WildcatReport - O'Neil looks to put his twist on Northwestern's defense
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O'Neil looks to put his twist on Northwestern's defense

Jim O'Neil loves football. That much was apparent in the introductory press conference for Northwestern's new defensive coordinator on Thursday morning. He expects his players to feel the same.

"I'm looking for guys that love to play football," O'Neil said. "If they say we got to play a double header, those guys are all in."

O'Neil only mentioned one player by name in the press conference, super senior linebacker Chris Bergin. The fact that the Bloomfield Hills, Mich., native and former walkon is returning for a fifth season says all you need to know about his love for football. Bergin will be one of the players counted on to help the defense transition from Mike Hankwitz's system to what O'Neil hopes to put in place.

Another trait that O'Neil demands from his players is "a want to get to the ball with violent intentions." He's also a strong believer in not allowing anything easy in the middle of the field.

"I want guys that are going to make the middle of the field a scary place," O'Neil said. "If a guy comes over the middle, I want him to get hit... legally."

O'Neil said that he and the staff have been putting in long hours building their defensive playbook and have almost all of their first- and second-down defense installed. But there is still a lot more work to do before spring ball starts in less than a month.

"There's some things schematically that I'm excited to introduce to the guys," O'Neil said. "I'm in the process right now where I'm trying to learn some of the things they did best last year, and putting my twist on it. When we implement the system, I have to be me."

One of the big schematic differences that O'Neil brings to Evanston is his tendency to mix fronts. Under Hankwitz, Northwestern was a true 4-3 defense, but O'Neil says he will mix and match fronts to put his pass rushers in positions to succeed.

It's important to note that O'Neil said his multiple fronts won't require a personnel change. His system is all about giving the offense different looks with the same group of guys up front.

"I do believe in multiple fronts; it takes the bullseye off guys' chests up front," he said.

With eight key contributors from a Northwestern defense that ranked fifth in the country in scoring no longer on the team, O'Neil has his work cut out for him to keep the Wildcats' defense playing at a high level. But he won't be doing it alone. He has coached or coached alongside six of Northwestern's 10 coaches, and all three position coaches on defense -- line coach Marty Long, linebackers coach Tim McGarigle and defensive backs coach Matt MacPherson -- are still with the team.

O'Neil said the holdover coaches can relate O'Neil's new terminology to what Hankwitz used, making teaching much easier.

"I've got three great position coaches who believe strongly in some of the things they were doing," O'Neil said. "It's more creating our system, not blowing it up and putting in my system."

Head coach Pat Fitzgerald echoed O'Neil's sentiment that the defense will be a collaborative effort between the staff.

"One of the things when we interviewed Coach O'Neil was this is going to be 'our defense,'" he said. "His knowledge from being here as a GA with Walk (Randy Walker), I know it's been a number of years since then, but he's got great familiarity with the program. He's got great familiarity with Marty, Tim and Matt. It's not the first time these four guys have met.

O'Neil was a graduate assistant at Northwestern in 2003-04.
O'Neil was a graduate assistant at Northwestern in 2003-04. (Northwestern Athletics)

"It's been a really great time here that we've been putting things together, and I would say that what we talked about in the interview process is exactly what's happening."

The interview process was a long one for Fitzgerald; he interviewed about 30 candidates. He reached out to O'Neil multiple times to gauge his interest in succeeding Hankwitz, and eventually O'Neil accepted.

Fitzgerald himself was the driving force behind O'Neil deciding to come back to the college game after more than a decade in the NFL. O'Neil said he's had interest from Power Five programs over the last four to five years, but he was never tempted to leave the pros until his conversations with Fitzgerald.

"The more I thought about it, this was probably the only university that I would make the jump back down to college football to just because the belief system that Fitz has is so in line with my belief system," he said.

O'Neil saw Fitzgerald's belief system first hand when they worked together on the defensive staff under Walker at Northwestern in 2003 and 2004. He praised Fitzgerald's passion and love of the game, but also said Fitzgerald is a "true leader" who always tried to help out the young guys.

Both of Northwestern's coordinators now have NFL experience. O'Neil was the defensive coordinator for the Cleveland Browns (2014-15) and San Francisco 49ers (2016), and also held staff positions with the New York Jets, Buffalo Bills and, more recently, the Las Vegas Raiders. Offensive coordinator Mike Bajakian was a quarterbacks coach for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.

Fitzgerald didn't do that by accident.

"To have that background is something that I think is very important fundamentally, from a technique standpoint and from a scheme standpoint," Fitzgerald said. "The passing game trickles down from the NFL to college.

"To bring on someone with 12 years of pro experience, multiple stops as a DC, back-seven experience with multiple All-Pros, and then going through the draft I think is going to be a huge, huge impact for our players."

Fitzgerald didn't say it directly, but playing for a guy who knows what it takes to be an NFL player will be a major selling point in recruiting.

The most noteworthy of the All-Pros that O'Neil worked with in NFL was Darrelle Revis, one of the best cornerbacks in NFL history. O'Neil knows the weight that his experience holds, and he is more than ready to use it to help his players get better.

"Obviously, players are always excited to talk about NFL players," he said. "I think when you talk about NFL guys and how they went about their work, how they handled the offseason or how they watched tape, it's obviously a great opportunity for those guys to learn and grow."

O'Neil harped on "the things that take no talent," the controllable aspects of the game that often separate winning from losing. He said that avoiding "dumb penalties" and always giving maximum effort are what decide most games.

"They have talented players that do the little things right," he said. "Now, (Northwestern's) got the facilities and the winning tradition to back it all up. I don't think we've even scratched the surface here."