Cats class in session

Colin Becht

For the first three weeks of the season, Northwestern players were able to dedicate all their focus to football, sans the worries of academic life. Thanks to the quarter system, the Wildcats’ sole priorities were honing their game and preparing for their next opponent.

This break from lengthy lectures and library time ended Tuesday as the Cats went back to class and resumed the “student” portion of being student-athletes.

Junior quarterback Dan Persa said those three weeks of college football without the college were “a huge advantage.”

“We got all this time to watch film and prepare for each team, get together, get around the guys and know the defense and know the situations like the back of our hand,” he said.

With NU 3-0 this season and coming off their first back-to-back double-digit wins since 2000, the Cats certainly took advantage of their reduced academic responsibilities.

“I’ll lobby hard with (University) President (Morton) Schapiro to make sure he doesn’t change the quarter system,” coach Pat Fitzgerald joked.

Two days into the school year, Fitzgerald said he is happy with how his players have made the adjustment thus far.

“We had good enthusiasm,” he said. “Maybe they were just ecstatic to be in class.”

With the switch to an academic calendar, Fitzgerald moved up practices an hour in order to preserve the same amount of practice time while allowing greater flexibility in class scheduling.

Even with the earlier practice time, several players now have to leave practice early to make their 11 a.m. classes.

“They’ve got to manage their time better,” Fitzgerald said.

Outside of practice, Fitzgerald and the strength and conditioning staff also created three weightlifting schedules to work around class.

“We’ve been a little more flexible this year than we’ve been in the past to give them a better opportunity to get a good lift,” Fitzgerald said.

While balancing a class schedule with football practices and workouts may be a challenge, NU players have handled that better than nearly all their peers.

The Cats’ ranking in the year-by-year Academic Progress Rate is tied for first in the nation since Fitzgerald became head coach. Only 107 of 120 FBS coaches were ranked because 13 first-year head coaches were not included in the study, which ranged from the 2003-04 to 2008-09 academic years.

“This morning (practice) schedule has been a huge blessing for us,” Fitzgerald said. “Our academics have been the best they’ve ever been.”

The Academic Progress Rate is an NCAA metric used to measure a school’s success in progressing student-athletes toward graduation. With NU’s average score of 985 out of 1,000 during his tenure, Fitzgerald tied for the top mark with Air Force’s Troy Calhoun.

NU also scored a perfect 1000 score in football for the 2007-08 academic year.

“School isn’t the only distraction added to the minds of the players,” senior linebacker Nate Williams said.

“You don’t have to worry about class; you don’t have to worry about any chasing girls around or anything like that too much,” he said. “It gives a big mental advantage.”

Beyond balancing class work with football comes one other adjustment that might often go overlooked – getting in a solid nap.

Fortunately for NU, Fitzgerald believes that is one of the Cats’ strengths.

“We’re a good napping team,” he said. “We just can’t do it through plays.”

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