Spring Practice Notebook: Bajakian gets to work
EVANSTON-It didn’t take long for new Northwestern offensive coordinator Mike Bajakian to establish his coaching style on Tuesday morning.
In his very first Northwestern practice, Bajakian proved that he would be a hands-on kind of coach. He didn’t run drills for his group of quarterbacks. He participated in them.
As Northwestern’s quarterbacks went through a throwing drill along the north end of Ryan Fieldhouse, with the rough waves of Lake Michigan hitting the beach behind them, it was Bajakian who pressured each QB, running at him while extending a pole with a pad on the end of it, forcing the QB to throw over the top of what represented the hands of a large defensive linemen.
When they ran a drill that forced them to make a throw while running right to left, and then again while running from left to right, it was Bajakian who was catching each pass and then firing it right back to the QB so he could make the next throw.
When they ran screens against a token defense, it was Bajakian who was holding a blocking shield and coming up to “tackle” the ballcarrier, often dropping the shield to his side and wrapping up the ballcarrier with his arms instead.
Bajakian made it clear that he’s not going to be the type of coach that stands behind his quarterbacks while they go through their workout. He’s going to roll up his sleeves and work with them.
The new coordinator doesn’t yet know what his knew offense is going to look like, but he knows its identity will be. “Toughness, physicality, effort,” he said.
And on Tuesday, he did more than preach it. He demonstrated it.
“I don’t care where I’ve had the opportunity to coach and what the scheme has been, if you can incorporate those things into your offense, you have a chance for success,” said Bajakian.
“Whether you’re a shotgun spread team; whether you’re an under center, run the football 60 times scheme, like we were at Boston College, with 250-pound running backs; whether you’re a multiple, pro-style offense. If you can play with those things, you have a chance to be successful.”
Who’s in and who’s out: Spring football is typically a season where the guys on the sideline are as notable as the ones making plays on the field. It was no different on Tuesday.
There were a lot of players wearing shorts and T-shirts instead of helmets and shoulder pads on Tuesday. Some were encouraging their teammates from the sidelines, others were working out or rehabbing in the weight room.
Head coach Pat Fitzgerald identified the players who would be out for spring practice, due to injury or as they recover from offseason surgery. They are running backs Jesse Brown and Isaiah Bowser, offensive linemen Sam Gerak and Gunnar Vogel, quarterback TJ Green, wide receiver Braeden Heald, safety JR Pace and tight end Hunter Welcing.
There were several other players held out of drills on Tuesday, but they are expected back at some point this spring.
Quarterback wanted: After finishing 127th in the nation in passing in 2019, it’s no surprise that Fitzgerald declared that the quarterback position is “wide open.”
Just about all of the quarterbacks got an equal number of reps during Tuesday's team scrimmage. Andrew Marty got reps with the No. 1 team, but was followed by Hunter Johnson, Aidan Smith and Jason Whittaker. Everyone but true freshman Carl Richardson and the injured Green got reps during the scrimmage.
“(Marty) started out taking the ‘one’ reps today, if you noticed, but they rolled through,” said Bajakian. “The reason he took the ‘one’ reps was because he was our starter at the end of the season and we won the football game. But moving forward, they’re all going to be judged by what they do on a daily basis.”
However, the distribution of reps will change moving forward. Bajakian explained that each quarterback will earn the number of reps he gets.
“Until we get a feel for what the depth chart is going to look like, they’ll get reps,” he said. “Guys who are performing at a higher level will get more reps, and guys who are maybe tapering off will get less reps. Part of that it, there’s a lot of guys to rep and evaluate, so maybe early on, we’re going to have to give them enough reps for an evaluation.”
Tuesday marked the first time that Bajakian got to watch his quarterbacks throw in person, so it was far too early to make any assessments. But he knows exactly what he wants to accomplish with his signal callers this spring.
“Efficiency. Proficiency in the offense, efficiency in our line of scrimmage communication procedures, and the ability to move the offense down the field.”
Early enrollees making early impression: Fitzgerald had words of praise for his seven true freshman early enrollees, who passed on finishing their senior years in high school for a chance to jump-start their college careers by starting classes at Northwestern in January and participating in Winning Edge winter workouts and spring practice.
The seven newbies are defensive linemen Jordan Butler, Jaiden Cameron and TeRah Edwards; offensive linemen Josh Priebe and Ben Wrather; quarterback Carl Richardson and tight end Welcing.
“It’s a big group, seven. It’s the biggest we’ve had, so that’s exciting to me,” said Fitzgerald. He said that enrolling early will enable his players to get ahead academically, build relationships with teammates and “understand that the water (Lake Michigan) is east.”
“They’ve attacked early enrolling as best as (any) we’ve had,” he continued. “They came ready to attack it. It doesn’t mean that they’re doing anything spectacular, but they’re attitude is awesome.”
What’s in a name? One of the things that Bajakian likes about building a new offense from the ground up is giving things names.
“It’s been fun,” he said. “I enjoy the process. When you’re building from ground zero, you can make it easy to learn.”
For example, Bajakian said that he and the coaching staff give names to concepts and plays that will resonate with the players, “something the guys know” that will be relevant to them and easy to remember.
One thing that Bajakian has already changed is the name of a position. Gone is the superback moniker that former offensive coordinator Mick McCall used for 12 years in Evanston. Bajakian is calling them tight ends, a name that is the decidedly duller but much more widely known.
When asked the reasons for the change, Bajakian gave a simple answer. “That’s what I’ve called them my whole life. That’s what they play.”
Bajakian, who coached Kansas City Chiefs All-Pro tight end Travis Kelce in college at Cincinnati, said that tight ends in his offense will be asked to do many of the same things that superbacks did previously. But he hinted that they may do a little less flexing to other spots and lining up on the line of scrimmage more often than they have in the past.
“The skills of what the superbacks were previously is constantly changing. They’ve had at the history of the position here at Northwestern, they’ve had some really good guys with some dynamic skill sets,” he said. “We definitely need guys with those skills sets, but we’re trying to broaden their horizons a little bit, ask them to do some more inline things that maybe they weren’t doing before.”
What’s in a number? The win over Illinois in the season finale was the 99th of Fitzgerald’s career in Evanston. After 14 years, his record is 99-79 (.556).
Fitzgerald is already Northwestern’s all-time winningest coach, but his next win will be a milestone: No. 100. Not many coaches get to triple digits, let alone in one place.
When asked about the significance of win No. 100, Fitzgerald couldn’t help but think about his disappointing 3-9 campaign in 2019.
What will it mean? “That I should’ve done it last year.”