Northwestern coach Pat Fitzgerald had a tough act to follow on Monday in his opening press conference for Big Ten Media Days in Chicago. He was the second coach to speak with the media, following Nebraska’s new coach Scott Frost, who preached optimism and made it clear he was determined to get the Huskers back in a position of national relevance.
Fitzgerald hit all the usual talking points. He bragged about the Wildcats’ academic achievements last season, which included a team-record 3.2 GPA. He also mentioned the new Walter Athletics Center and Ryan Fieldhouse, a $270 million sports complex built on the lakefront in Evanston, which Fitzgerald believes has already improved the Wildcats’ “day-to-day” opportunities.
And when the floor opened up for questions from the media, Fitzgerald answered each question in a confident and poised manner.
5 main takeaways
1. Coach Fitzgerald and his Wildcats are ready to be challenged
Northwestern currently holds the longest active win streak in FBS with eight games. The Wildcats, who have won a program-best 27 wins over the last three seasons, open up their season on the road against Big Ten opponent Purdue on Aug. 30.
“[With opening the season against a tough opponent], you heighten the awareness of what we need to do, and obviously you have the challenge of the opener of going on the road, playing an incredibly well-coached team,” Fitzgerald said. “Coach [Jeff] Brohm and his staff did an outstanding job last year. We already knew they were very talented at Purdue from the years we played them in the past. But that glue got all put together a year ago. And to have it in the opener will be a huge challenge for us on the road.
“But with a challenge comes an opportunity. And I expect our guys to prepare properly in camp, and I don’t really need to motivate them a whole lot. I think we know what the task is that is at hand.”
2. Paddy Fisher named to the preseason honors
The Big Ten Conference announced Monday that Wildcats linebacker Paddy Fisher received preseason honors.
Asked about being labeled as a “mini Fitz,” Fitzgerald joked: “I don’t think that’s fair for him. He’s a much better athlete.”
“Paddy Fisher is an absolute terrific football player,” he said. “You look at his body of work from just one season, I think it speaks for itself. He’s a big man. He’s all, of course, 245 pounds. He can run, and he’s obviously very physical. He’s got a great football IQ. … Just so proud of him in year one and look forward to him to continue to grow and get better.”
3. Fitzgerald is open to sharing injury reports
Ohio State athletic director Gene Smith talked about the possibility of a league-wide injury report. Big Ten commissioner Jim Delany said he wouldn’t call it an injury report, but rather a “player availability” update.
Fitzgerald said he’s not opposed to sharing player injury reports.
“We have an injury report at Northwestern that we’ve done for a number of years,” Fitzgerald said. “I’ve been accused of sometimes being honest and sometimes being less than honest. I would agree with that. You know, quite frankly.
“But if we move forward to where we have to have a fully transparent conference-wide or national one, I’d have no problem with that, as long as we adhere to it. There needs to be accountability. If there’s not accountability to it, then I’ll do whatever I have to do to protect our players, first and foremost, and protect our program second, in full disclosure of transparency.”
4. You can’t replace Justin Jackson
Justin Jackson will go down as one of the most dominant running backs in Northwestern history. He is the program’s all-time leader rushing attempts (1,142), rushing yards (5,440), rushing touchdowns (41), all-purpose yards (6,298) and total touchdowns (42).
The void left by Jackson, who was drafted in April by the Chargers, is a pressing issue, and one that Fitzgerald hasn’t overlooked.
“You can’t replace Justin Jackson,” he said. “That’s impossible. I’ve been fortunate to be here at Northwestern for a number of years where I’ve had a number of backs like Justin.
“We’ve got more guys that as we move through camp I think we’ve got great competitive depth there, and I expect that room to be very competitive from the standpoint of not only who is going to start but who is going to play, not only in the backfield but a lot of different roles for our offense and our football team in the kicking game.”
5. Fitzgerald is “fired up” by new redshirt rule
Fitzgerald said he is “fired up” about the new redshirt rule, which will allow players to participate in up to four games and keep eligibility.
“First of all, it’s great for players,” he said. “I was one of those really below-average guys that played as a true freshman. I was the best of the worst. And it was not a very good experience for our defense when I was out there. I would have been a lot better if I only played in four games, I promise you that.
“As we get into really the meat of October and November, I think it gives us an opportunity when maybe we have some guys that are banged up the opportunity to maybe plug a guy in here or there to continue to have us have competitive depth … So I think it’s great from a health and safety standpoint. And also obviously for us for the flexibility from a coaching standpoint, it’s huge.”