The winningest senior class in Northwestern's football history walked away with their heads hanging low after a season of high hopes crumbled apart. It was not how the Wildcats envisioned that chapter of the program's history ending.
Those Wildcats returning to the program dealt with continued criticism and questions as to how it went wrong and why it will be different going forward. While working toward a better future, Northwestern players formed a stronger team chemistry amid the fire of struggles.
NU hopes to rise up during its 2012 season -- doing so as a closer unit.
"We're a really tight team right now," said sophomore safety Ibraheim Campbell. "We've been through a lot together, especially from last season. We've been through a lot as a team, not just separately."
It starts in practice for Northwestern, where each Wildcat -- not just the four captains -- is doing their part to be a leader and guide younger players, many who will serve key roles this season.
"A lot of guys doing a lot of extra work with the younger guys; not only seniors, [but] juniors, sophomores, guys who have been there before," said fifth-year senior captain Brian Arnfelt.
Practice is essential for every football team, but the style in which work is accomplished can determine the outcome of each game. Northwestern has progressed through practice in a business-like manner.
Fitzgerald's practices have always operated in an up-tempo pace, as has been the case this year. Throughout camp, though, there has been more of an emphasis on basic techniques and reviewing the game's finer details. The Wildcats have embraced the chance to improve.
"Our practice personality, I like it a lot, I like it a lot," Fitzgerald said. "I've been around a lot of successful teams here and this team's personality in practice is one of the best."
The team chemistry is evident on the field as well as outside of football. The players each maintain a close relationship. The question is whether that will translate to games.
"We can be great friends on the field and off the field, but how is it going to play into our communication and execution on the field," questioned Arnfelt. "Without that, it doesn't mean anything."
The answer for Northwestern may be on the sign the team touches as it takes the field for each game. It states, "Trust Yourself" in bold lettering.
"We have a lot of potential," said running back Venric Mark. "We just have to trust each other, trust ourselves, and trust the plan."
Northwestern will determine the results of its chemistry test after Saturday's season-opener with Syracuse. Entering week one, Fitzgerald is optimistic the Wildcats will pass with flying colors.
"The chemistry is as good as it's been," he said. "They're hungry to be champions, and to be a champion, you've got to go 1-0 each week. We'll see how we progress."