Pat Fitzgerald proved his acumen with the media on Monday at the Big Ten Media Day in Chicago.Fitz quipped about his shoddy golf game. He said his lone indulgence post-contract extension was some wiffle ball gear for his boys. He even lauded the media for making college football what it is, wishing the industry the best of luck despite a sour economy.
A tough act to follow for the Northwestern players who were yet to address the media.
But defensive lineman Corey Wootton and quarterback Mike Kafka – who addressed the media alongside safety Brad Phillips – at least held their own. In the process, Wootton dealt with questions about the health of his surgically-repaired knee, and Kafka faced questions about the effectiveness of his arm.Not surprisingly, both of these topics have come up on the Ryan Field Message Board, so Wildcat fans may be interested to see how Wootton and Kafka – probably the most important players on their respective sides of the ball – responded to the questions.
It makes sense, of course, that Wootton's knee and Kafka's arm are among the biggest question marks heading into this season. Wootton, after all, was fourth in the Big Ten in sacks in 2008 with 10, and his 16 tackles for loss were sixth-best in the conference. But the stalwart tore his ACL in the waning minutes of last season's overtime bowl loss to Missouri, a game in which he was his typically dominant self: Three tackles, a sack and even an interception.Thus, the health of Wootton – who has received many preseason accolades, including a spot on Playboy's preseason All-America Team – is paramount to a good season by NU's defense.
And then there's Kafka, who despite being a senior is something of an enigma. Yes, he set the Big Ten record for rushing yards by a quarterback last season against Minnesota with 217. And he was the only player in the Big Ten last season to rush for at least 80 yards against Ohio State. And he completed about 70 percent of his passes in 2008 in his limited playing time.Nonetheless, Kafka's ability to lead the NU offense has been under suspicion. Look at the message boards for evidence that people are a little weary about the senior. Not his athleticism, but his ability to guide an offense – and complete passes consistently – for an entire season.
So, each player had some answering to do at the Big Ten Media Orgy, er, Media Day. And each did their best to allay any concerns that they would be ready for the 2009 season.First, Wootton's knee.
"The knee feels great," Wootton said. "I'm doing everything in my workouts, in summer conditioning. I'm doing agility drills, speed drills, change of direction, jumping, everything. I feel close to 100 percent and I'm just looking forward to getting back on the field…."My personal expectation is to prove to everyone that I can become not the same player, but an even better player after this knee surgery. That's a goal of mine I've been pushing myself through rehab just trying to become a better player."
Fitz, too, was on record saying he is confident in Wootton's knee, which was operated upon on Jan. 15."I'm excited to have 100 percent healthy Corey Wootton back, and All-American candidate up front on the defensive line….
"I fully anticipate Corey will be a full-go in camp. Will he participate in every practice? Probably not. Typically what we've done with guys off of injuries, we'll limit them. They won't go back-to-back day of having three practices, so you go two-a-day, one-a-day. We'll probably have him go two out of three practices at least to start. He's been running with out trainers all summer long, really since the end of spring practice. I fully anticipate him being 100 percent for the opener."That opener is a Sept. 5 home game against Towson.
Then there is the issue of Kafka, who – as early as June – had people on the boards calling for his backup, Dan Persa, to be considered for playing time. The stance of Purple Reign was that the chatter was a bit premature. And judging from Kafka's answers, he has no plans on giving up his starting spot."I don't listen to (people who doubt my arm)," Kafka said. "I don't really concern myself with it. I'm confident in my ability, and I know my teammates are confident in my abilities. We're going to need to throw the ball to be successful, and we're going to need to run the ball to be successful too. I know coach (Mick) McCall put together a good plan to help us expose whatever defense we play….
"(Our defense) is good, but we still got to put up points to help them out. They're not going to be able to shut every team out. We know that and I understand that. I wouldn't ask them to…. It's obviously good to have that in your back pocket and understand that we've got a defense that's got our back, but I hope the defense knows that we've got their back too."Just as he trusts his arm, Kafka also said that he is excited about this year's troop of receivers.
"Everyone thinks there will be a drop, but I'm just as confident. These are the guys that I've been throwing with the last two or three years. I think we could have an even better chemistry than they had last year just because these are the guys I've been working with."As was the case with Wootton, Fitzgerald chimed in with a vote of confidence for his player.
"Well, his strengths are that he's got tremendous athleticism, he's got a big-time arm, great accuracy. He's really developed into a tremendous leader. You look at the stats last year, he completed about 69 percent of his throws, and I think he had about a 131 passing rating. So he throws it better that I think any of us in this room want to give him credit for."He had a great spring. I thought he improved each week. He's done a tremendous job leading our football team. I'm excited about it. I think what's interesting for us is a year ago C.J.'s strengths were maybe a little bit different than Mike's, and now Mike's strengths are very similar to Dan Persa's strengths. So we've got a lot of similarity in our first two quarterbacks.
"Will we open it up somewhat? Yeah, we'll put our players in the best formations and run the best plays, but it's all player-driven. And that's what's so much fun about the being spread. We'll make sure we play to Mike and Dan's strengths."For audio from Wootton, Kafka and Phillips, click here.