For Pat Fitzgerald, Northwestern spring practice marks a sort of celebration.
After the 10-win season, he believes that this offseason is when his team can take that proverbial “next step.” It’s exhilarating.
“The culture is in place. The program is in place. We just continue to try to raise the bar,” he said.
This begins with those teachable moments. No opponents loom in the coming weeks. The season begins in just less than six months. Fitzgerald and the coaching staff are given ample time to focus on making necessary improvements.
With all of the questions surrounding the decision to begin spring practice on Feb. 27, Fitzgerald gave a concise summary of his reasoning
“We moved practice up to maximize every stinking day the NCAA gives us to teach,” he said.
This process begins on what Fitzgerald called the “macro” level. Rather than worrying about the smaller errors, he focuses on the big-picture situation.
At the beginning of practice, it’s not about the missed passes or missed tackles. It’s about returning to the flow and pace of the game. They shore up the larger problems before fixing the smaller ones.
Fitzgerald said that he talked to the team on Thursday about momentum. It seemed applicable given the nature of last season. In every win, they gained emotional energy and “choked the other team out,” as Fitzgerald put it. In losses, they let it slip away.
“Did you feel the momentum? Could you sense it?” Fitzgerald said he asked his players. “This is what we have to do in that situation.”
Meanwhile, there is a strong emphasis on individual units. As collective groups, they want to stand out in those “macro-level” situations. Center Brandon Vitabile – now a veteran on the offensive line – experienced the pressure last season.
The group was forced to replace Ben Burkett and Al Netter, but did so admirably. The offensive line loses three more starters, and Vitabile knows that group performances can outweigh those of each individual.
“We’re embracing the challenge,” he said. “There was a big emphasis on the offensive line having to step up. As the offense goes, we go, and there was a rally behind that. We’re doing our best every day, trying to get better.”
Kain Colter echoed that sentiment. Rather than engaging in discussion on his quarterback competition with Trevor Siemian, he talked about the focus on improving the overall offense.
Despite returning most of its key players, the NU roster is still young. These are some of the players who can improve the most in spring drills.
“With the amount of guys that we have, that’s the best part of spring,” Fitzgerald said. “You can take your time to teach them."
Only after the big picture falls into place can the Wildcats cement the little things. They move to the film room and watch communication breakdowns.
It takes a process for a team to improve. And considering recent results, Fitzgerald is among the best in the country at helping his team reach its potential.
This is the time when he figures out how to address that.
“For the older guys, I know a lot,” Fitzgerald said. “You look at those young guys up front, and some of those young linebackers… I’m getting my first snapshot of expectations.”