Football Notebook: Niro honored with No. 1 uniform, Hilinski discusses changes


Daily file photo by Alyce Brown

Iowa defenders tackle senior receiver Raymond Niro III during the 2021 season. The Wildcats honored Niro with the No. 1 uniform for his dedication on and off the field.

John Riker, Gameday Editor

Northwestern football kicked off its preseason camp at the end of July with one of the program’s most cherished traditions — the reveal of which player will wear the No. 1 uniform. The moment lived up to the hype, as senior receiver/returner Raymond Niro III received the honor in a team meeting room that erupted in cheers.

In a press conference after Thursday’s practice, coach Pat Fitzgerald reflected on Niro’s remarkable rise through the Wildcat ranks, his persistence and intangibles. Niro joined NU as a walk-on in 2018, playing multiple positions on the offense and special teams units before emerging as a difference-maker as a returner in 2021.

“You could argue he’s one of the best special teams players, if not the best special teams player, in the Big Ten,” Fitzgerald said. “We’ve been trying to find a role for him, and he’s really been relentless in trying to find a role to help the team. It hasn’t diminished one aspect of what he does for the team behind the scenes.”

Niro accumulated more than 100 yards as both a kick and punt returner in 2021. He helped cover for a running backs room decimated by injury, giving former safety and returner Brandon Joseph the chance to focus on the defensive backfield. He has also played as a running back and a receiver during his time with the Cats. 

In trading in his previous number of 23 for the heralded 1, Niro joins recent Cats defensive lineman Joe Spivak, running back Jesse Brown and defensive back Joe Bergin as players to receive the honor. 

“That No. 1 jersey is recommended by the leadership council and voted on by that, so that’s a player-led honor,” Fitzgerald said. “To see Ray represent us is something I think Ray takes to heart.”

Hilinski calls preseason approach a ‘360’

Niro’s not the only NU player making the change to single digits on his uniform. Junior quarterback Ryan Hilinski changed his number from 12 to 3 for his second season in Evanston in honor of his older brother Tyler, who wore 3 for Washington State before his death by suicide in 2018. Hilinski has been a vocal advocate for mental health through his family’s foundation, Hilinski’s Hope, throughout his college career and said changing his number is another way to commemorate his late brother.

“(Wearing the No. 3) gives me that extra motivation, that extra push to keep going,” Hilinski said. “I feel like when I’m wearing 3, I’m wearing Tyler on my jersey with me… It gives me that extra motivation to keep going and never quit.”

Competing for the starting quarterback job for the second time in as many seasons, Hilinski said his look — and his skill set — have changed plenty for the upcoming season. He’s collaborated closely with nutritionists to change his eating habits, and he said he’s noticed improvements in his conditioning and physique as a result.

“I’ve started eating different and I realized you have to go all-in,” Hilinski said. “Being able to become a runner and more of a dual-threat type of quarterback where I can scoot if I need to, but also throw it 50 yards down the field when I have to.”

Mentally, Hilinski said, continuity with the playbook and offensive coordinator Mike Bajakian has worked wonders, noting that this is the first year in his four seasons of college football that he will have the same offensive coordinator as the year prior. 

Fitzgerald agreed, saying Hilinski is in “a totally different place” and praising the ability of Hilinski and sophomore quarterback Brendan Sullivan to inspire their teammates. 

“The difference from last year to this year is this is the first year I have two years of an offense under my belt,” Hilinski said. “That’s the biggest thing for me, the confidence in myself, confidence in learning the playbook and of course confidence in the guys around me.” 

Continuity, physicality highlight first week of camp

Fitzgerald has been blunt in his assessment of the 2021 season, and he’s already seen encouraging signs through the first weeks of camp.

“Where are we going to be better? Everywhere,” Fitzgerald said.

Fitzgerald attributed the improvement to having a full offseason to work in the facilities after a pair of pandemic-interrupted winters, along with having an older team and coordinator continuity on both sides of the ball. The Cats’ players underscored the energy and physicality on display at camp as an additional reason for optimism.

“We’ve got more experience than we had at this time last year, more competitive depth than we had at this time last year,” Fitzgerald said. “It’s exciting to see every day a little more consistency out of each position.”

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Twitter: @john__riker

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