Northwestern shakes up offseason competition

Posted by ESPN.com's Adam Rittenberg

Expect a full Q&A with Northwestern coach Pat Fitzgerald on Monday, but I wanted to highlight a new feature of the team's offseason program.

When the squad reconvened in February following a disappointing 6-6 season, Fitzgerald had players split into 10 mini teams and kicked off a competition that would last until Aug. 4, the first day of preseason camp. The teams went through daily competitions in the weight room, winter conditioning and spring football practice as well as in academics, community service and other arenas. Points were accumulated and reported throughout the winter, spring and summer. The winning team will be excused from the vomit-inducing conditioning test Northwestern runs every year on the first day of camp.

"We wanted to create an environment of ownership, where our players took over ownership, completely, of the team," Fitzgerald said. "We're getting there. We're not there yet, to where players are working through their teams, not the coaching staffs, to set the goals for the year. I'm proud of where we're at right now."

The Wildcats voted on 10 leaders for the mini teams and held a draft before the competition. The leadership squad consisted of senior quarterback C.J. Bacher, senior wide receiver Eric Peterman, senior linebacker Prince Kwateng, senior guard Keegan Kennedy, junior safety Brad Phillips, redshirt freshman linebacker Bryce McNaul, junior cornerback Sherrick McManis, junior tight end Brendan Mitchell, freshman quarterback Dan Persa and senior defensive end Kevin Mims.

Fitzgerald allowed the leaders to draft who they wanted, but he wanted each team to include a cross-section of ages and positions. Bacher's team, for example, has a running back, a wide receiver, two offensive linemen, two linebackers and a defensive tackle.

"I wanted guys like C.J. to know more than just the quarterbacks, or more than just the guys on offense," Fitzgerald said. "That was the byproduct we were hoping to accomplish, and we did. The guys drafted that way."

As of Thursday afternoon, the Victorious Secret team led by Peterman, who is involved in every community service project known to man, held a sizable lead. But Bacher's squad might make a late run -- so that they don't run Aug. 4.

A lot of teams do similar things in the offseason, but this kind of competition speaks to Fitzgerald's personality as a coach, something he hasn't always put forth in his tenure. The 33-year-old is still finding his voice as a head coach, and this is a positive step.