Paul Jorgensen, Geoff Mogus, Brandon Vitabile, Matt Frazier and Eric Olson occupy the five "No. 1" roles during spring ball. But the message remains. Any one of these players could lose his job, especially after last season's nightmare.
This gives hope to former four-star recruit Adam DePietro. The redshirt freshman plays behind Frazier, the right guard, with the second unit. Though DePietro started a game last year—and could benefit from changes—he's not getting complacent.
"I'm not that pleased with how I'm playing right now," DePietro told PurpleWildcats.com last Thursday. "Coach Cushing's been talking a lot about ‘earned and deserved.' Right now, I haven't earned the spot, so I don't deserve it.
"Matt Frazier's outplaying me right now. He deserves it. It's as simple as that."
Fitzgerald often says that every spot is open during spring. In some cases, it's bunk. Traveon Henry and Ibraheim Campbell will start at safety. Trevor Siemian will play quarterback, which even Fitz admits. Et cetera.
For the O-line, he's right. DePietro said that aside from standout Vitabile, Mogus has "been playing awesome" while Jorgensen was strong in his first year. With added experience, those three could excel.
After an excellent 2012, though, the group regressed. The line failed to protect Kain Colter and particularly Trevor Siemian on a regular basis. They know something needs to change.
"We talk about what went wrong last season as an O-line," DePietro said. "A lot of it had to do with physicality. We weren't hitting people. We weren't tough enough. That's been a big focus this spring."
Perhaps it serves as motivation. They believe Fitzgerald and Cushing when they promise open spots. If DePietro—and many others—impress during the spring, they could lift the O-line to better performances.
"Everyone's spot is on the line," DePietro said. "I'm able to push the guys in front of me. Right now, I'm a two. I want the one spot. I want to push those guys. And they push me, because they don't want me to take their spot."
It's getting complicated. Redshirt freshmen are getting their first taste of spring, and learning the system. Then there's Jack Konopka, who converted from superback and enjoyed a strong 2012. His production dipped last year, and he's now a two. This could act as motivation for the tackle, with his experience still a valuable asset.
That lack of playing time could be an obstacle for guys like DePietro, who have yet to take enough snaps with the "ones." The lone positive, perhaps, is that all five starters return.
"They've played in the Big Ten arena," DePietro said. "They know what it's like. They've all played next to each other. A lot of it is experience."
Still, spring amounts to hope, and Fitzgerald and Cushing are clear about one thing.
"If we can be better," DePietro says, "those guys will be replaced."