Northwestern finally owning right mentality

Pat Fitzgerald entered the spring with the right mindset. We're done with the flair, and in with a Northwestern team acting quickly to improve.

We can't release practice details. Not when they leak playbook wrinkles.

We can release our own practice reactions. Examples:

"Oh. That's good."

"Finally."

"That works well there."

Because all the while, two practices in, I've been thinking: This team is unrecognizable.

I've seen less dancing, no "5:03" shirts, and a quiet focus befitting a team that finished 5-7 last year.

I've seen two sharp practices—you can tell when they're sharp—that speak to the team's early maturity.

I've seen, to name a few: frequent and usable trick plays, Eric Olson to right tackle, Jimmy Hall to linebacker, and Zack Oliver doing his best Mike Kafka imitation.

And finally, I've heard Pat Fitzgerald speak about this team exactly the way he should. They need to prove something. He wisely named Trevor Siemian his starting quarterback. Otherwise, he made the point that all spots are open, adding: "I don't see 22 returning All-Big Ten players."

This is when Fitzgerald should thrive. Everyone knows the 5-7 season required some bad luck. There was the field goal against Michigan, the Hail Mary against Nebraska, and one bobbled snap on GameDay.

With new, lower expectations and so much to prove, Fitzgerald is pulling out every option. On offense, Mick McCall looks like he's trying to win awards with schemes that already look more refined than last year's. On defense, Fitzgerald implemented a change that seems so un-Fitz. It was jarring. Rather than slide someone into the middle linebacker role, and keep the status quo, he made a decidedly bold move to insert Jimmy Hall at outside linebacker and work Collin Ellis inside. Does that sound minor now? When NU games are decided by two or three seconds, these early moves are crucial.

The offensive line was dismal last season. If this team wants to be awful again, it can leave Trevor Siemian to the mercy of Big Ten blitzes. So they're not getting anything. No vote of confidence. No hopes of rebounding. Fitz, once the ideal "benefit of the doubt" and loyalty-driven head coach, is making them more accountable than ever. He won't even name Brandon Vitabile a starter. Think it's coach speak? Well, Eric Olson is (somehow) playing right tackle ahead of Jack Konopka, and I wouldn't even be surprised if Adam DePietro took reps from Matt Frazier at some point. Competition, here, finally means competition.

There are the other things I can't even believe. I'll first say unironically that the secondary could be the deepest and best position group for NU. I'm also reverting to the old-fashioned "hating on the two quarterback system" role, and suggesting that McCall will operate better developing Siemian—and Siemian alone. For all of the McCall criticism, he's one of the best in the business at helping quarterbacks mature.

Yes, it's two practices. Yes, this team is so much different. But can you qualify attitude? My one takeaway from two-plus years covering Northwestern sports is that the program begins to develop expectations of mediocrity. They talk, and talk, but never truly make the defining leap.

So perhaps Fitzgerald and his team stepped back last year—turning 10 wins into five—but at least he can admit it. He, early on, cut out the hollow promises and ushered in a new mentality. Last year wasn't good enough, and before saying it, he acted on it.

He's not complaining about injuries, or saying that the return of guys like Venric Mark will fix everything. He doesn't have to address past struggles or qualify them. He's done with the motivational t-shirts reminding players how good they can be.

Spring is so important for Northwestern. As in, if you don't pay attention to spring ball, you're not a diehard Northwestern fan. (Sorry, everyone.) The primary reason is that Fitzgerald redshirts almost every true freshman, with the depth chart pretty clear before they arrive. The next is that they're looking to, as Chi Chi Ariguzo told us Thursday, "get back to basics." It's cliché most of the time. Here, it's just a reminder of how difficult the 2013 season was. With every rep and every shift, they're getting further away from it.

It's never too late to change things up, and Pat Fitzgerald might be proof. With this spring comes a new mindset. With the new mindset comes a belief that Northwestern can turn it around.


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