In some ways, nothing has made Pat Fitzgerald’s life easier than this spring’s NFL Draft. Northwestern had its first first-round draft pick since 2005, its first offensive player drafted in the first round since 1983 and its first first-round draft duo in Rashawn Slater and Greg Newsome.
Ask the 15-year Wildcats head coach what it means, and he sums it succinctly:
“That you can have it all at Northwestern,” Fitzgerald said. “You can get a top-10 education, be a top-10 football team and be a first-round draft pick. What else more do you want?”
As stable as things are, though, this still was an offseason of change in Evanston. In the big picture, the school saw longtime athletic director Jim Phillips leave to become ACC commissioner, which led to a drawn-out, at times tumultuous process that included the first hire resigning (Mike Polisky) and the second hire coming this month (Derrick Gragg). In the day to day, Fitzgerald had to replace longtime defensive coordinator Mike Hankwitz, who retired after more than 50 years of coaching, and longtime right-hand man Cody Cejda, the former director of football operations who took a job with the Los Angeles Chargers.
Jim O’Neil and Jacob Schmidt are Hankwitz’s and Cejda’s respective replacements, with the latter being an internal promotion. On the field, the one-year Peyton Ramsey era came to an end after a smashing success: a 7-2 record, a Big Ten West title, a Citrus Bowl win and a No. 10 final ranking in both major polls.
For the third straight year, Northwestern is turning to a transfer quarterback as it welcomes in Ryan Hilinski from South Carolina.
“I think Ryan’s a natural leader,” Fitzgerald said. “I think he’s got a gregarious personality. Right away he jumped into the deep end, and he didn’t know what he didn’t know but was ready to compete. He’s got all the arm talent, he’s got a high football IQ and he’s going to compete with our guys this camp. But we’re just excited to have him.”
Hilinski, and by extension the quarterback position, is the biggest key to making the 2018 and 2020 Big Ten West championship seasons the norm, and not the 3-9 dip that happened in 2019. But the QB is far from the only player with some proving to do, as he at least has extensive starting experience.
The receivers are largely new. So, too, is the linebacker room, which said goodbye to a combined four All-Big Ten honors, three captainships and numerous other career highlights in Paddy Fisher and Blake Gallagher.
While that may have been cause for concern in years past, Northwestern now views itself in the reload category, rather than rebuild. And with that comes expectations befitting a program that boasts multiple recent trips to Indianapolis.