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

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

The Daily Northwestern

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Haner: A love letter to the multimedia room

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Derrick Gragg appointed as Northwestern’s vice president for athletic strategy, search for new athletic director begins

Lacrosse: Northwestern’s Izzy Scane wins 2024 Honda Sport Award

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Football Notebook: Braun to settle on starting QB, players talk coaching turnover

Daily file photo by Angeli Mittal
Interim head coach David Braun and three players addressed the media Wednesday in the final press availability of fall camp.

In less than two weeks, interim head coach David Braun will lead the Wildcats into the program’s first game of 2023, concluding a tumultuous summer in Evanston.

Braun reiterated that the team’s situation has been a “whirlwind,” but said he is still focused on the season-opener against Rutgers on Sunday, Sept. 3.

“That stuff is in the rearview,” Braun said. “It’s time for us to look straight ahead. That road right now points to New Jersey, and that’s where our focus is.”

As is customary during this fall camp, a trio of Cats addressed the media Wednesday in the Walter Athletics Center auditorium. Senior defensive lineman Sean McLaughlin, senior running back Cam Porter and graduate student wide receiver Cam Johnson, along with Braun, talked position group battles, the impact of alumni and more.

Here are five takeaways from their Wednesday press conference:

1. Starting QB Battle: Ben Bryant vs. Brendan Sullivan

Cincinnati graduate transfer Ben Bryant and junior Brendan Sullivan are taking the “majority of reps,” Braun said, as the team narrows down its starting quarterback selection. Braun said current decisions about the week one starter are being “kept in house at this time.”

“We’ve had talks internally, and we’re really excited about the competition…and the depth in that room,” Braun said.

Bryant started for the Bearcats in 11 games before suffering a season-ending foot injury last season. The La Grange native tallied 21 touchdowns and seven interceptions in Cincinnati, which went 9-2 while Bryant took snaps.

Last season, Sullivan settled into the starting role after senior South Carolina transfer Ryan Hilinski sustained an injury while playing Wisconsin. Although the Cats’ losing streak continued, the then-sophomore from Davison, Michigan held a 74% completion percentage alongside four touchdowns and three interceptions.

Braun said staff’s indecision over the slot is a “great problem to have.” Last year’s game one starter wasn’t announced until hours before the season opener in Dublin.
“We need someone that’s our starting quarterback,” Braun said. “The entire locker room’s behind that individual, and we’re ready to embark on an entire season with that guy as our starter.”

2. Johnson talks coaching turnover, players reinforce decisions to stay

Now entering his sixth year of college football at his third school, Johnson is no stranger to coaching changes.

The Nashville, Tennessee, native spent three seasons at Vanderbilt under Derek Mason before Clark Lea took the reins ahead of the 2021 campaign. When Johnson transferred to Arizona State in 2022, he played three games under Herm Edwards and finished the season under interim head coach Shaun Aguano after Edwards was fired in mid-September.

Johnson spoke Wednesday about the “third coaching change” of his career and why he stayed in Evanston.

“For me, having gone through something like this before, the guys in the room and the whole support staff, the way we all had conviction that we’re going to get through this together,” Johnson said. “That was something I hadn’t seen in other schools. Sometimes whenever you go through coaching changes, people splinter off … this team is as close as any I’ve been a part of.”

Porter echoed Johnson’s sentiments, calling his decision to stay at NU a “no-brainer,” while McLaughlin said “the guys in the locker room” and the lessons taught by former defensive linemen like Joe Spivak kept him with the Cats.

3. Braun, McLaughlin weigh in on defensive line

McLaughlin is one of just four returning defensive players — and the only one on the defensive line — who started six or more games last season.

In a position group which boasts a new position coach, three transfers and four freshmen, McLaughlin’s experience brings a level of “street cred,” according to Braun. He said the Lincoln-Way East product “makes things happen,” though he acknowledged McLaughlin wants more after last season.

McLaughlin called Braun a tremendous asset and said he has “really opened (the defense’s) eyes” on a pathway to being a successful unit in the Big Ten and nationally. As for the defensive line, McLaughlin said the group has to “keep stacking days.”

“We have a lot to learn from going off last year’s tape, and what we need to not do again and what we could do better,” McLaughlin said. “We took it on our shoulders to try and be the best position group on the team.”

4. Announcements on captains coming soon

After a less-than-traditional summer for the team, Braun spoke about the preseason custom of honoring senior leaders as team captains. Those names will be announced “very soon,” Braun said, as the season opener at Rutgers looms close.

“Something that’s been really important to our leadership and myself is just this team, the way that they’ve galvanized,” Braun said. “Intentionally, we’ve taken some time to work through that process and really see not just who’s leading on Day One or Day Four, but who’s leading as we go through the dog days of camp.”

Former head coach Pat Fitzgerald typically named team captains and honored a player with the No. 1 uniform during fall camp. The No. 1 jersey holder — currently senior receiver/returner Raymond Niro III — was described by Fitz as “the guy (that) represents the program not some of the time but all the time.”

Braun did not speak to the uniform tradition after being asked about naming captains and the No. 1 jersey recipient. It is unclear whether Niro, who was sidelined during Wednesday’s practice, will retain the honor.

5. Former players continue to show support

Almost a week after about 1,000 former student athletes signed an open letter stating hazing “allegations do not represent or define the overall athletics culture at Northwestern,” Braun reaffirmed the alumni’s commitment to the program.

Braun said former players have been shown “unwavering support to young men that are going through what they went through [and] what it feels like to be a student athlete at Northwestern.” Outside of words and texts of encouragement, former players have attended practices, Braun said.

Braun chose to keep his and team’s conversations with alumni private, but appreciated their help on and off the field.

“The requirements from an education standpoint, playing Big Ten football, the quarter system. I mean, there’s such a unique experience,” Braun said. “We’re doing everything in our power to make sure that the experiences this group of young men has is very similar to what (the alumni) had.”

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