Fitzgerald talks social networking, 2009 season

Posted by ESPN.com's Adam Rittenberg

EVANSTON, Ill. -- Pat Fitzgerald wants you to believe he's an old guy.

"I'm going gray at 34," the Northwestern head coach often says.

The pressure of overseeing a Big Ten program might be taking a toll on Fitzgerald's follicles, but he's about as Gen-X as they come. While the Big Ten's oldest coach jokes about "Tweedle-dee" -- his term for Twitter -- the league's youngest head man has embraced technology, including the popular social networking Web sites.

Fitzgerald is active on both Twitter and Facebook, and finds both tools useful in communicating with recruits and fans. He finds Twitter a less-effective method to reach recruits, but it's a good way to keep fans informed. Facebook has been much more valuable in recruiting.

"E-mail is already a dinosaur," Fitzgerald said Wednesday. "That's the snail of technology. [Facebook is] where the young men are communicating, so you're able to communicate with them there. Our coaches are computer savvy and know how to do it."

In keeping with the communication theme, Fitzgerald took some time Wednesday to talk with me about the upcoming season and his expectations for Northwestern.

What are your top goals for training camp?

Pat Fitzgerald: First off, to solidify and identify our starters going into the opener. We do have this competitive depth, we do have the experience coming back. But as we get closer to game week, we'll start to finalize our approach. We're installing at a feverish pace. We're throwing a lot at the guys. They're handling it very well through the first two days, so identify the starters and then clean up our execution as you go into Year 2 with [coordinators Mick McCall and Mike Hankwitz], clean up the concepts.

Were you not able to do as much of that last year since there were so many new things?

PF: There was so much teaching going on with Mike and Mick and myself, teaching and coaching, the expectations we want on this play or we want on that concept. It was never-ending. We never felt like we had our heads above water through camp last year. But our players did a great job in being diligent and studying the playbook. That's why we improved each week.

Does it feel any differently because of who you are and what you played here that this program is becoming more known for defense?

PF: I don't know. We're not trying to emphasize one [part]. We're trying to win. It's a little cyclical. We want to be the best in everything that we do, and a year ago, we were very successful as a team. We improved in all three phases as the season went along. We went 3-1 in November, the road wins. We went down to Duke and there was a hurricane. A bunch of guys were getting IVs during that game. We found a way to get that done. The wins at Minnesota, Iowa, Michigan, in as bad a weather as you're ever going to play in, those are some big wins.

For Corey [Wootton], he came here with such high expectations. What is the ceiling for him this year?

PF: Just to improve and get better. He's got a lot on his plate from the standpoint of rehab [from a torn ACL]. This summer and this spring, he was just an animal at that. And then, to control his thoughts and his attitude from the standpoint of staying positive because you're going to have those little hiccups as you move through the rehab. I go back to spring ball and I watched Corey coach the younger players. It really shows you how giving he is and what a team player he is. The only thing he needs to worry about is just getting better.

You mentioned that no one [publicly] knows the new guys on offense. Do you use that as motivation from them -- 'No one knows who you guys are' -- or do you avoid it?

PF: You don't really have to. You guys post on the Internet that they're ranked 11th out of 11. We don't really have to because they can read and access Web sites. That can be a distraction, so at the end of the day, we can't control what's said about us. You just go out and play. You go out and earn it.

It seems like Ohio State has been the one team in the Big Ten that's reloaded year after year. Is that the next step for this program?

PF: To be consistent? Without a doubt. And we've been fortunate that we've been able to redshirt quite a few guys. [Running back] Stephen Simmons played a lot of ball, and Jeravin Matthews last year played a lot of snaps. They're not coming in cold, so it's encouraging.

With the running backs, how much variety do you have?

PF: They're similar, but there's a little bit of variety in their strengths. They all understand our offense very well. They're all a perfect fit for what we do in the gun-spread. They catch it well, and they're very unselfish. It's just so competitive. You couldn't ask for anything better as a coach. You put the ball out there and let the competition begin.

Every coach says there's good competition every year. What does better competition look like versus not-so-good competition?

PF: It's a fine line. So you've got an All-America candidate at tailback, but you really have nobody pushing him. So is he really intrinsically motivated to get better, or do you as a coach have to put all these things on his shoulders? Or you have the area where we're at, where you might not have a marquee name, but now you've got five, six, seven, eight guys going at it to try to get on the field. I can't see anything but positives out of that. And then you have somewhere in the middle, where you feel like you've got a couple of guys, but you're not sure who it's going to be because no one's emerged to step up and take the job over. We're somewhere in between that middle and identifying who the two or three guys will be to shoulder the load.

People know about the D-line and the secondary. Who are you excited about at linebacker?

PF: I like the way Bryce McNaul's running around the last couple of days. David Nwabuisi came in in tremendous shape, Stone Pinckney came in in really good shape, Aaron Nagel, Kyle Petty. We've got a lot of guys competing for jobs. And we added the four young [freshmen]. That and our safety depth, we have a lot of mid-skill guys there that give us a lot of flexibility.

You mentioned earlier that the specialists made strides as the season went on last year. Is it just a matter of cleaning up the big plays, like the punt return [by Jeremy Maclin] in the b
owl game?

PF: That was execution. We didn't put the ball where we wanted it and we had 10 guys who didn't make a tackle. That's football. So does that mean that you're terrible? I guess. We'll take the tag. Sometimes you get defined in the kicking game by one play. And that happens. You look at the play in the punt game that we made against Michigan when we recovered the fumble when the game was tied. You go on and on. The punt return against Illinois that turned that game around. There's a lot of things in the kicking game we did really well. We just need to eliminate the explosion plays that are negative.