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July 24, 2013

Safety first for Fitzgerald

CHICAGO-Although the first of the 2013 Big Ten Media Days brought much talk about discipline, quarterback battles and officiating changes, Pat Fitzgerald used it as a time to talk about his top priority: player safety.

The former All-American linebacker doesn't see the upcoming changes -- which include possible ejections for certain hits -- as a potential hinderance to the intensity of the game. Instead, he looks at them as a way to protect the athletes.

"My job is, number one, the health, safety and well-being of our guys," Fitzgerald said to reporters at the Chicago Hilton following his official press conference. "We're always looking at, with our medical staff, how can we keep our guys healthy and safe?"

That research may be putting Fitzgerald ahead of the game in comparison to his fellow coaches. Over the past few seasons, he has instilled several changes to Northwestern's practices, namely the reduction of two-a-day practices.

Fitzgerald said he plans to hold very few two-a-days in the weeks leading up to the season, much like he has done for the past three years. It's the culmination of injury studies done by the program.

"When I worked with [associate athletic director/director of athletic training services] Tori Lindley and our medical staff and looked at where were our little spikes in soft tissue injuries, and it was in those second practices," Fitzgerald said. "So we're going to go almost exclusively one-a-days."

This change is one of many measures taken to cut down on the number of injuries that his team endures. His team also does a tackling drill every day in practice that uses cushions to help player safety.

Fitzgerald realizes that the flip side of the coin is that reducing contact in practice could potentially increase injuries if players have not practiced proper tackling. So he is constantly looking for ways to practice fundamentals while reducing injuries.

"We're always looking at, with our medical staff, how can we keep our guys healthy and safe," Fitzgerald said, "not only for the short term, but then for the long term of the season, then for the long term as it accumulates throughout their careers."

Player safety was one of several topics discussed by Fitzgerald on Wednesday.

California dreaming: As Northwestern inches closer to its 9:30 CT matchup at Cal on August 31, much of Fitzgerald's interest is on getting his players acclimated to the night game atmosphere. The Wildcats will practice at 9:00 p.m. in the week leading up to the game, a schedule made possible by Northwestern's quarter system.

"Thank goodness we're not in school, so we can have a flexibility to our practice routine," Fitzgerald said.

Open season: During the 2012 season, Fitzgerald held open practices on Tuesdays and Wednesdays, and he plans to keep the trend going. His policy is not shared by many coaches, but as long as the media respects his rules on releasing information, he finds no problem in it.

"We have nothing to hide," he said. "I think we've got a great group of young men, as far as student-athletes that practice the right way, that have great enthusiasm and juice and love practicing and preparing and improving fundamentally. I'm a little biased, but I think we've got the best player development staff in the country."

Business as usual at NU: In response to the officiating changes meant to protect defenseless players, Fitzgerald emphasized the need for his players to adapt. He also said that quarterbacks need to be held accountable for making throws to receivers in dangerous positions. All in all, he does not feel that his team's play would be considered reckless in any way.

"I have very little concern about the way that we play at Northwestern on whether or not we have to change," he said.

Clowney hit: When asked about reports that Jadeveon Clowney's ESPY-winning hit on Michigan's Vincent Smith would be deemed an automatic ejection this season, Fitzgerald did not offer much of a response. He simply smiled and said, "Should be a fun year."

Northwestern NEWS


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