Football: Fitzgerald changes spring practice, happy with results

Northwestern defensive end Tyler Scott said he has to work on being more of a vocal leader. The senior led the Wildcats with 9 sacks last season.

Daily file photo by Rafi Letzter

Northwestern defensive end Tyler Scott said he has to work on being more of a vocal leader. The senior led the Wildcats with 9 sacks last season.

Josh Walfish, Sports Editor

Coach Pat Fitzgerald sounded as loud and vibrant as ever as he met the media toward the end of spring practice Saturday.

It was an unusual sound for the coach, who admitted he normally does not have much of a voice after spring practice because of all the screaming he does. However, the coach’s healthy voice was one of the many differences between this year’s spring practice season and the previous six under Fitzgerald. 

“It’s been fun,” senior defensive end Tyler Scott said. “A lot of young guys have stepped up and are really helping us. I’d say it’s up there, but I’ve had some fun springs in the past.”

Another big change this year was the lack of a traditional spring game. Northwestern had 13 players out at the beginning of spring practice, which affected the team’s depth on the offensive line. Because Fitzgerald’s main objective of spring practice is to emerge after the 15 sessions without any additional injuries, he decided to hold off on scrimmages this year, which translated to the restructuring of the spring game.

Instead of a big public scrimmage, the Wildcats held an open practice for fans at Ryan Field on April 6. The structure was not much different than a normal practice, with the team beginning with individual position drills before moving to the team drill segments.

This spring may not be the best one since Fitzgerald has taken over the Cats, but he is certainly happy with the results. He said this team is really focused on becoming Big Ten champions and has embraced the notion that going to bowl games is no longer acceptable. The proof is in how the players have worked so far this offseason to raise their game.

“There hasn’t been a day this spring that I looked at the guys and questioned their attitude at all,” Fitzgerald said. “They’ve wanted to be here. They’ve worked their tails off. … Guys are fighting to get better.”

Fitzgerald said the Cats’ morale is as high as it has ever been, and they are excited about what the future holds. He said the team has built off of the foundation last year’s seniors laid down on the road to a Gator Bowl victory in January. Scott said he isn’t sure how much the bowl triumph has helped this spring, but the Cats’ attitude and work ethic have definitely improved.

“I don’t know if it was winning the game,” Scott said. “I think it was the mentality we started with last year and really being confident and dominating as a defense and a team as a whole. We still have to work on finishing and being better in those last couple of seconds when it really counts, but the mentality we set last year has really helped us.”

Scott said Fitzgerald put a lot of pressure on the team’s veterans to take on larger leadership roles, especially with many younger players getting more repetitions than usual. The senior defensive lineman admitted he needs to work on his comunication skills before the season and said this year’s spring practice is an excellent opportunity.

“I got to be a lot more vocal (this season),” Scott said. “Teaching helps me understand the defense a little bit more because I have to help them learn it quicker and be ready for the season.”

Fitzgerald said the injuries wreaked havoc on NU’s options last spring, so the team was more focused with what it worked on. He said he would have liked to have had longer practices with the players, but he was still pleased with the team’s progress.

The next spring practices are now about a year away, but Fitzgerald said he liked the framework of this spring enough to possibly keep it for the future.

“At this point, if I were to have to make a decision on what I do next year, I’d keep the structure the same,” Fitzgerald said. “After the week back after the two-week break, the retention was excellence and the guys did a really great job at doing something to keep themselves in shape.”