Athletes, then students: Late-start quarter system gives NU advantage

Josh Walfish, Gameday Editor

For most student-athletes, being four weeks into the season means midterms. At Northwestern it means school is just getting started.

The Wildcats have played four football games already and did not have to go to class until Thursday. NU won all four games and goes for its fifth win on Saturday against Indiana.

“There’s no doubt in my mind it’s a huge advatange not being in school,” coach Pat Fitzgerald said. “I promise you our guys love it.”

NU’s fall sports have taken advantage of the quarter system this year. The five sports — Football, Field Hockey, Women’s Soccer, Men’s Soccer, and Volleyball — have combined for a 34-10-4 record before school started. The football team has certainly excelled under Fitzgerald with a record of 15-2 in the last five years, in the time period before school has started.

The quarter system is a selling point for NU as a whole, but for the football program, it is an especially strong point for recruiting, Fitzgerald said, because there are an average of about four games per year before school starts. That equals about 16 games before school starts for football players during their NU careers. Add a bowl game between quarters and NU’s football players spend nearly half of their season not in class.

“That’s like the NFL,” Fitzgerald said. That’s ridiculous.”

An NU advantage?

Although it may seem like an advantage for NU to focus solely on athletics for the first four weeks of the season, other student-athletes from around the Big Ten said they are not too sure. Illinois center Graham Pocic said he thought it would be cool to not have to worry about classes for the first couple weeks of the season, but school does start eventually. Whether it’s the beginning of August or end of September doesn’t matter.

“You go from camp where you’re just focusing on football and you come back and you got to start school the same week you start preparing for your first opponent,” Pocic said. “It’s tough, but at some point you’re going to be making that adjustment. Week 1 or week 4, it’s pretty much the same thing.”

However, his teammate Michael Buchanan said he thinks the clear focus on football can be a big benefit for teams like NU.

“That would be a really big advantage to just be able to get into the season and get adjusted,” the defensive lineman said. “It might be a shock once school actually does start, but it would be an advantage, getting settled into the season and you’ve kind of got your routine down.”

The routine would include time management, the key for student-athletes juggling everything they need to do in a given week. Buchanan said his time management skills have improved since he got to college. Now a senior, the lineman said he liked to take a lot of naps when he first got to Illinois.

By learning to better balance his school work with his football practice, Buchanan gives himself plenty of time to get some quality sleep at night. By being alert and awake, Buchanan is able to get all of his work done so he can focus on the game ahead.

“You really have to focus on getting yourself to bed so throughout the day you can be productive,” Buchanan said. “So you’re not worrying about it at the end of the week when you need to be studying game film and preparing to play a game on Saturday.”

These are the same issues NU student-athletes face, but don’t have to deal with for a number of weeks until school starts — and senior guard Chuck Porcelli said the transition from athlete to student-athlete is not as challenging as many people think.

“We’re always preparing mentally all week whether it’s just football or football and school,” Porcelli said. “What it comes down to mostly is time management, prioritizing what you need to have done and leaving no stone unturned in the classroom and no stone unturned in the field.”

More time, more film

When Fitzgerald was a student at NU, he used his free time before school started to watch television and did not focus on doing the little things that are permissable under the NCAA’s 20-hour rule, which caps mandatory team activities for student-athletes to no more than 20 hours per week in season. In today’s world of constant distraction, it is easy for student athletes to lose focus on what they need to do to prepare each week, but Fitzgerald said he is happy with how his team has not fallen into the trap.

“I remember back in my day I was just back and watching ‘Doogie Howser’ and ‘The Wonder Years’,” the coach said. “They’ve got distractions, but the leadership and the captains are doing a great job.”

The team has committed itself to getting into the film room as much as possible, and it has all been on the shoulders of the upperclassmen. Junior wide receiver Rashad Lawrence said it’s nice to get the time to focus only on football and watch as much film on the opponent as they can. It has also given the Cats the ability to watch film with different position groups with whom they don’t normally get the opportunity.

“We really get to come in and spend as much time as we want in the film room with each other,” Lawrence said. “You get to pick each other’s brain. We get in with the quarterbacks a lot. If we want to we can get in there with the (defensive backs) sometimes.”

Freshman energy

One of the biggest benefits of having time at the beginning of the season to focus only on football is the ability for freshmen to spend more time learning the schemes. NU has three freshmen on its two-deep depth chart that have seen the field: defensive lineman Dean Lowry, safety Traveon Henry and superback Dan Vitale, and defensive end Ifeadi Odenigbo. It is an advantage MacPherson called “invaluable.”

“For them to be able to come and have a routine down from a football standpoint before they have to develop an academic routine is just a great advantage,” MacPherson said.

Lowry  is one of the younger players who has used the extra time to find his way onto the field. He only has five tackles through four games this season but his impact has manifested all over the field. He said his ability to “eat, sleep football” has allowed him to succeed so far this season.

The extra time also has given transfer cornerback Quinn Evans time to adjust to a new team. The senior joined the team from Stanford over the summer and has already seen quality minutes on the field. He is listed as a co-starter on the depth chart but got his first career start as a member of the Cats last week against South Dakota.

Already in his fifth season of playing college football, Evans said the transition back to school is old and everyone is prepared for getting back into an academic mindset.

“We’ve been great students and great athletes our whole lives, so going back to school is nothing new,” he said.

Linebacker David Nwabuisi said it does not matter whether the Cats have class or not, the only thing that matters is how NU plays on the field.

“We might be a little less tired during the week,” the senior said before the game against Vanderbilt on Sept. 8. “But when we go out there on Saturday and put the pads on none of that stuff matters. We know they’re going to be ready whether they’re in school or not. They’re going to be just as prepared as they plan to be. We’ve got to come out there and be as prepared as we can be and go out there. Once we step on the field, it’s time to play.”