For Pat Fitzgerald’s Wildcats, training camp has become synonymous with two-a-days in the blistering heat this summer.
The Northwestern coach has gone in a different direction as one of the Cats’ most highly anticipated seasons approaches, challenging his team more mentally than physically. NU will have longer practices in the afternoon this summer and more intensive meetings and walkthroughs.
Fitzgerald said Thursday that the approach is a balancing act meant to prepare both veterans and new guys for the season.
“For some guys, those very experienced players that we have, it’s making sure they’re peaking at the right time, getting ready for the opener and beyond,” Fitzgerald told reporters at NU’s media day. “Then there’s that group of redshirt freshmen and true freshmen that are getting their first experience at understanding what it means to be a Wildcat and how to play, and we’ve got to really stress those guys both mentally and physically.”
The first week of camp is normally the most mundane as the coaching staff tries to bring everyone up to speed. However, this year’s camp is moving at a quicker pace, which Fitzgerald says keeps the veterans sharp and attentive.
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Sophomore superback Dan Vitale said he will spend this camp learning more intricacies of the offense and improving his performance from last season. Vitale ended the season strongly with 16 catches and 192 yards over the final three games after having only 12 receptions for 96 yards in his first 10 contests.
“I’m still only in my second year, so for me, it’s still I’m trying to learn the details and focus in on those little things,” Vitale said. “This year, I really have to take a step up, and (superbacks coach Bob Heffner) is trying to help me out.”
Junior center Brandon Vitabile said watching more tape helped train his brain to look for specific clues of a potential blitz. He said there are only minor variations in picking up certain blitzes and distinguishing them prepares him more for practice.
Heading into the season, the Cats have their eyes on a Big Ten Championship and a bid in the Rose Bowl. Senior running back Venric Mark said he trusts Fitzgerald’s process because Fitzgerald was one of the main catalysts behind NU’s run to Pasadena in 1995.
“He’ll say, ‘Raise your hand if you’ve been to the Rose Bowl,’ and no one will raise their hand but him,” Mark said. “He knows what it takes. If it means being up here four or six more hours, that’s what we’re going to do since he’s the only person who’s actually been to the Rose Bowl.”
Kain Colter made his first appearance for the Cats at Wrigley Field in 2010 against Illinois. The senior ran three times for 10 yards and his career took off from there.
Colter started the first three games of the 2011 season in place of the injured Dan Persa and then became the full-time starter in 2012, starting 12 of NU’s 13 games. He is a true triple threat, regularly showcasing his passing, running and catching skills for the Cats.
Although Colter has matured as a player on the field, he said he has made the most progress in controlling his emotions over the past three seasons.
“When you’re young, you just want to go in there and play and prove to your teammates and your coaches that you can do it,” Colter said. “Back then, I was a fiery guy, wore a heart on my sleeve. I really had to learn about staying even keel through the good times and the bad times. That’s where I feel like I’ve matured the most at, is staying even keel if though it’s a game of roller coasters, you’re going to be at highs, you’re going to be at lows.”
Fitzgerald said the hallmark of a good quarterback is his ability to keep the chains moving down the field, something Colter did well in his first start at quarterback against Boston College in 2011. However, Fitzgerald said Colter has learned to master the offense and now acts like a coach on the field, a valuable asset for the actual coaches.
“He really learned from those initial experiences from a standpoint of just how hard you have to prepare to be the quarterback, and that evolved and got to a great place last year,” Fitzgerald said. “We got to the point last year at the end of the year where he could basically call the entire offense by himself. I think he knows everything like the back of his hand, and having that coach on the field out there gives us great confidence we’re going to score a lot of points.”
There is no player more loved or hated on a football team than the kicker.
When he makes his kicks, he is beloved, and when he misses, he is reviled. Senior Jeff Budzien understands the erratic nature of his position.
“It’s pretty fickle, if I do well people like me and if I don’t, people hate me, so I’m trying to enjoy them liking me now,” Budzien said. “I really don’t look into it. It’s been a fun year, but I’m excited to be a bigger entity of the team and take on a good Cal team.”
Despite garnering more national attention as a semifinalist for the Lou Groza Award, Budzien said he does not feel more pressure this year because his job description has not changed.
“I hold myself to a high standard, so the outside noise isn’t impacting me too much,” Budzien said. “It’s a good laugh to read what’s going on Twitter, but in the end, I have to make kicks.”
Summer reporter Josh Walfish can be reached at [email protected] Follow him on Twitter at http://www.twitter.com/JoshWalfish.