Motivated NU defense eager for fresh start

Northwestern's defense faced tremendous struggles during the 2011 season. After an offseason of addressing such issues with the media, a hungry and motivated unit is eager to turn the page.

Pat Fitzgerald stood along the sidelines of Northwestern's practice field and watched as the media gathered around defensive coordinator Mike Hankwitz.

The Wildcats' head coach knew exactly what Hankwitz was addressing for the reporters: why was Northwestern's defense one of the worst in the Big Ten in 2011, and will things be different this year?

Fitzgerald has faced similar questions during the offseason. So has each of Wildcat defender. They hope the past is just that.

"The great news is I'll be done talking about that crap here in about a week," Fitzgerald said, looking ahead to the season-opener with Syracuse on Sept. 1. "Hopefully we show up and play. That's the ideal destination and goal."

It was a tumultuous 2011 campaign for Northwestern's defense. The unit allowed an average of 27.7 points per game and surrendered more than 30 points seven times during the season -- only one time (Indiana) was that a win.

In looking to fire up his defense, Fitzgerald didn't have to look too far. He showed each Wildcat the press clippings which document the defense's struggles.

"Our defense was very motivated through the positive talk that they heard through the blog sites and wonderful articles they had to read during the offseason," Fitzgerald said with more than a hint of sarcasm.

Motivation wasn't the only tool Northwestern has used. The team installed cameras along the sidelines of the practice facility to capture each detail of the play, namely the communication between each player.

The concept was designed to minimize missed assignments -- specifically in the secondary -- which were the primary issue during past struggles.

"We have definitely been focusing on that since the end of last year," said Northwestern sophomore safety Ibraheim Campbell, the only returning starter in the secondary. "We've had hardly any, if any at all, this fall camp. It's definitely something that has improved. We're going to continue to improve it."

The emphasis has paid dividends thus far, as miscommunication and missed assignments have been few and far between for the Wildcats.

"I really feel like the unit has gotten a lot better in communication," said redshirt freshman cornerback Nick VanHoose. "You could really tell during the spring, we're communicating a lot better. In camp, we're all talking really, really well. ... Our communication is really, really good this year."

VanHoose is one of the many young Wildcats who is part of a youth movement on the defense. Enter newcomers VanHoose, Deonte Gibson, Drew Smith, Chance Carter, Chi Chi Ariguzo, Collin Ellis, and Davion Fleming, who will stock the unit with plenty of talent.

"We're excited about the group as a whole," said Hankwitz of the young Wildcats. "They're trying to learn a whole new system and we're in the start of the third week. All of them have shown good things. As a group, we're excited about it."

A new attitude has been instilled within the defense, and it starts with Campbell, one of the unit's new leaders. His message is simple: stay hungry.

"Never be satisfied with making one play," Campbell said. "If you get a [pass break-up], it should have been a pick; if you made a tackle, it should have been a [tackle for a loss]. Never be satisfied with what's expected. Always strive for more and stay hungry."

As a whole, Northwestern's defense has provided many reasons for optimism and excitement during the preseason, and each Wildcat is feeling good things will be different this season.

"As a defense, we made great strides with pass rushing, on the outside and inside, pass coverage out back," said junior defensive end Tyler Scott. "It's going to be exciting."

Chris Emma has covered recruiting, college athletics and professional baseball for FOX Sports Next since 2009. Emma covered the Nebraska Cornhuskers for Big Red Report, and currently covers the Northwestern Wildcats and Chicago Cubs. He currently resides on Chicago's north side.
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