Mission Accomplished

Saturday's scrimmage wrapped up Northwestern's spring practice session. Talking to players and head coach Pat Fitzgerald, it's apparent that the team's morale is at an all-time high.

The whistle pierces.

Wideout Christian Jones grabs a baseball bat, burrows his helmet on the knob and begins to frantically spin in circles. Stumbling afterward, he runs to tag a teammate and continue the relay. It's Northwestern's fourth-annual dizzy bat challenge, complete with a hot dog eating contest at the end. It's a whole lot of fun to watch.

"It's one of the most disgusting challenges we've ever had in our program history," Pat Fitzgerald said.

After the final spring practice on Saturday, he added: "mission accomplished."

Mission accomplished, indeed. Northwestern entered its round of spring practices down 13 players, including notable starters Nick VanHoose, Damien Proby and Jack Konopka. It leaves healthier than it started, and even more confident.

This team is also learning its strengths dangerously fast, and having a lot of fun in the process.

"I think our chemistry's carried over from last year. I felt like we learned a great lesson in ‘team' a season ago...You can just see the togetherness and the brotherhood that they have," Fitz said.

For the first time in years, the Cats played spring ball with a looming AP ranking to start the season and a founded aspiration for a Big Ten title. It's an entirely new culture that comes with budding pressure, but you wouldn't notice it watching the demeanor and swagger of players the past month.

Saturday was the culmination of perhaps the best spring of the Fitzgerald era.

Offensively, Colter took monstrous strides in pocket passing while Siemian worked with his mobility. Venric Mark was a blur between the tackles as Malin Jones and Stephen Buckley dominated the flat and begged screen passes for the regular season.

Cameron Dickerson stretched the field and looked like a true possession receiver, Dan Vitale continued to build on a strong end to 2012 and the offensive line seemed to finally find its stride despite losing three starters to graduation.

On the other end of the ball, Henry, Fleming, Ifeadi Odenigbo and Jimmy Hall vied for reps with sideline-to-sideline aggression while Chi Chi Ariguzo and Ibraheim Campbell worked their way into leadership roles.

There were no additional significant injuries, no observable setbacks and no reason to believe that Northwestern won't live up to its potential this fall.

Fitzgerald told reporters that the Wildcats would enjoy a three-day weekend during training camp, leaving Fridays open before two-a-days resume on Mondays.

For many teams, extended days off induce headlines and headaches; for Fitzgerald's Northwestern, it means building locker room chemistry and accountability.

"Before I could even say that I had a concern about it, the guys said it won't be a problem. To me, that shows a mature team," Fitz said.

Noting that weekends together builds relationships, Fitzgerald refuses to let his players shy away from embracing the youth and fun that all too often gets muddied in the business of college football.

"Chemistry is formed by working hard, going out of the dorm rooms and out of the apartments, spending time together and just being knucklehead college guys."

It's a refreshing attitude, one that makes Wildcat fans all the more excited for football season.

Dizzy bats and dancing in practice is one thing, but to have fun on the field is something entirely different. Not unlike the Florida Gulf Coast phenomenon that pervaded March Madness, Northwestern's mix of confidence and speedy talent makes it an enticing product that could stay loose enough to turn a few heads this fall.

There's still over four months before the Cats kick off their season in Berkeley, and the team certainly isn't at its final destination.

The jury's still out on Northwestern's O-line depth chart, its replacement for David Nwabuisi at weak-side linebacker and its long pass defense. But if the Wildcats stay as loose and as productive as they were in spring practice, things are certainly moving in the right direction.

Training camp begins in June. There's certainly time to work hard in between then, but as the spring session has shown, there's nothing wrong with being knucklehead college guys at the same time.


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