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Northwestern University and Evanston's Only Daily News Source Since 1881

The Daily Northwestern

Northwestern University and Evanston's Only Daily News Source Since 1881

The Daily Northwestern

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Football Notebook: Takeaways from Northwestern’s first open practice of fall camp

Daily file photo by Angeli Mittal
A Northwestern player holds a helmet. Interim head coach David Braun and three players spoke to the media Wednesday following NU’s first open practice of fall camp.

Northwestern commenced its first open practice of the 2023 season on Wednesday, and its sixth practice of fall camp.

The Wildcats took the field under new leadership for the first time since 2006 in the wake of Pat Fitzgerald’s firing. Tasked with marshaling 103 players ahead of NU’s season-opening clash with Rutgers on Sept. 3, freshly-appointed interim head coach David Braun said it’s “going to take some time” before the reality of his new title sets in. On the field, he feels like the Cats are beginning to settle in.

“It’s a typical practice six of camp,” Braun said. “We’re starting to get sore, we’re starting to get worn down. It’s starting to get chippy, there’s some trash talk. (We’re) finding this happy balance between guys really competing and straining.”

Braun, along with a trio of seniors in linebacker Bryce Gallagher, safety Rod Heard II and wide receiver Bryce Kirtz, fielded questions about the hazing allegations levied against the program, the team’s current culture and more.

Here are five takeaways from their Wednesday press conference:

1. The “Cats Against The World” shirt and Gragg’s response

Multiple staffers — offensive coordinator Mike Bajakian included — wore t-shirts at practice reading “Cats Against The World” alongside the number “51,” that of former head coach and NU player Fitzgerald.

When asked about the shirts, Braun said it was not his role to “censor free speech,” while Kirtz defended them.

“(Braun)’s been preaching that we should stick together, especially during a time like this,” Kirtz said. “So the shirts are really just a reminder that really allow us to stick together.”

Athletic Director Derrick Gragg criticized the move as “tone deaf” in a statement. He said neither he nor the University were “aware that they owned or would wear the shirts today,” and reaffirmed NU’s stance against hazing.

“We are committed to do whatever is necessary to address hazing-related issues, including thoroughly investigating any incidents or allegations of hazing or any other misconduct,” Gragg said in the statement.

2. The Battle for QB1

Braun singled out Cincinnati graduate transfer Ben Bryant and 2023 latter-half starter Brendan Sullivan as “duking it out” for the starting quarterback spot.

Last season, Bryant started 11 games for the Bearcats, throwing for 2,732 yards and 21 touchdowns with seven interceptions. A right foot injury sidelined him for the remainder of the season on Nov. 19, but appeared to have no lingering effects at Wednesday’s practice.

Sullivan replaced starting quarterback Ryan Hilinski after the latter sustained an injury against Wisconsin last season. The junior appeared in five games, logging 589 passing yards and four touchdowns alongside three interceptions.

“What I’m very confident (in) is whoever earns that starting role, that young man is going to be the best version of himself and push to really compete,” Braun said.

3. Heard, Gallagher and Kirtz talk team culture, operations under Braun

The three seniors spoke about their leadership roles on the team, focusing on “keeping everyone together” amidst Fitzgerald’s exit. The players declined to speak on hazing allegations, with Gallagher emphasizing “right now we have a great culture in our locker room.”

“The only people we need are the people in this facility,” Gallagher said. “Just sticking together and worry(ing) about the people in this facility and taking care of each other.”

With the three players sounding a unanimous “no” to a question about any thoughts of transferring, Gallagher said that Braun has been “unbelievable.” Kirtz praised Braun, who was hired as the Cats’ new defensive coordinator in January, for getting to know everyone on the team — offense and defense — from the start.

Maintaining normalcy in practice, routine and day-to-day operations, Gallagher said, has been an achievement of the staff.

“Keeping that as close to what we’ve been used to, the older guys…the past couple of years,” Gallagher said.

4. Henning, Johnson bolster receiving room depth

Malik Washington, Evan Hull and Donny Navarro III — NU’s three most productive receiving options in 2022 — all departed Evanston in the offseason.

Hoping to offset the losses in its receiving corps, NU secured the commitments of transfer wideouts A.J. Henning and Cam Johnson. Henning, who starred for Michigan as a return man, will work towards a bigger spot in NU’s offense after hauling in only 25 passes in his three years in Ann Arbor. Johnson, who tallied just 10 receptions last season for Arizona State, will look to return to his career-best form in 2020 from his time at Vanderbilt.

Kirtz, who finished fourth on the team in receptions (19) and receiving yards (212) last season, said he’s enjoyed working with the pair of newly-minted Cats in camp so far.

“I pick their minds, they pick my mind,” Kirtz said. “(Henning) brings a lot to the game. He’s fast, he’s quick, he can get away from guys. (Johnson) has played a lot of football. He’s played five years, four for Vanderbilt, one at Arizona State, so we really can (all) help each other out.”

5. Players, Braun preach confidence regarding recruiting efforts

Despite four freshmen transferring out of the program and a number of 2024 decommitments following Fitzgerald’s termination, Braun and his players emphasized a message of “moving forward” in their efforts to attract talent to NU.

“There’s still so much to put on full display in terms of the opportunity that exists here at Northwestern,” Braun said. “We plan to fill up (the 2025) class with a group of young men who want to step up to the challenge.”

Heard and Gallagher echoed many of Braun’s sentiments, lauding the University’s prestigious academics and the opportunity to play in the Big Ten as reasons players come to NU. Heard said the program has “always had people with high character,” while Gallagher said recruits can “get the best of both worlds.”

“It’s just a different standard when you come to Northwestern,” Heard said. “So for recruits coming in, we’d just say, ‘Be ready to work. Be ready to put your head down. Apply yourself and take the opportunity for what it is.’”

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Twitter: @elenahubert25
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