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Five Northwestern Takeaways From Indianapolis

Pat Fitzgerald and his players commented on changes happening in the college football world and how the Wildcats will look this fall.

It was an eventful couple of days in Indianapolis as Big Ten officials, coaches and players descended upon Lucas Oil Stadium on Thursday and Friday. The stadium will host the conference title game on Dec. 4, and Northwestern would love to return to the site where they hung with the Buckeyes last season for a few solid quarters.

Media days are a slog full of fluff speeches and typically lack the answers to questions that the fanbase has so desperately been wanting since January. That being said, there were a few notable tidbits of information from Pat Fitzgerald and his three designees to represent the team, all of whom have been named to national watchlists for excellence at their respective positions.

Here are a few takeaways from Indy regarding the plethora of rules changes around college football and what the Wildcats might show on the field in Evanston just six weeks from today.

The new NIL rules are 'like Christmas.’

Pat Fitzgerald is a champion for his players, but he thinks we should pump the brakes on some of the rhetoric surrounding the landscape-changing rules.

“NIL is a new thing,” Fitzgerald said. “With our staff, I said it's kind of like Christmas. Everybody gets a new toy, plays with it for a month, and it goes away. So, I don't think NIL is going to go away to that extent, but I think every month that we do this, there's going to be more and more known about the rules, about how to execute things.”

Northwestern players are uniquely positioned to benefit from NIL as members of a Power 5 program located in the metro area of one of the country’s largest cities. The players are aware of this and will look to take advantage of this opportunity.

“Chicago being what it is, having the businesses, having everyone that's down there. it creates many opportunities for me, many opportunities for the football team and many opportunities for every student that goes to Northwestern,” said sophomore safety and All-American Brandon Joseph. “I'm excited to see how people start reaching out to Chicago to start using Chicago to really benefit off NIL because honestly, what better city can you ask for in terms of NIL?”

Joseph indicated that his mother, who is an attorney, is handling all of his NIL inquiries. That leaves him able to focus on football.

Fitzgerald has mixed thoughts about expanding the College Football Playoff. 

Fitzgerald was blunt in his assessment of how the presumed expansion of the College Football Playoff would impact the Wildcats.

“I'm a big fan, as a Northwestern head coach, of expanding the Playoff,” Fitzgerald said with a grin. “I'm a huge fan. It doesn't take an economics major to figure out the math since we've [moved] to the College Football Playoff.”

While the proposed 12-team format assuredly increases Northwestern’s chance of making the postseason, Fitzgerald is not without his concerns.

“How many games are we going to ask these young men to play?” Fitzgerald asked. “And you need to look at the calendar holistically. We're going to potentially have more teams playing more games, you know. What are we doing in the offseason? How much time are we taking? Things of that nature.”

One thing is for sure, the possibility of hosting a team from the South on frigid Saturday on Lake Michigan would bring a smile to the coach’s face.

“I'd love to bring some guys up from the South in December to Chicago,” Fitzgerald said. “I’d love it. I'd do cartwheels. I think it'll be awesome.”

Northwestern is young, but they have great leaders.

As has been cited many times in offseason coverage, Northwestern will have one of the country’s youngest teams. They return just 29% of their total offensive production, which is last in the nation, and 39% of their defensive production is back for another year, checking in at 125th in the FBS.

Despite having a young team, Northwestern has a few superb leaders that will look to step up this fall. Fifth-year senior center Sam Gerak is prepared to lead the younger members of the team through the season and is not afraid to use his wisdom both in times of celebration and when the team might need to refocus on their goals.

“The most important thing is building relationships with every guy on the team, no matter how old they are, whatever their experience level is. Scholarship, walk-on, it doesn't matter,” Gerak said. “Building relationships with them is going to enable difficult conversations during the season, like ‘We need to do this. We need to stop doing this,’ whatever that may be.”

While he is just a sophomore, Joseph will be asked to act as though he has been in Evanston for several years. He is ready for the challenge.

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“I think my success at such a young age will allow me to help these young players even more,” Joseph said. “I think that we have so much young talent at Northwestern. I think that if you're confident at that young age, you can go out and do whatever so I think preaching confidence preaching technique preaching everything that you need to preach as a leader and just continuing to do stuff like that is what I'm going to do to step up as a leader this year.”

Northwestern football will not be built using the transfer portal.

With the passing of the one-time transfer rule, many teams have indicated through their offseason actions that they will rely heavily on the portal. While Northwestern certainly has tapped into that resource (more below), Fitzgerald has indicated that will not be the foundation of his team.

“If you'd asked me 10 years ago, I would have told you there's no way that this would ever happen, but it is,” Fitzgerald said. “And now you've got to evolve and change. So we're going to build our roster with high schoolers, and if something changes, then I'll have to change. But right now we're going to have a locker room and a culture and a program built with high school football players.”

Further, he discussed the ways in which the transfer portal not only changes how coaches interact with players who have declared they will find a new school but also how coaches will need to interact with high school recruits.

“You're going to lose some recruiting battles, and as I look at it now, I don't think [the recruiting process] is over then because you could finish second, but a year from now, you could be that school they want to go back to,” Fitzgerald said.

Fitzgerald is not giving hints on his quarterback decision.

For the second consecutive year, Northwestern brought a transfer quarterback in from another Power 5 program. Last season, the Wildcats took Peyton Ramsey from Indiana. For 2021, they went outside of the Big Ten, pulling in Ryan Hilinski from South Carolina.

While there are assumptions that Hilinski will be the starter this fall, Fitzgerald has yet to name a starter.

“Well, Ryan's only been on the field with us for six practices,” Fitzgerald said. “So it's really hard to evaluate that. But you know, he's got great arm talent. He's got a high football IQ. He's more athletic than I think people give him credit for. But you know, that competition between those guys will continue through camp and hopefully be cleared up pretty quickly.”

While Fitzgerald ponders his options going into fall camp, the team is excited to have multiple formidable options.

“I know people typically don't like hearing that it's a good quarterback room because only one guy plays, but it is a talented quarterback room,” said senior center Sam Gerak. “They all bring different aspects of their game.” 

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