It may have seemed an odd way to open Big Ten Media Day. Nonetheless, Pat Fitzgerald kicked off Monday's slate of football pondering and prognosticating by talking about the state of the media, the economy and his shaky golf game.
But after some lighthearted banter, Fitz started talking football.
Fitz, who was the first coach to speak at the annual Media Day, started the day by looking back at last season:
To rewind, 2008 was a big step forward for our football program. To have nine wins for the fifth time in school history I believe speaks for itself, and the growth that we had as a program was an obvious big step forward. The exposure that we were able to receive last year for out football program and for our young men was probably at an all-time high.
To have the exposure we had on the Big Ten Network and have our games seen worldwide and nationally, it really helped us in recruiting and we're really seeing the fruits of that labor now this year in our recruiting class. I'm obviously not allowed to talk about that, but it's really helped us from a standpoint of getting Northwestern football out to the masses, and especially the recruits throughout the country.*
*A quick side note: Purple Reign wrote an article about the impact that the team's recent success has had on recruiting. In the story, Fitz and a few of this season's more highly-regarded recruits – four-star lineman Patrick Ward and three-star kicker Jeff Budzien – talked with PR about NU's recent success, and how it impacted their decision to become Wildcats.IMHO, the story is worth a read. But here are a few excerpts.
"Success breeds more success," Fitzgerald said. "If you can win during those 12 weeks, that's the obvious scorecard you have….There's no question that our success has gotten more guys into our recruiting pool than ever before.". . .
"Some other schools that I talked to or offered me a scholarship, you could tell they were on the downswing," said Budzien, who was also being recruited by Kansas State and Minnesota, among others. "But with Northwestern gradually improving their record, it looks promising that they'll continue that success. It's kind of exciting to enter a program on the upswing and where the sky's the limit on how successful we can be."
Next, Fitzgerald got into some nuts and bolts about this year's team.
We have a lot coming back as we look forward to 2009…On offense we lose our quarterback, our running back and three of the most prolific wide receivers in our program's history. But we've got a quarterback coming back who is on the Unitas Watch List and who set a single-game rushing record (for a quarterback) in Big Ten history with 217 yards in Mike Kafka.*
*Kafka was indeed dangerous in his limited action last season. In the two games in which Kafka got extended time, he ran for 300 yards on more than five yards per carry. Aside from his Big Ten-record (for a QB) 217 rushing yards against Minnesota, he also ran for 83 yards against OSU. Do you know how many other Big Ten teams had a player -- running back, quarterback, anyone -- rush for at least 80 yards against OSU? Zero. In addition, Kafka completed a hair under 70 percent of his passes.
Still, though, Kafka's two games in 2008 is a pretty small sample size. And his career prior to that was rather underwhelming. During his freshman season, when he played a lot through the first four games, Kafka was 51-of-88 passing – 57.9 percent – and tossed five interceptions to just one TD. Of course, that was on the 2006 squad, and that was when Kafka was a freshman. So basically he has shown he can run – he had 275 yards rushing in those four freshman games to go with last season's outburst – but he has had minimal experience and success passing.
Despite any question marks on offense – and there are question marks with Tyrell Sutton leaving as well – Fitzgerald (and most Wildcat fans) are far more confident in the defense.
Let's see what Fitz had to say about the D...
Defensively, we do return eight starters, including our entire secondary, which last year really afforded us to take a big step forward on defense with the leadership of Mike Hankwitz we improved tremendously in a number of different areas statistically. And I'm excited to have 100 percent healthy Corey Wootton back, an All-American candidate up front on the defensive line.*
*Having a 100 percent healthy Corey Wootton should make an already stout defense even better. Last season, Wootton had 10 sacks – fourth in the conference – and 16 tackles for loss – sixth in the conference.
Overall, the Wildcats were fifth in the Big Ten in total defense, giving up just 340 yards per outing. Northwestern had the fourth-best scoring defense in the Big Ten at 20.2 points per game allowed, and the fourth-best rush defense with an average of just 126.4 yards.
Fitz touched on the offense first, but it's the defense that will likely have to at times carry this team at times.
Fitz strayed from the field and talked about the classroom as well.
Academically, 2008 was the best year that we've ever had. (We had three quarters of our players) receive above a 3.0 PGA. And for the first time in the spring quarter, we have a team GPA above a 3.0. You couple that with our academic reputation, it just proves that you can recruit world-class student-athletes, win nine football games, win five games in the Big Ten, and still be about the right things academically…*
*This is something that Purple Reign mentioned the other day by posting this press release from the NU Athletic Department. Aside from the raw numbers, though, I thought it'd be worth rehashing some of the things that recruits had to say about NU and its academic reputation, just to give some life to what Fitz was saying.
From Collin Ellis, NU's first recruiting commit this summer:
"The academics are something I felt like I could not pass up. Nobody in my family has had the chance to go to a big-time school for academics."From Brandon Vitabile, the Cats' most recent commit:
"The education is unrivaled anywhere in Division I sports."
From Trevor Siemian, a quarterback from Florida who was another of NU's early commits:
"The education kind of speaks for itself."
From Siemian's coach, Bob Head:
"He could got o a lot of schools that may have a better football program. But he wants that academic environment, the prestigious academics. He wants guys in the locker room who have just as much character as he has."Ironically, Michael Palardy, who passed over Northwestern to attend Tennessee, may have lauded Northwestern's academics the most:
"I mean, for the most part a lot of kids make decisions based on just football, and just athletics. For me, personally, academics is first out of everything; academics is my main priority. If I don't make it to the next level, the NFL, what is the school that's going to help me get that job after college? Where am I going to get the best education? Academics is huge.
You can take any football team and build them to be national champions. You can go get recruits and build teams to win titles. But you can't just build an academic reputation of Stanford and Duke and Northwestern. You can't find that everywhere. (Northwestern is) one of the standouts academically. So it's a tough decision, and I'm definitely going to just think about everything and see what's the best fit for me.Purple Reign will continue to look at what's going on during the Media Day, so check back in for more coverage.