Football Notebook: Fitzgerald, players talk upcoming season at Big Ten Media Days

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Football Notebook: Fitzgerald, players talk upcoming season at Big Ten Media Days

Pat Fitzgerald coaches from the sideline. Fitzgerald praised new offensive line coach Kurt Anderson and his team’s success in close games at Big Ten Media Days on Friday.

Pat Fitzgerald coaches from the sideline. Fitzgerald praised new offensive line coach Kurt Anderson and his team’s success in close games at Big Ten Media Days on Friday.

Daily file photo by Allie Goulding

Pat Fitzgerald coaches from the sideline. Fitzgerald praised new offensive line coach Kurt Anderson and his team’s success in close games at Big Ten Media Days on Friday.

Daily file photo by Allie Goulding

Daily file photo by Allie Goulding

Pat Fitzgerald coaches from the sideline. Fitzgerald praised new offensive line coach Kurt Anderson and his team’s success in close games at Big Ten Media Days on Friday.

Benjamin Rosenberg, Summer Managing Editor

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CHICAGO — A year after making a surprise run to the Big Ten West title and a trip to the conference championship game, Northwestern hopes to be right in the thick of a tight division race yet again. Coach Pat Fitzgerald and senior center Jared Thomas discussed a key coaching change, the national media’s lack of respect for the Wildcats and more at Big Ten Media Days on Friday.

As is tradition, Fitzgerald declined to reveal a starting quarterback, saying he and his staff have not yet made that decision and will not announce it publicly until the August 31 opener at Stanford. Many believe the starter will be Clemson transfer Hunter Johnson, a former five-star recruit, but TJ Green and Andrew Marty are also in the mix.

Anderson replaces Cushing to lead offensive line

Following the departure of Adam Cushing, who left his position to take the top job at Eastern Illinois, NU named Kurt Anderson, who spent last season as a quality control analyst for the Cats, as its new offensive line coach in January.

Anderson has already built momentum in recruiting. Three top offensive line prospects from the Class of 2020 have committed to NU, giving the Cats one of the best classes in the conference for that position group, albeit early in the recruiting cycle.

Fitzgerald said Anderson has a more intense personality than Cushing and that the players have gravitated toward him right away.

“One guy is a University of Chicago grad in (Cushing), and Kurt is more of a Rowdy Roddy Piper, Hulk Hogan, the Rock,” Fitzgerald said. “He’s an awesome personality… I look forward to watching him continue to build that group with his stamp.”

NU will have a retooled offensive line this year, with only Thomas and junior tackle Rashawn Slater returning. With the Cats also breaking in a new starting quarterback for the first time in four years, it is easy to see some potential struggles on the offensive side of the ball during the early part of the season.

Thomas said he is embracing the responsibility that comes with helping the new offensive linemen and has been learning a lot from Anderson.

“Everything that has to do with the offensive line starts and ends with me,” Thomas said. “Whether it’s in workouts, whether it’s in practice, whether it’s in the games, I’m going to be the guy taking responsibility.”

NU underdogs to repeat as West champs

Despite winning every game within the West division last season, the Cats are not getting a lot of love from the national media. Of 34 writers from around the conference who submitted their preseason predictions to cleveland.com, just one picked NU to return to Indianapolis for the Big Ten Championship Game.

S&P+, an advanced metric created by Bill Connelly at Football Outsiders designed to track overall team efficiency, picked the Cats to finish fifth in the West with just 5.5 projected wins. ESPN’s Football Power Index has NU winning a mere 5.7 games and gives the Cats a greater than 50 percent chance of winning in just four of their 12 games.

Of course, S&P plus was not a big fan of NU last season, either — the metric grated the 2018 Cats as the worst NU team since 2011 — yet they still won eight games in the regular season and their division.

“We’re not great clickbait, I guess, so picking us first isn’t real sexy,” Fitzgerald said. “It’s always fun to read this time of year how we stink.”

The Cats have benefitted from their success in one-score games — five of their conference wins last season were by eight points or fewer. Historically, Fitzgerald’s teams have done well in close contests, as he is 45-26 in such games since taking over as head coach in 2006.

In his divisional preview, Connelly acknowledged that several of those games came against teams NU should have beaten by more than one score, but as long as the Cats continue to play teams tight, they should contend for the division title once again.

Fitzgerald said he would rather not play so many close games — the ones that have inspired many to call the team the “Cardiac Cats” — but he said the players he recruits are not afraid of the big moments.

“I don’t think we panic or flinch as a coaching staff in close games,” Fitzgerald said. “We’re in a lot of them. It’s why I don’t sleep well. Trust me, I’d rather be up three scores. When you’re in those types of games, you just can’t flinch and you have to keep playing.”

Email: benjaminrosenberg2021@u.northwestern.edu
Twitter: @bxrosenberg

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