the program, and long-time head coach Pat Fitzgerald subsequently terminated, X’s and O’s were in the back of everyone’s minds for the past month. Now, with David Braun at the helm, the Wildcats will attempt to improve from their dreadful 1-11 record last season.

It is a tall task for the first-time head coach, who has never even stepped foot on an FBS sideline, to guide this squad to an average season, let alone a successful one. While the storylines surrounding the ‘Cats are plentiful, with nearly all having nothing to do with getting ready to play Rutgers on Sept. 3, here are some things to watch for during training camp:

What does a Pat Fitzgerald-less Northwestern look like?

The giant elephant in the room is impossible to ignore: for the first time since 2001, Pat Fitzgerald will not be on the Northwestern sideline. For the past 17 years, Fitz was the face of not only Northwestern football, but Northwestern University as a whole. It will be weird to not hear a classic Fitzism at a press conference or to not see him screaming his head off at basketball games.

While Fitz was everywhere for Northwestern externally, his style of football was the guiding principle for NUFB. Playing Big Ten football in the mid-’90s, Fitzgerald led teams that embodied an old-school style of play. The ‘Cats’ philosophy was simple; they were going to run the ball, control the clock and trust their defense to suffocate the opponent. Northwestern was tremendously successful early on with this gameplan, especially as offenses still trotted out 12 and 13 personnel — two or three tight ends and one running back — as their primary offensive sets. However, as offenses adapted to the spread offense and scored more points, NU did not adjust at the same pace as the teams around them.

As concepts such as the run-pass offense skyrocketed in popularity around college football, Fitzgerald referred to it as “communism,” and that reluctance to evolve definitely showed on the field. NU struggled to guard spread offenses, oftentimes having unfavorable matchups against talented skill players. Furthermore, as teams scored more points, the ‘Cats’ offense of inside dives, whams, split zones and quick passes hindered the team's ability to mount comebacks, or even stay in high-scoring games. Frankly, the Wildcats’ gameplan was stale and did not give them a chance to be successful in today’s college football landscape.

With Fitzgerald no longer calling the shots, Coach Braun and the entire staff have the opportunity to move Northwestern away from this old-school mentality and into a more modern approach. I’m interested to see what Mike Bajakian does with the offense this season, although my expectations are admittedly low. If the ‘Cats can scheme up different and creative ways into their playmakers' hands, NU has speed on the edges to put opposing defenses on their heels. Northwestern really has nothing to lose this season and the expectations are as low as possible, so why not try something new?

Who will be the ‘Cats’ quarterback?

In the past two seasons, seven quarterbacks have taken snaps for Northwestern — including five different signal callers in 2022 — and to be blunt, it has not been good. Northwestern failed to score a touchdown the entire month of November, and the Wildcats’ QBs combined for 32 interceptions and fumbles last year, both in the bottom 10 of 131 FBS programs.

Ryan Hilinski, who entered the 2022 season as the ‘Cats’ starter, was benched midway through the season due to poor performance, and a knee injury late last season leaves him questionable to be ready for the 2023 season. Brendan Sullivan, who replaced Hilinski last season, showed flashes and came into spring practice as the front-runner for the starting gig. Sullivan, a rising junior, was a dual-threat quarterback who showed his talent with his legs but left a lot to be desired with his arm. Although No. 6 completed 74% of his passes last season, he fired fewer than 30 passes more than 10 yards from the line of scrimmage. While Sullivan could be the answer the ‘Cats are looking for, there is still a lot of improvement to be seen before NU can feel comfortable with him under center. Sophomore Jack Lausch is another option for Northwestern, but is still a rather unknown prospect, only seeing game action in the second half of the Wildcats’ blowout loss to Illinois last season.

After the conclusion of spring practice, Northwestern brought in Cincinnati QB Ben Bryant as a sixth-year transfer. Bryant, who started nine games for the Bearcats last season, had a three-to-one touchdown to interception ratio last season, posting 21 scores to only seven picks. He threw for nearly 3,000 yards on over 60% of passes completed. In his lone game against a Big Ten opponent, Bryant threw for 354 yards and four touchdowns against Indiana. The newest Wildcat was aided by NFL-level pass catchers, but he has shown the ability to make all the throws a Big Ten quarterback needs to make.

At Big Ten Media Day, Coach Braun said that there would be a QB competition during camp between Bryant, Sullivan and Lausch for the starting job, but bringing Bryant in, after watching the two underclassmen play all spring, would suggest otherwise. I would be very surprised if Bryant was not leading NU’s offense in Week One, but if Sullivan or Lausch play tremendously, it is possible that they could snatch the gig away from the transfer.

How do players handle the situation?

We have not heard from any players through a press conference since the first allegations of hazing were reported from The Daily Northwestern, and Pat Fitzgerald was fired. Sure, there have been social media posts or a letter signed by the entire team in support of Fitzgerald, but none have answered questions from the media. All three players pulled out of Big Ten Media Day, saying “we did not want our participation to be dominated by the hazing issue and steal focus away from football and the upcoming season.” However, players will have to not only talk to the media, but be able to focus on the season ahead.

Coach Braun said that this team would have to overcome this adversity to be successful this season; however, this is self-inflicted adversity.

In the original article by The Daily Northwestern, the whistleblower said that the hazing rituals were taking place during the 2022 season, so many of the players on the roster would have been around while these horrendous incidents took place. I am interested to see how these players handle increased media scrutiny, something that Northwestern is not accustomed to. As the players prepare for Week One, it’ll be imperative that they remain solely focused on football, yet that seems nearly impossible with all the noise surrounding the program. Losing your head coach is hard, but losing a head coach less than a month before training camp is even harder. Many of these players had to make decisions about there futures over the past month, and whether or not they even wanted to stay at Northwestern.

Now, as the players report for camp and get ready to take the field in less than a month, it will be interesting to see how locked in the ‘Cats are on the field, or if the off-the-field allegations too much to handle.