Football Notebook: Bajakian, Hankwitz talk training camp takeaways ahead of 2020 season

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Courtesy of Northwestern Athletics

Jesse Brown receives the No. 1 jersey at Northwestern’s practice last week.

Ella Brockway, Gameday Editor


Football


Against all odds, the Big Ten football season is now less than 10 days away.

Northwestern is set to open its 2020 campaign on Oct. 24 against Maryland at a mostly empty Ryan Field. The Wildcats will return most of their 2019 starters, but there’ll also be a share of new faces — a new quarterback, a number of new graduate transfers and a new offensive coordinator all joined the fray this offseason.

As the countdown to the 2020 season nears the single digits, The Daily rounded up the latest news and notes from the last week inside the NU program.

Bajakian talks quarterbacks, playing ‘hard, physical football’

Another year, another preseason full of questions about who exactly will line up under center for the Cats on opening day.

First-year offensive coordinator Mike Bajakian kept his cards close to his chest Wednesday, not giving away any hints about the progression of the Cats’ current quarterback battle.

Juniors Andrew Marty and Hunter Johnson, senior Aidan Smith and sixth-year TJ Green all saw playing time in 2019, but Indiana graduate transfer Peyton Ramsey is the likely favorite.

“We have a lot of experience on our roster, and then obviously (with) the addition of Peyton, those guys have been outstanding as it relates to learning the offense and applying themselves and working hard and being leaders for the entire unit, and the entire team,” Bajakian said. “I’m really happy with the quarterback room in general.”

Though he’s introduced a new offensive system, Bajakian stressed that NU will continue to play its brand of “hard, physical football, with great effort and great physicality.” The adjusted preseason meant that his offense hasn’t had many chances to play in a live, contact-heavy situation yet, but Bajakian seemed confident in the number of potential playmakers on the roster.

Sophomore receiver Malik Washington topped the coach’s list of players who have impressed in training camp thus far. The Georgia native appeared in 11 games as a true freshman in 2019, catching six passes for 25 yards, and seems poised for a breakout year on the Cats’ wide receiver corps.

“He’s a young guy who, frankly, is playing like a veteran right now,” Bajakian said. “He’s a guy who has learned the offense very quickly and is performing at a really high level.”

Defense filling graduation gaps, adjusting to shortened training camp

The departure of Alex Miller and Joe Gaziano — who was called up to the Los Angeles Chargers’ active roster for the first time Monday night — leaves a glaring hole in NU’s defensive line. The two combined for 24.5 tackles for loss and 13 sacks in 2019, and replacing them will be no easy feat.

Even so, defensive coordinator Mike Hankwitz said he’s pleased so far with the development of players to fill those gaps in 2020. He rattled off a long list of players who’ve improved over the offseason: senior Earnest Brown IV, junior Trevor Kent, and sophomores Jason Gold Jr., Adetomiwa Adebawore and Eku Leota.

“I’ve seen improvement in those guys, and it’s their turn to step up like Joe did and Alex did,” Hankwitz said Wednesday. “We feel good about what we have with our front seven there.”

Like Bajakian, Hankwitz addressed concerns about his unit’s preparedness, given the shortened training camp schedule and limited opportunities to simulate live-game hitting and tackling. In 2019 — even after a normal preseason and training camp — the Cats’ defense was plagued by missed tackles in the season-opening loss to Stanford.

“It’s been a challenge with the restrictions we had early that we couldn’t be in pads and we couldn’t work against each other. So we may be a little behind in the physical aspect, but mentally we’ve really pushed hard to get our football stuff installed, and I like where we’re at mentally,” he said. “We’ll have to see in the game, that’ll be the real test.”

Brown earns No. 1 jersey

The No. 1 jersey is frequently described as the highest honor inside the Northwestern program. Since 2011, it has been awarded annually to the player who best embodies the team’s values and character.

Senior running back Jesse Brown will wear the No. 1 shirt this season. The Georgia native has made 17 career appearances and scored two touchdowns for the Cats. In 2019, he appeared in four games, but his season was cut short when he suffered an injury against UNLV.

Off the field, Brown is earning a master’s degree in engineering design innovation from the McCormick School of Engineering, and plays bass in Foster Revival, a rock band that features fellow NU players Jake Saunders, Gunnar Vogel and Riley Lees.

Kickoff time announced for game vs. Terrapins

The Cats’ home opener against the Terrapins will feature in the Big Ten Network’s primetime slot on Oct. 24. The game will kick off at 6:30 p.m. CT, marking the first time NU has opened its season with a night game at Ryan Field since 2000.

The Big Ten has yet to announce kickoff times for the rest of the Cats’ season. The conference will play an eight-game regular season schedule, followed by a Champions Week featuring matchups between teams in the East and West divisions on Dec. 19.

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