COACH FITZGERALD: I appreciate it. It's great to be back here. Not a long trip for me. And I appreciate Bret's (Bielema's) ice breaker. I'm pretty good with the media. So I'm not going to kill you with kindness; I'm just going to give you the facts and we'll go from there.
It seems like yesterday and based on the last play seems like forever we've been at a football game. The experience down at the Outback Bowl against Auburn was one that was great motivation for our young men in the off-season. And as Julie alluded to with the number of starters we have coming back, we're excited about 2010. We have 17 wins over the last two years.And that foundation of success, I think, has provided us with motivation to take the next step. And what is that next step? First and foremost it's going to be to go to a bowl game for three straight years, something that never happened in our program before. It all happens because we believe we've got great players.
And on offense it's another year at Northwestern, so that means another new quarterback and another new face, and it's Dan Persa's opportunity to take over the leadership of our offense and to take over the leadership of our football team. And if he follows in the footsteps of C.J. Bachér and Mike Kafka -- that's why I'm sleeping pretty well at night.We've got a lot of guys up front. We think we can play eight or nine young men up front that started football games for us. We've got four or five of our top rushers and eight of our top ten receivers back, so we've got a lot of skill back on offense.
Defensively we returned six starters. Again, we did go nine deep up front on the D-line. Our linebacking corps may be the deepest unit on our team. You'll get a chance to visit with Nate Williams and Quentin Davie as we move forward. Quentin is here at the kick-off weekend. And we've got six guys that have started football games in the secondary.So when you look at it, 15, 16 returning starters, along with 15 other players that have started football games, we're a little over 30 players that have been in a starting role coming back. That might be the most experience and the most depth that we've had in the kicking game.
Stefan Demos is back. He's going to handle kick-offs and our placements to start the year, and I'm hoping Brandon Williams will be our starter as punter, and then John Henry Pace is back as our long snapper.
As I alluded to originally, the experience we had at the Outback Bowl coming back off of that game, really our players have done a tremendous job taking over ownership. And it's been a great motivation for the off-season.They've been focused, with this being a little later this year, having the kick-off. We're going to be practicing this time next week. Looking forward to getting back with them.
Academically we had a tremendous year last year. 2009 may go down as our best year academically. We have a quarter system at NU. We had 171 players above a 3.0, and a team GPA in the winter quarter above a 3.0 for the second time in school history. So our team GPA is just below a 3.0. Had 29 First-Team Academic All-Big Ten performers last year, and two Academic All-Americans.We're having the success in keeping the academic integrity, which we should. And our guys accomplished 1,158 hours socially giving back to the Northwestern, Evanston, and Chicagoland community.
So 2010, a lot to be excited for. More importantly, a lot of work to do. And we're going to get that started right away when our guys report next Monday -- or Saturday and Sunday, and then we get it going Monday morning.
With that, how about questions.
Q. Coach, talk about the idea of playing Illinois at Wrigley Field later this season.
COACH FITZGERALD: It's going to be a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for our young men to go down there. There hasn't been a college football game there since the '30s, and there's not been a football game at Wrigley Field, if you include the Bears, since the '70s.So this could be a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. Obviously the support we've gotten from our leadership to start a major marketing campaign, we got a great home schedule at Ryan Field, and the crowning jewel will be that game at Wrigley Field for our fans and our students. And especially for our student-athletes.
It's going to be pretty neat to run out where Gale Sayers and Dick Butkus and George Halas were on that field. That's going to be really special.Q. You're obviously the youngest coach in the conference. Kind of old school in terms of the ideas related to expansion and title game, all that stuff. Have you come around somewhat in the last few months, or are you still where you were before?
COACH FITZGERALD: Yeah, from my standpoint whatever is better for the conference is better for Northwestern. And I trust in the leadership in Commissioner (Jim) Delany and directors of athletics and presidents from the direction of where our conference is going.I'm excited. I said -- I think initially my quote was as long as we expand like we did with the Beast from the East in Penn State, I'll be excited. More so as a fan and as a former player in the Big Ten. And Commissioner Delany was able to do that with Nebraska.
So it's going to be exciting. Change is in the air. And who knows where that's going to go. But I trust in the leadership, and look forward to seeing where things are going to go in the future.Q. Three in a row at Kinnick Stadium. I think four out of five against the Hawkeyes. Given how strong that program has been lately, what's been the key for you guys beating them consistently?
COACH FITZGERALD: An oblong football that bounces a lot of different ways. We've been very fortunate. I can't put my finger on why we've had a little bit of a good run.But at the end of the day I think we've played pretty well. We've executed. We've won the turnover battle, I think, if you look back over those games.
That's typically an indicator of success in the field, and we've just been very fortunate. I think there's two programs in Northwestern and Iowa that have a lot of respect for each other, and I think they've just been really hard-fought games and a lot of fun to be on both sides of the sidelines. We just have been fortunate to be on the winning edge.
Q. Correct me if I'm wrong, but I think the last couple of years when you've come here you've talked about a clear-cut starting No. 1 quarterback. Even though you've lost a guy and had a replace, replace, now you've had another clear-cut, how much does it help your program knowing here we are a month before the season knowing who that guy's going to be?COACH FITZGERALD: As Bret alluded to earlier with a quarterback coming back, Dan's played a lot of football for us. He started last year against Iowa and Iowa City, came in second half against Penn State, but he had also played the year before in the kicking game.
It helps you sleep a little bit better at night. But, more importantly, Mick McCall and our offensive staff do a great job developing our quarterbacks. And they're doing a great job developing the next guys in Evan Watkins and our two freshmen that will be on campus starting on Saturday.We think we have a good plan on developing quarterbacks. I believe our system is quarterback friendly. It's amazing, when you come out of the Outback Bowl, I get a bunch of calls from quarterbacks nationally. So you throw the ball 79 times. Cool. Okay. So obviously it's pretty quarterback friendly from the standpoint of development, too.
Q. Where would you like to see the running game after camp, and where is that group right now?COACH FITZGERALD: Well, as I alluded to earlier, the amount of production that we have coming back, first I'd like to see one of our tailbacks potentially take over the role. I remember back when I played against Michigan, and it just seemed like every town there was a different back, and they just kept hitting and hitting and hitting you. And obviously there was also some guys like (Tshimanga) Biakabutuka that were back there that took over the lion's share of the role. I'd like to see that evolve.
I'd like to see our offensive line stay healthy in camp and come together a little better than a we did a year ago.We have good balance, when you look at the stats. We just have to be more efficient. And if you want to win the championship in this league, you have got to be able to run the football efficiently. We define that by four or more on first down, half or more on second down, pick it up on third and fourth, and score on the goal line. It's not a complicated equation, but we definitely need to be better there. And we put a strong focus in that in the spring, and we'll go right back there to start a camp.
Q. It's been eight months. How many times have you watched that last play? And looking back on it, is it significant or was it just one more play in a long season?COACH FITZGERALD: Well, significant because it was the last play. It would have been very significant if we executed and I would have coached it better. So we would have gotten it done.
But that was about one of about 55 plays that we came back -- we flew back after the game, and a couple days later I had to get on a flight out to LA to go out recruiting. I had not watched the game until I got on the plane. The minute I got off the plane the game was over for me from an emotional standpoint.And, you know, it was a great infomercial for us. Four and a half hours of our guys competing their tail off. We faced a ton of adversity. Mike Kafka arguably played the best game in our quarterbacking history at Northwestern, and then there's a few throws you'd like to have back. But there was a neat interview with him and Chris Martin after the game in the tunnel how Mike alluded to kind of the hallmark of our program, and that's what's important now. And Mike looked at it and said, hey, there were some throws I'd like to have back, but I had a blast. And I just kept on battling and fighting through adversity. To hear that from our outgoing quarterback, I think our young men believe in what we're trying to accomplish as a program.
And we'll get there. But it's been a great source of motivation, I promise you that, because that was one play of about 50 that if it would have gone to the left instead of right or the right instead of left, we'd be bowl champions.So a lot of games between now and then.
Q. Your teams are fun to watch. You've been very successful. What's the ceiling on attendance and what do you do to improve that at home?COACH FITZGERALD: We need to keep winning, number one. The direction that Morton Schapiro, our president, and our board of trustees and Jim Phillips have gone now with adding Mike Polisky as our associate AD in charge of external affairs, giving him a budget to be able to market here in Chicago, and to continue to do the things we can control on the field. That's obviously the 12 Saturdays of winning football games.
But I think our fan base is more impressed by the culture and the quality of young people that we have within our program, the success academically, how unselfish our guys are in the community.I just believe a byproduct of that is success on the field. You get the right culture and chemistry and develop the right kind of attitude and learn how to be successful on adversity.
We'll keep building. Our goal is to take the next step. Go to our third bowl game, things of that nature. The only way you do that is take it, the old coachism, one day at a time. But, literally, you've got to go to work and improve every day and just stay humble in the way you approach it. And our guys will. They will.
Q. If you could appraise Persa as specifically as possible, what do you think he does well and what does he need to work on.COACH FITZGERALD: Pound for pound, he's our best conditioned athlete. He was named our Iron Cat, which is our top point getter in the off-season from strength, speed, and conditioning standpoint. I'm pretty confident he'll win that again. He kind of won that going away last year.
He's a tremendous leader off the field. He first and foremost starts by leading by example. He's the first to show and last to go. That's the way you want your quarterback described. But he has an uncanny ability to have others around him want to be associated with him. So everybody raises up to his level. He's had two really good, I guess, mentors, so to speak, in teammates to watch in C.J. and Mike. And now it's his turn.
And he's chomping at the bit. On the field he can do everything we asked our quarterbacks to do. Number one, he understands the tempos that we want to play at and he understands schematically what we want to do. And I think the best hallmark of a quarterback is he gets on the field, he makes the other ten guys that much better. I believe that's Danny Persa.
You'll get a chance to visit with him as we go through the next couple of days. You'll see the look in his eye and intensity in his eye, and I'm fired to jump in this season with him.
THE MODERATOR: Thank you, Coach.FastScripts by ASAP Sports