EVANSTON-Northwestern head coach Pat Fitzgerald knows better than to boast in April. Ask him how he thought his team looked this spring and he qualifies his remarks.
After Saturday’s final spring practice on a glorious Saturday at Ryan Field, he used a bunch of tried-and-true phrases while talking to a small group of reporters.
“It was a pretty solid spring, all in all,” he said. “We’re a work in progress,” he reminded. “We’ll see how this next phase progresses,” he added.
But Fitzgerald knows that his team is in good shape and could be in prime position to challenge for the Big Ten West title in the fall. The Wildcats return 16 starters from a year ago and have what is likely the best quarterback-running back combination in the league with Clayton Thorson and Justin Jackson.
His team looked sharp, especially on defense, for this “Spring Showcase”, which is really nothing more than an open practice in front of a couple thousand fans – with the obligatory dizzy-sticks relay race and hot dog eating contest thrown in at the conclusion for giggles.
But as Fitzgerald talked after the two-hour workout, his optimism came out, perhaps a result of the clear blue skies and mid-60 degree temperatures his Wildcats enjoyed as they went through their final paces. He knows that while many other Big Ten programs are pouring foundations at this time of year, he is picking out finishes and window treatments, concerned more about depth than anything else.
“I feel great in the backfield. I feel great out at wide receiver. I feel great at superback. I feel great at the D-line. I feel like we’re going to add reinforcements at the linebacker position here with guys coming in and that group will be solidified. I feel great about the secondary and the specialists are evolving.”
That’s an awful lot to feel great about.
Fitzgerald knows that his offense is largely settled, save for a spot or two. Thorson looked to be in mid-season form and said he was happy with the strides he made in the two areas on which he focused this spring: pocket presence and leadership. The Wildcats have an embarrassment of riches at running back. Superback Garrett Dickerson looks read to carry a bigger load in the passing game, if called upon. Wide receiver Flynn Nagel is perhaps the most likely candidate to try and fill Austin Carr’s extra-large shoes.
The defense will be the fastest and deepest Fitzgerald has had in his 11 years at the helm, even if they did lose star middle linebacker Anthony Walker. Jordan Thompson and Tyler Lancaster will be beasts in the middle of the defensive line. Keith Watkins II, who returned after missing all of last season, and Godwin Igwebuike, who was out this spring after offseason surgery, will anchor a deep secondary.
Fitzgerald also realizes that his team is in pretty good shape, health-wise. Only one of the myriad Wildcats who were sidelined on Saturday has an injury that will keep him out next fall: defensive back Trae Williams, who tore his Achilles tendon last week.
There was only one position group that Fitzgerald didn’t list in his rundown, and it’s the one that may keep him up a few nights this summer: the offensive line. Despite returning four of five starters, Fitzgerald is still uneasy about that pivotal unit, which he says was one of the biggest reasons for the Wildcats’ slow start and ultimate 7-6 record last season.
Last year, he didn’t have the “competitive depth” at offensive line that would have been enabled him to bench and replace underperformers. He said that they weren’t quite at that point yet this year, either.
“It was the biggest issue we had (last year),” he said. “Are we where we need to be right now? No, absolutely not. Not even close. And we’ll only go where that group takes us.”
Working with the first OL on Saturday were the four familiar faces who started last year: left tackle Blake Hance, left guard J.B. Butler, center Brad North and right guard Tommy Doles. The newcomer was right tackle Gunnar Vogel, a redshirt freshman who certainly looks the part with his long, athletic frame.
But that quintet may not be the one that trots out to take the field in the opener against Nevada on Sept. 2. “You don’t earn a starting job in the spring,” Fitzgerald said. “You only make a reservation.”
Fitzgerald said he reserves the right to play the best five on his line, regardless of position. Georgia Tech transfer Trey Klock, who could play guard or tackle, arrives in the fall and could have a say in the matter. Youngsters like Ben Oxley and Andrew Otterman, who manned the tackle spots on the second line on Saturday, could also break through.
“That development, between now and the opener, with our offensive line is going to be, really, I think a strong indicator to me of where we’re at and where we can go,” he explained. “We’ll go where that group goes,” he added, making it clear that their performance will in no small part determine his team’s fate come fall.
Still, with almost four months to go until the 2017 season, the outlook for the Wildcats is about as sunny as the skies.