With that, the door was left wide open for many of Northwestern's young players to step up and fight for a role on this team. Fitzgerald and the NU coaches agree that the competition level among the Wildcat players is stronger than ever.
"Coming out of spring, this will be the most depth that we've had, so that's good," Fitzgerald said.
Most importantly for Northwestern, the spring brought a new beginning for a defense that suffered through major struggles during the end of the 2010 season.
This spring, the Wildcats' young core of talent stepped up in search of a role. A few young players have pushed for a starting job, while some others stand right behind a returning starter. Northwestern responded from their post-season "hangover" with a great spring, and that came in thanks to the strong competition at each position.
On the defensive line, sophomore Tyler Scott is pushing to take Kevin Watt's job as the starting left defensive end. On the inside of the line, Brian Arnfelt and Niko Mafuli are battling to take over Corbin Bryant's spot at defensive tackle. Also, Chance Carter—now working in as a defensive tackle—will likely rotate in with Jack DiNardo at the other defensive tackle position, while Quentin Williams is in line for reps behind Vincent Browne.
However, the Wildcats' strongest competition is at linebacker. Bryce McNaul is likely to be the starter at "Will" linebacker, but the "Mike" and "Sam" linebacker spots remain an open competition.
A strong spring has junior David Nwabuisi listed as the post-spring starting "Mike" linebacker, but sophomore Damien Proby isn't far behind. On the outside, Ben Johnson is listed as the post-spring starter at "Sam" linebacker, but Collin Ellis and Chi Chi Ariguzo–or Chi Chi Rodriguez as he's known to Mike Hankwitz—each turned in a strong spring, and are right behind Johnson for playing time.
"They're athletic, they can run well, they're making plays, and the biggest thing is that they benefitted through the experience of playing a lot and seeing a lot of things," said NU defensive coordinator Mike Hankwitz. "That's how you learn, you can't learn if you don't experience a lot. I think they made a lot of progress."
Back in the secondary, Pat Fitzgerald had one question answered already, as Jeravin Matthews is in line to be a starter at cornerback, opposite of Jordan Mabin. The senior came into the NU football program as a running back, but has asserted himself as the starting cornerback.
Now, the challenge is for Matthews to hold on to the job by having a strong offseason and summer camp. However, his head coach believes that shouldn't be a problem.
"Knowing (Jeravin Matthews), his attitude, the way he works, (for) those guys that are behind him, it's going to be tough to beat him out," Fitzgerald said of Matthews.
But nobody on the defense had a stronger spring than redshirt-freshman safety Ibraheim Campbell—named the defensive MVP of the spring by Fitzgerald. The 5-11, 195-lb. safety currently stands as the backup safety behind senior Brian Peters, but chances are good that Campbell will find a role in the defense in some form.
At the end of the spring, Campbell is just one of many younger players who are in line for playing time, thanks to a strong spring. Now, they key is to keep working hard in the summer.
"I like where our depth is, I really like where it's at," said Fitzgerald. "This is a critical time. We got to bust our butts as much as we have, all year long to be in the best shape of our lives."
The tough competition is what carried the team—and specifically the defense—past their rocky end to the season. Now, the post-season hangover is a thing of the past, and the team has regained their attitude.
"We wanted to get our attitude back, and I believe we've done that," Fitzgerald said. "I think the guys are having fun and competing their butts off, and it's been a really physical spring."