Big Ten spring football in February? You had better believe it. Northwestern will be the first Big Ten squad to hit the practice field this spring, holding the first of 15 workouts Wednesday in Evanston. It's the first time in recent memory that a Big Ten team has started spring ball in February. Northwestern is still riding high following a 10-3 season that culminated with a Gator Bowl win -- its first postseason victory since the 1949 Rose Bowl -- and a No. 17 ranking in the final AP Poll.
The next obvious step is a run for a Big Ten title, and Northwestern returns most of its core pieces from the 2012 team. Several likely starters are out for the spring, but there's plenty of work to do before the spring game on April 13.
ESPN.com caught up with Wildcats head coach Pat Fitzgerald to discuss spring ball.
Why are you starting spring practice so early this season?
Pat Fitzgerald: Number one, our academic calendar allows us to split spring practice up into two segments. A year ago, we did six practices prior to finals and spring break and nine practices after. We really felt after doing some quality-control work on it, that moving nine practices prior to finals and spring break had the potential to be more beneficial to all of our young men. From a lifting standpoint, a preparation standpoint for next fall, it gives them an extended summer phase of workouts. Number two, if a young man were to get injured in spring ball, with the bulk of [the practices] being in winter quarter, there's a higher likelihood they'll be cleared and ready to go for summer workouts. The last aspect of it is I wanted to get us back to playing football earlier. I really felt we've got positive momentum going. And obviously there's a benefit to our coaching staff, who can get out on the road recruiting a little bit earlier.
There are a lot of good vibes still there from the bowl win and the season. Is that something you can carry over, or do you tell the guys it's a new season, forget about it?
PF: You always learn from the past but look forward. We're very proud of what we accomplished, but this is a new team and a new dynamic. The new chemistry is being formed through our 'Winning Edge' workouts, and we're going to roll right into spring practice and hopefully be able to carry over that momentum. We ran our typical gauntlet of conditioning after our first workout, and our guys just absolutely crushed it. I walked into the staff room afterward and said, 'This is as focused and as disciplined a group as we've had.' Now it's our job to put them in the right position as a coaching staff to continue to develop that chemistry and mental toughness.
Like everybody in the country, you're back to being 0-0, and we're in this young stage of our team. I want to get an exposure to find out who we are and what can we do well with a lot of the younger guys we worked with a lot in bowl practice.
What is the next step when you have so many core guys back from a 10-win team?
PF: The next step is you start back over. The way we look at it is this is a completely new team. The pieces that are no longer part of our program are always going to be significant losses. We've got to find young men who are going to fill those roles and do it the way they're capable of. What does that mean? What are their strengths? What we've done in the past is spend a lot of time studying things and looking at cutups and going over all kinds of things as coaches, and then going through spring practice and saying, 'Well, Joe or Demetrius, that's not his strength. We're not going to want to do that in the fall.'
We're now doing a lot of our research on what we want to do schematically and technically and fundamentally, what we want to do from a Football 101 standpoint, and get that taught here in the first couple weeks. Then we want to take the last two weeks of spring ball and say, 'Alright, this is what we do well. Let's go work on that.' We're tying to get more information from our guys, especially what we do well with this group. And we're not going to have it all answered because a lot of our guys coming back aren't participating in spring ball.
PF: The ability for those guys to evolve with big-picture things will probably be more in the fall than right now in spring. We'll do some things conceptually that will build upon what we did a year ago, but it will also be a little bit limited based on our depth and who is practicing on offense. We're only going to be able to go as far as we can get the Football 101 accomplished. That's the bigger-picture goal this spring, to develop our young players, similar to what we did a year ago, which helped us have great success. We take the car apart and start to build it all over again with the new pieces.
How comfortable are you with Kain and Trevor and the way they played last year? A lot of coaches would rather play one guy.
PF: I believe we have two quarterbacks who can lead us to a Big Ten championship based on what I've seen them do. I think both young men are as good as anybody in the country. There's very good quarterback play in this conference, and those guys are very competitive. They both have a terrific skill set, a terrific attitude. They're outstanding leaders. They're both unselfish. Both have the capability to make plays in the moment to their strengths to lead us to a championship.
You lose some pieces along the offensive line. Who are you looking to there to step up?
PF: The whole group stands out to me. They're doing a terrific job. Al Johnson and Jay Hooten, our top two sports-performance guys, have done an outstanding job with that group. I'm excited to watch that group learn and grow and fail [laughs] and walk out of here 15 practices from now like we did a year ago, when we had the same questions. I'm expecting that entire group to step up and compete their tails off, and while I hope to have some answers at the end of spring practice, we will have answers by the time we get on the plane to go to [Cal for the season opener]. This is the second phase for a lot of those guys. The first phase was bowl prep, and the third phase will be [preseason camp]. I'll know a lot more about that group by the end of spring.
You were excited about the depth at receiver last year, and I know the offense became more run-driven because of Venric Mark. How do you feel about the wideouts entering this spring?
PF: The depth that comes back, again I feel really great about it. A major part of the success of us being able to run the ball a year ago was the unselfishness of the wide receiving corps. They were very physical, they were willing to do the dirty work. It wasn't about their individual stats. It was all about the team. The leadership within that room is outstanding. Guys like Rashad [Lawrence] and Tony [Jones] and C.J. [Christian Jones] that have played a lot of football are coming back, and that's very exciting. And I think the other pieces of the group are dynamic. I look forward to watching the competition unfold in spring.
What are you looking for from the defensive line?
PF: Kind of like the offensive line, we have to work through some depth issues in the spring, but for the fall I feel confident that we'll be able to have a very similar rotation to a year ago. That was why we made such great improvement on defense. We were able to hold the point of attack in the run game better than we had in the past. We were able to get a better pass rush. That was all because of fundamental improvement, better communication and chemistry, better execution and a rotation to keep that group fresh.
You've tried to upgrade speed through recruiting in recent years. How do you feel about that element on both sides of the ball?
PF: At this point, what I've been able to evaluate through our Winning Edge workouts, this is the fastest team that we'll put on the field since I've been the head coach. It allows us to have great competition. We've got depth and guys that can run across the board. How much will we be able to get accomplished during the spring? We'll see. We'll go into spring with some depth issues because of graduating 25 guys and not having our freshmen here and the guys that are injured, but we'll tweak our practices accordingly and adjust our plan a little bit. But the competition we'll be able to have in the spring will allow us hopefully to continue to get better.
Am I right in thinking the spring will resemble bowl practices a little more than usual, with so many young guys getting a lot of work?
PF: I don't know. As I look at depth at certain positions, that might be the case because we've got some guys out due to injury. But philosophically, you can really develop things in the spring with the whole team. There's a lot of individual working parts, and that's really the competitive nature of guys fighting to take the first step of earning a job and earning a role. Every job is open. There's a lot of guys coming back, but they've got to perform at the level they did in the past to be able to keep that job. Adding that speed, adding that depth, has allowed us to have competition, and that's how you continue to improve. And then you've got to evolve your process based on your returners and your strengths. The way we've tweaked our plan a little bit has helped us get that information.