Football Notebook: Fitzgerald leaves open possibility of middle linebacker rotation


Daily file photo by Sophie Mann

Nathan Fox (left) celebrates with a teammate in a game last year. Fox is a candidate to take over the middle linebacker job this season, though coach Pat Fitzgerald said there may not be a determined starter at that position.

Cole Paxton, Web Editor


Anthony Walker may not have a clear-cut replacement.

The star middle linebacker’s departure to the NFL after his junior season left sophomore Nathan Fox and redshirt freshman Paddy Fisher to battle for the vacated spot at the center of Northwestern’s defense, but coach Pat Fitzgerald on Friday left open the possibility that the two will rotate at the position and both see extensive time with the top unit.

“I don’t care if they separate,” Fitzgerald said. “When there’s a clear separation that happens, maybe that guy starts. If it doesn’t happen and they both keep getting better and busting their rear ends like they are now, we’ve got a really good problem.”

Fisher spent the majority of Wednesday’s practice, which was open to the media, with the first-team defense, but Fitzgerald cautioned that rotations were far from set at several position groups. Practices early in training camp — which began only a week ago for NU — are not often strong indicators of future lineups.

Fox played in every game last season, though much of his playing time came on special teams. The two Houston-area linebackers were each three-star recruits, according to 247 Sports.

Fitzgerald said the program recruited well to bring both players to Evanston and predicted that both will see the field often this fall.

“They’re really good football players. Both will play a ton,” Fitzgerald said. “I’m excited about that position. I’m really excited about those guys.”

Talent aside, the Cats will not have an experienced option at the position often known as the ‘quarterback of the defense.’ That has increased the leadership spotlight on senior Brett Walsh, the most veteran of the linebackers and one of the two set starters at outside linebacker, alongside junior Nate Hall.

Walsh said he has passed on lessons he first learned from Walker. He was also effusive in his praise of both Fisher and Fox.

“Those guys are awesome,” Walsh said. “Whoever’s going to be our starting (middle linebacker), they’re going to be a hell of a linebacker. … They’re both physical, real physical guys.”

Watkins returning to form after torn ACL

Senior cornerback Keith Watkins is approaching full strength as he returns from a torn ACL that sidelined him all of last season, a development that excites both Watkins and Fitzgerald.

Though Watkins has been limited in the first week of training camp, not participating in some team drills, he is almost certain to be ready for the start of the regular season Sept. 2 against Nevada.

“He’s limited by us. You’re coming off a major injury; we want to make sure we bring you back slowly,” Fitzgerald said. “He’s a big-time player.”

Watkins’ injury, coupled with several other personnel losses, forced the Cats to rely heavily on sophomore Montre Hartage and redshirt freshman Trae Williams last year. Now, with Williams out long-term with an achilles injury, Watkins is expected to join an improved Hartage to form a strong starting cornerback pairing.

“I feel back to normal. I have my twitch back,” Watkins said. “I focused a lot on (the recovery) during the summer. It’s been pretty good so far.”

Despite uncertainty, receivers offer promise

The departure of senior wunderkind Austin Carr to graduation and the NFL has left the wide receiver corps without a true standout, giving way to a large group of promising candidates who all have questions surrounding them.

“We’ve got enough talent in that group when it comes to catching the ball and running around,” Fitzgerald said. “But I need to see that group become complete. They need to be better blocking. They need to be better with the ball in their hands.”

The biggest names in the group are junior Flynn Nagel, the Cats’ leading returning wide receiver by the numbers, senior Macan Wilson, who made a significant impact in spring practice, and Jalen Brown, a graduate transfer from Oregon. But a pair of NU defensive backs also drew attention to other candidates for playing time.

Watkins highlighted Ben Skowronek and said he was impressed with the physicality of the 6-foot-4 sophomore, who offers intriguing size on the outside. Senior safety Kyle Queiro offered praise for junior Jelani Roberts, a speed threat who carried the ball three times last year but did not record a catch.

“Jelani is developing much more than what I was expecting,” Queiro said. “I think the offensive is definitely utilizing him better, with the jet sweeps, using his speed and understanding our leverage.”

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