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July 27, 2013CHICAGO-It was the worst of times. It is now the best of times.
Even though Northwestern qualified for a bowl game for the third consecutive season back in 2010, the defense kept finding ways of shooting itself in the foot.
As a redshirt freshman who played in all 13 games that season, defensive end Tyler Scott was still going through the learning stages while his teammates yielded averages of 426.2 yards and 29 points per game. The Wildcats were near the bottom of the Big Ten in nearly every defensive category as they counted on the offense to put big numbers on the board.
Another bowl game and slight improvement came in 2011. The averages dipped to 407.7 yards and 27.7 points and the offense was again to carry the burden with a quarterback playing primarily on one good leg. Scott made six starts in the 11 games he played and contributed three fumble recoveries.
Then came the 2012 season, which included a Gator Bowl victory, the Cats' first bowl victory since 1949. Slowly the pieces were coming together as the averages dropped to 378.2 yards and 22.5 points along with a 29-15 edge in takeaways.
Scott, who was quickly becoming a fan favorite, started all 13 games and recorded nine sacks, second-highest in the Big Ten, while earning all-conference and team defensive most valuable player honors.
"I attribute the turnaround to leadership. What we had really brought the team together,'' says the 6-foot-4, 265-pound native of Warren, Ohio. "We had great chemistry throughout the season. We had the mentality that we were going to stop the offenses.
"We focused each week on preparing well and getting to know our opponent. We met together as a whole and watched film together. That really helped us come together and know what we had to do.''
As a young player thrown into the heat of battle during those first two seasons, Scott claims there were lessons well learned but tough ones nonetheless.
"It was tough,'' he says. "You never want to be on the field for long drives. The goal is three-and-out every time, but it's not always possible with the great offenses we're facing in this (Big Ten) conference. If you win a majority of those third-down conversions, you're going to put your team in the right position. As you go along as a young player, you definitely learn those third downs mean more.''
As perhaps the greatest defensive player in Northwestern history, head coach Pat Fitzgerald refuses to say the defensive struggles in 2010 and 2011 wore on him more than anything else in the program.
"As a head coach, it's my job to find a way to win, period,'' he says. "I would love to win a game 2-0 with the defense getting a safety. That would be cool, but I would have half my staff going crazy and ready to jump off the nearest tower. We have won a lot of different ways and some would say we have lost a lot of different ways.''
In the end, Fitzgerald, along with defensive coordinator Mike Hankwitz, would stay the course. They knew help was gradually on the way.
"That wasn't going to be an overnight fix,'' Fitzgerald says. "We build from within; we're not a program that goes through the junior college ranks. Our staff has done a terrific job recruiting and adding talented depth to our defense. We knew we had some holes we needed to fill in with competitive depth.''
That building process has left Northwestern with seven returning starters, along with 18 other players who contributed on the defensive side of the ball during a 10-3 campaign in 2012. It's easy to understand why the Cats are counting on another big improvement in 2013.
"It is our fastest and most athletic defense, but that doesn't mean a thing unless we execute,'' Fitzgerald says. "Hank(witz) does a great of that. We work the snot out of them on fundamentals.
"I watch bowl games and I can tell you the teams that haven't practiced tackling. You come to our practices and we're working on footwork in tackling. You have to do that every day because it's a lost art in football.
"We also work very hard on communication; that's why we play music in our practices. We want to show our (defensive) players how loud they have to be to communicate on the field. The safety has to communicate to the linebackers, and the linebackers have to communicate to the linemen. I'm hoping we get to the day when we can talk to the guys in their helmets. That would make for more efficient football.''
Scott, now a redshirt senior, fully agrees with his coach on the increased speed on defense.
"We have kids who can fly all over the field,'' he says. "Even our defensive linemen are flying everywhere. It's going to be fun. I'm excited to see how camp goes and to see some of these younger guys get their opportunity to show their talent and skills.''
A three-year member of the team's leadership council, Scott is going to be quick to pass on some of the lessons he has learned to the youngsters.
"Stay focused, work hard and really learn how to watch film,'' Scott says of the key advice he will pass on to the young Cats. "Learning the speed of the game and watching film will set you apart from everyone else. Dean Lowry (who played all 13 games as Scott's backup in 2012) picked up the defense real fast last year and that's why he played so much. If we get them (the freshmen) in and prepare them the right way, it will not only help them but it will help us as a whole.''