Checking in with ... Pat Fitzgerald, Part II

Posted by ESPN.com's Adam Rittenberg

EVANSTON, Ill. -- Here's the second half of my interview with Northwestern coach Pat Fitzgerald.

Who are some of the young guys on defense you're excited about?

Pat Fitzgerald: Seventeen out of the 19 [freshmen] redshirted [last season], so they're a year older, a year hungrier. Vince [Browne] will be a young man you'll see play a lot of football for us. You'll see Ben Johnson play a lot on special teams initially, and then where does he go? Very gifted athlete at linebacker. I'm excited about [Bryce] McNaul. He was a little banged up his freshman year, but I'm excited to get him out there full time. Both [Jordan] Mabin and (Mike) Bolden at corner, and then [Brian] Peters and [David] Arnold at safety.

Where was your confidence level in the offensive line coming out of the spring?

PF: I felt great about the spring that Kurt Mattes had. He went through the whole year last year and every week was a growing experience. Going against Corey Wootton every day makes you a bit better, too. There was a great competition at guard with Joel Belding and Keegan Grant, and Keegan Kennedy is a third guy in the mix. Joel can also play center, so his flexibility helps. But I was really encouraged with Ben Burkett this spring. We've been fortunate to basically have two centers in eight years with Trevor [Rees] and Austin King. Am I ready to anoint Ben in that position? Not yet. But he's very athletic, he's got great functional strength, he understands our offense well. And then at left tackle, there's really good competition between Ramon Diaz and Al Netter, but Al won the job in spring, so Al's going to be the starter as we come into camp. Are we ready to be a fist yet? No. Those 20-something practice opportunities we're going to have in camp are going to be pretty critical.

When you hear about Big Ten running backs, you hear about Beanie [Wells], Javon [Ringer], P.J. Hill. Tyrell [Sutton] was a guy people talked about a couple years ago. Can he get back in the discussion?

PF: He couldn't control getting hurt. All he could control was how hard he worked and he got back faster than we anticipated. We had talked about a point of no return, maybe redshirting him last year, but we didn't get to that point and I'm proud of the way he fought to get back. It was in discussions with him and our doctors, where we were going to go, but he was adamant that he wanted to play, and I don't blame him. It's frustrating for him. He wanted to play badly. As I look at it, maybe the two bookends, the front end of his career where he had such a great start with 1,500 yards and we went to a bowl game, and now the back end of his career, I'd like to see a similar outcome.

The Big Ten has taken some hits nationally for Ohio State's performance in the title game and other teams not measuring up to the Buckeyes. When you look at the league, is there a huge a gap between Ohio State and everyone else, or is it closer than people think?

PF: Everyone's looking up at Ohio State, there's no question about that. All I know is they're the only team to play in back-to-back national championship games, so everyone was looking up at 'em. Not only us in our league, but everybody in the country. You want to win your last game. We didn't do our job last year to get that done, and they didn't, but at the end of the day, they were where everybody aspires to be, playing for a national championship.

I see you have a magazine on your desk with Rich Rodriguez on the cover. How will his arrival at Michigan impact the league?

PF: It will be a huge change for Michigan football. I've gotten to be around Rich a couple times and I'm very impressed with him as a person. I'm very impressed with his demeanor and his humility. A coach that who's been a head coach since a young age, has been very successful in his time as a head coach. The success that he had at West Virginia is incredible. To bring that mind-set and what they do to Michigan, it's going to be a great challenge for all of us. I'm not looking forward to competing against him. He's had great success. It's just going to take him a little bit of time, like it takes everybody when you go to a new university, to get all his pieces into place. But I'm sure he's got an acceleration plan to get that ready this fall.

Illinois surprised a lot of people last year. Is there any team under the radar that you're looking to for some surprises?

PF: If you look at Minnesota last year and you saw the games that they were in, our game as one of them, a lot of their games could have gone either way. Coach [Tim] Brewster has recruited well. He's a very passionate person. Outside of our team, I would think maybe the other team under the radar screen is going to be Minnesota.

Is Northwestern always going to be under the radar?

PF: I don't know. There's only four teams that have a winning record against us since 1995. Are we challenging for the championship right now? Not as we sit here today. We'll get that going in August. But we've been bowl-eligible now a number of times since '95. We're still in the infant stage of our tradition. We have a great tradition that dates back, but a big time period there where we didn't necessarily have success on the field. It's going to take us as much time as that period took, of success, to overcome that. I think we're right in the middle of that right now.

Is that just getting through the nonconference unscathed, winning a bowl game? Are those the things you need so people don't automatically think of the losing?

PF: You need to be successful on the field, you need to continue to have the integrity and what you stand for not change. I think we've had that now since '95, so we're only talking about 12, 13 years, and not every year being in a bowl game, and not every year having a winning record. So you've got to fill in those blanks. It may be a little bit longer time. Winning records, bowl games, bowl victories, putting that together consistently, will then erase some opinions.