After notching his first victory at the helm of NUFB, interim head coach David Braun met with the media on Monday afternoon before the ‘Cats travel to Durham this weekend. Here is what Braun had to say.
Opening statement: “Exciting Saturday for the team. Very excited to be back in the routine. Guys had yesterday off, which was a much-needed off day coming off of a short week, but back in the facility today. A couple of corrections from UTEP, and we’re moving on to Duke. Duke is a really, really well-coached football team that is playing really good football right now. Playing with a lot of confidence. Play great defense, balanced football on the offensive side of the ball with high-end quarterback play. So we have a we have a big challenge ahead of us a challenge that we’re excited about. Our guys have done a great job of enjoying Saturday on Saturday and are back in the facility today with full focus on getting down to Durham and playing our best football.”
On the reaction to winning on Saturday at Ryan Field: “It was humbling. I think the thing that blew me away most was the continued support from the parents of our players, people within the greater Northwestern community, alumni, other head coaches, and just those that have been alongside us every step of the way.
“To have the opportunity to do it so close to home, Kristen and I had a lot of family in town for the game, and a bunch of guys that I played college football with at Winona State are Chicagoland guys that were at the game. It was neat to share in that.”
On the injuries of Ben Bryant and Brendan Sullivan: “We’re not going to share any specifics, but we anticipate, at this time, both those guys being available.”
On Josh Thompson replacing Zach Franks at right tackle: “From day one, we’ve said that that position was going to be by committee between those two young men. They were going to rotate in. With game one of Rutgers lacking opportunity for the offense, in terms of their amount of snaps on the field in the first half, they probably didn’t get into the rotation that Coach Anderson had hoped. But in the second half, Josh came in, we were hot and stayed with the hot hand. We’ll continue to have both those guys rotate in, but I certainly was very impressed with the way that Josh came in in the second half and moved the line of scrimmage. He did some really good things for us.”
On concern of lack of continuity on the offensive line: “I think the best lines that I’ve been around do have a sense of rhythm and continuity for sure, but especially early in the season, have the ability to rotate seven to eight guys in at times to build continuity. Understanding that you got to find some guys that can be position flexible, and be swing guys for you, allows you to get your best five on the field. You start to really identify that as the season goes along. Also, understanding of the physicality that is involved in the position, hoping that you stay fully healthy at that position throughout the year, but also understanding that’s not always the case and building depth and confidence by being able to play more than just five.”
On utilizing different quarterbacks: “Ben Bryant is our starting quarterback, and we plan for that to continue to be the case. Utilizing Jack Lausch, who’s a quarterback, clearly shows he has the ability to throw as well, but we’re finding ways to get Jack involved just with his athleticism and his playmaking ability. To speak on the multiple quarterbacks, I don’t want to go on without mentioning Ryan, His ability to come in with poise, operate the offense, and show up with just a ton of passion and energy speaks to the quality character of men in that room. They’re selfless, coach one another, carry one another. For Ryan to come in, step in and do what he did, and to do it with the energy that he did, was a reflection of that room and him, specifically, in terms of his character and his commitment to this team.”
On Duke’s relationship with NU: “There’s a lot of crossover. There are multiple guys that are on Duke’s staff that spent time here at Northwestern and have relationships with guys on our staff. They understand the way that we see the game of football and coach the game of football, so there’s a little bit of a chess match going on in that regard. But, what I can tell you, is there’s just a tremendous amount of respect for the way that that program has operated over the course of the last decade. During Coach Cutcliffe’s [tenure] and with the new staff, what they’ve been able to do last year and into this year, it’s impressive.
“They’ve built a good foundation there. They’re climbing right now. They’re playing at a really high level in all three phases. We understand we’re not only dealing with a talented team, but we’re dealing with a very well-coached team.”
On balancing emotions: “Staying completely focused on our process and our passion. Again, like I said last week, I think this group is at its best as an underdog. We’re not paying attention to lines. You know that’s the first I heard of it, but I welcome that information. We talked about how this year is not going to be linear, there are going to be ups and downs.
“After Rutgers, it was certainly a huge letdown. There was certainly an emotional high from Saturday, We need to return to our process, make sure that we show up with a great deal of passion and energy, and put our best foot forward. We’ve known this all the while but Saturday was a great reminder that we have a good football team. We have the right collection of young men of high character that love playing for one another. Anytime that you show up with that type of focus and that type of passion, you’re gonna give yourselves selves a chance. We’re going to talk about Duke and how they attack us and understand our opponent, but we’re gonna put all our energy into just making sure we show up at our best.”
On getting A.J. Henning more involved: “It was critical. Credit to Coach Bajakian and the offensive staff for finding ways to get get the ball in his hands. I think A.J. poses issues for a lot of reasons. When we’re in fall camp, and we were not going off the script, we’re truly calling offense and defense, It’s something that I certainly had to be aware of what calls we were going to be in with A.J. on the field.
“I think it’s his versatility that makes him so difficult to defend, His ability to line up in the backfield, his ability to receive the ball, In fly sweeps and jet motions, his ability to line up at slot receiver, you just don’t know where he’s going to line up and where he’s going to end up. I’m excited to see how our offensive staff continues to find ways to utilize him. We’re excited to get them going in the special teams game as well.”
On starting faster defensively: “That’s a great question. If you have any suggestions for me, I’m open to them.
“What you’ve seen out of our group is poise and an ability to settle in. I think you see a group that is very hungry, and almost is walking into games with this expectation of being perfect. And we all know that the game isn’t played that way. You strive for perfection, but it’s fleeting. You’re never going to find that. I think it comes down to this group, collectively all eleven on the field, maturing from a standpoint of not trying to make every play, but just doing our job and being very disciplined with where our eyes need to be. Some of the issues that we’ve seen are our guys that are putting their eyes where they don’t belong because they want to be involved in everything. We just need to focus on doing our job and being disciplined with our eyes.”
On Jack Lausch’s role: “The details and specifics, I’ll leave that to the offensive staff. What I can tell you is that there’s been consistent conversations from myself to the rest of our staff that he’s a young man that needs to be on the field. He just does.
“As you saw, he’s got the ability to do some things that can really change the math for defense. It is pretty neat to see a young man of his age, his youth, a Southside Chicago guy. If you were around for winter workouts, you would point to that young man and say ‘Man, that guy embodies what this program is all about from a toughness, resiliency and natural leadership standpoint.’ [Lausch] is still developing as a quarterback but very talented and continuing to grow. Jack knows how much I believe in him, how much our team believes in him, and we need to continue to find ways to utilize him.”
On watching Northwestern’s past games against Duke and Duke QB Riley Leonard: “It’s just collecting information. Our defensive structure is different now than it was in past years, specifically last year, but there’s there’s enough similarities in terms of four-down structure.
“My gosh, I mean to Riley’s credit, he just continues to get better and better. You watch the film on him last year and you go this is a good quarterback. You watch the film now and you go oh my gosh. I joked around with the defensive staff earlier today that if you had a cloning machine for what you wanted in a college starting quarterback, he’s pretty close.
“In terms of his ability to process the game, be efficient in the passing game, extend plays with his feet, push the ball downfield, and be utilized in the quarterback run game, he’s done a tremendous job. That coaching staff has done a tremendous job. That entire offense as a whole. it’s not just [Leonard], he’s got plenty of weapons around him. [The Blue Devils] are very well-coached. The offensive line is very talented, and that group poses all sorts of issues.”
On Bryce Kirtz: “He has the ability to open some things up in terms of his ability to be a slot guy that can really push the ball down the field. His veteran leadership naturally brings on confidence, not only from himself, but from others.
“Being out of practice and being around Bryce for as long as I have, since I arrived in spring, when he’s on and in his rhythm, which is frequently, he not only makes our team better, but he makes that group better. He makes everyone else around him play at a higher level.
On Jeremiah Lewis: “Very good player, very mature, smart, driven. We were disappointed to see him go. At the same time, during the time that he made that decision, there’s no hard feelings. He made a decision based on a time of uncertainty.
“Again, that all comes back to the 103 that chose to stay. They chose to stay. They chose to stay because of their love and admiration for one another. Credit to those guys, but no hard feelings toward him for leaving. He was a good player and certainly a tremendous amount of respect for the way he plays the game.”
On which position group most impressed him against UTEP: “We have a lot to work on and a lot to clean up. Overall, I was so impressed again with the energy, effort and passion that was just coming out of our guys. I mean that is the expectation every single week regardless of the result. That is the expectation every single week.
“After going back and watching the film, in all three phases, I was really proud of the way that the offensive line moved the line of scrimmage in the second half and I’ll involve the tight ends in that. The way that they moved the line of scrimmage in the second half and then there were some downfield effort plays out of our tight end group. Specifically, Marshall Lang you know got voted our Offensive Player of the Week. Go back and check the stats everyone: he didn’t record a stat but was voted offensive player of the game just by the way he played and the effort that he played with.
“That Joe Himon touchdown — that’s Marshall Lang straining to finish a block that springs that thing from a big gain into a touchdown. So to answer your question directly, very impressed with the growth in that offense line room, specifically in the run game, and I’m very impressed with the way that our tight ends continue to stress defenses with their ability to be multiple and the effort that those guys were playing with right now.”
On the secondary and pass rush improvement: “Everyone will get sick of me using the two words complimentary football but I’ll continue to because we believe in it. And those two things are complementary. It’s no coincidence that both of those showed up, they tend to show up together. More pressure on the quarterback, more opportunities to attack the ball in the air with quarterbacks making ill-advised decisions. Good coverage, stressed out quarterback that holds on to the football, more opportunities for sacks.
“A reflection of no sacks is not just a reflection of the line play, and a lack of interceptions or opportunities to make plays on the ball isn’t just a lack of back half play. They’re playing together and that will need to continue for us to have the success that we’re looking for.”
On Xander Mueller’s interception and the forced turnovers: “It was a lot of ‘great job, why didn’t you score a touchdown?’ He and [Bryce Gallagher] made some big time plays. Then Joey DeHaan, talk about a guy owning his role. He had been the scout team defensive player of the week after Rutgers and gets his opportunity, owns his role, not satisfied with it, owns his role, gets an opportunity to get on the field and makes a big-time pick there in the fourth quarter. Tinley Park, Southside Chicago kid, totally bought in, I’m so excited for him. He’s getting better, and it was fun to see.”
On the Punter situation: “Both young men will continue to develop. Both are weapons and both have a great skill set. They’re just very different skill sets. In terms of Hunter’s comfort level of moving the pocket on punts, been able to do some different things there. He does a great job with his operation time, which is obviously very critical. Anytime you have your punt unit going out there, you certainly want to flip the field, but you also want to ensure that the protection is at the forefront of your mind.
“[Luke Akers] is an absolute weapon. When he gets into one, I mean, talk about flipping the field. The young man can absolutely boom it, so we’ll continue to evaluate how to maximize that specialist group. Both are doing some really good things right now.”
On his post-game dance moves: “There’s a very firm understanding with those that know me, and Kristin probably would reference back to our wedding. The first understanding is I lack rhythm. The second understanding is I’m a high effort guy. So I’ll get on the dance floor and I’ll be moving. I’ll be having a good time. Just don’t expect any rhythm to be along with it.”
On staying with the run game when trailing: “Complimentary football. It takes all of us. It’s getting stops on defense. It’s staying committed to it. On the offensive side of the ball, celebrating three-yard gains, four-yard gains, celebrating moving the line of scrimmage. Maybe a one-yard gain, but trusting it, coming back to it, and understanding that it’s going to open up more opportunities as the game goes.
“Again, we just need something to celebrate. It snow balled in the second half for us in a positive way. The dominoes started to fall, but that was a result of taking the ball away on defense, protecting the ball on offense, and being efficient on third and fourth down. A couple of three-and-outs, a couple of takeaways, and all of a sudden our offense really starts to take off.
“That’s how we win here. It’s not going to be flashy, it’s going to take four quarters, but it’s going to be staying true to our process and our identity as a team. It’s going to require that all three phases hold up their end of the bargain so that the offense can feel like they’re on schedule. The game is not something where we have to chase a score, and we can just stay true to our process.”