The Daily Northwestern

Football: Injury-free, competition guaranteed

Matt Forman

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Throughout spring practice, Pat Fitzgerald stressed that the 2009 team was completely different from the 2008 Alamo Bowl team.

If the Spring Football Game was any indication, he was dead on.

A season after seniors C.J. Bachér, Tyrell Sutton, Eric Peterman, Ross Lane and John Gill, among others, played just one series in the annual Purple and White scrimmage, there were few who had that luxury on Saturday.

Seniors Brendan Smith and Sherrick McManis, both seniors and vital cogs in the secondary, were the only players to earn an early exit.

In this year’s game, one thing was certain – no one’s job was safe. Everyone had something to prove.

“Jobs can be won in the spring, jobs can be lost in the spring,” junior middle linebacker Nate Williams said. “That’s why we come out and compete.”

And that’s been Fitzgerald’s mantra all along: Competition breeds success.

Of course, Fitzgerald’s approach was partly helped by the fact that entrenched starters Corey Wootton, Brad Phillips, Desmond Taylor and Corbin Bryant were sidelined with injuries.

Still, starting quarterback Mike Kafka played every series of the game. So did projected starters Stephen Simmons, Andrew Brewer, Quentin Davie and Vince Browne. That all happened despite already slick playing conditions that worsened throughout as intermittent rain fell at Ryan Field.

“That’s the kind of attitude and formula we want surrounding our program,” Kafka said. “Every time we get together, it’s going to be super competitive.”

Even when the defensive starters seem certain, there’s someone chomping at the bit for their opportunity. We know Justan Vaughn wants to upend Jordan Mabin as the starting left corner. We know Chris Jeske, who was told by doctors that he would never play football again, is eager to show his ability. And we know that 18 freshmen, arguably part of Fitzgerald’s best recruiting class yet, will want to contribute right away.

While Fitzgerald said the 2009 team was born in the Alamodome locker room after the loss, it might not be unreasonable to suggest that it was born earlier. With the bowl appearance, Fitzgerald was able to hold 15 extra practices and use them to evaluate the depth and talent of his younger players. Now, add in 15 spring practices, and this group is 30 practices closer to next season.

It still wasn’t enough.

“I wish we had 15 more practices,” Fitzgerald said.

More importantly, Fitzgerald was able to promote competition while limiting the number of injuries. Of course guys were dinged up throughout the spring, but no new, major injuries were sustained.

“My number one goal was to come out injury-free,” Fitzgerald said. “We did that today.”

Last year, Kevin Frymire suffered a broken leg and was carted off the field after a lengthy delay. It might have been a sign of things to come.

The Wildcats sustained more than their share of season-ending injuries.

Sutton, Vaughn, Bryant, Wootton, Malcolm Arrington, Omar Conteh and Drake Dunsmore all fell victim. That doesn’t include missing Bachér for two games.

At least it gave us a better idea of what the 2009 team would look like.

Fitzgerald admitted that suffering a multitude of season-ending injuries three years ago would have been problematic for his team.

No longer. Saturday’s spring game gave every indication that he was right.

“I’m very pleased with our competitive depth,” Fitzgerald said. “I have to tell you, I couldn’t be more excited about our team.”

Deputy Sports Editor Matt Forman is a Medill sophomore. He can be reached at m-forman@u.northwestern.edu.

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