Twenty-five years ago, Pat Fitzgerald was a two-way player for Sandburg High School in Orland Park, Illinois, in the southwest part of the suburban crescent around Chicago.
He soon blossomed into a star linebacker for Northwestern, leading the once-woebegone Wildcats to consecutive Big Ten championships. He won the Chuck Bednarik Award as the national defensive player of the year twice in a row. He even bounced back from a badly broken leg to reach the second round of accolades.
Fitzgerald was not drafted, though, and never made it in the NFL. He found his calling in coaching, of course, with this being his 12th season running the program he used to play for. Back then, the capability of the defenses around the conference couldn’t match the compilation of talent on that side of the ball in the Big Ten these days.
“First of all, we all wore neck rolls back then, and we didn’t really play too far outside of the tackle box,” Fitzgerald said, laughing at the reflection. “So the game has changed a ton.”
With the Wildcats preparing this week to face Penn State star Saquon Barkley on Saturday, Fitzgerald described a conversation with recruiting assistant Bryan Payton during which he compared Barkley’s style to mid-1990s Michigan running back Tshimanga Biakabutuka.
“Only guys in the neck roll generation know who that cat is, but Bryan knew who he was so we were having a great chuckle,” Fitzgerald said, before offering his assessment of 2017: “Defensively, I think these young men are incredible athletes. The speed of the game, the size, the strength, it’s not even close. It’s a much more athletic game than it was 25 years ago. We had some good athletes, but nothing like now.”
The best high school players are still usually the quarterbacks, but the best prep athletes are more often limited to one side of the ball. That has allowed many of the defensive ends, linebackers and safeties to develop faster at their respective positions in college. The overall physical condition of players is simply more advanced, too, providing an upgrade at any position from a quarter-century ago. Pass-happy, high-octane offenses are also potentially harder to maintain in this part of the country than in the south or the west given the unpredictable weather over the last half of the regular season, making the creation of a solid if not dominant defense a must for any Big Ten team with aspirations beyond a mid-tier bowl game.
“I don’t know if you can have great football teams without great defenses. They sort of go hand in hand. You’ve got to be able to play defense, tackle well, apply pressure and all these different things that go along with it,” said Michigan State coach Mark Dantonio, who’s trying to restore the Spartans defense among the national elite after a few years of uncharacteristic vulnerability. “We’re still in that phase of seeing who we are right now, so I’m not counting us into that category yet. I think there’s still some things that we need to prove, but we’re playing hard and we’re playing with confidence.”
Whatever the reasons, Big Ten teams are as serious about and successful on defense as any conference, if not the industry leader.
The conference has five of the top 15 of the 130 FBS teams in yards allowed per game: Michigan (No. 1), Wisconsin (No. 4), Michigan State (No. 5), Minnesota (No. 12) and Penn State (No. 13). The league also accounts for six of the top 25 in points allowed per game: Penn State (No. 3), Michigan and Wisconsin (tied for No. 8), Minnesota (No. 11), Ohio State (No. 16) and Michigan State (No. 21).
There are individual standouts, too, undoubtedly bound for the NFL draft that Fitzgerald never experienced. Though an imperfect, shallow measure, there were two Big Ten defensive players taken in the first round when Fitzgerald was eligible in 1997. This year, there were six.
Iowa linebacker Josey Jewell could be next, thanks to exceptional vision on the field and a relentless inner drive.
“You can’t measure at the combine those types of things, but there is something there,” Hawkeyes coach Kirk Ferentz said. “That’s probably why we almost blew it in recruiting on him. We weren’t seeing it. But when you get on the field with the guys … he’s going a little quicker than maybe he should be.”
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