Bajakian: Season shutdown blessing in disguise for NU offense
Pat Fitzgerald’s word of 2020: fluid.
Spring football was shut down after eight practices when student-athletes were sent home back in March due to the emerging threat of COVID-19, and Northwestern had only just begun to ramp-up into camp when the Big Ten announced the decision to postpone the football season in August.
The stop-and-start nature of the offseason had the potential to challenge the installation and development of the Wildcats’ new offense under Offensive Coordinator Mike Bajakian. But with less than 10 days until Northwestern finally hits the field, Bajakian and the rest of the offensive unit believe they are further ahead than anticipated. For that, they credit the Zoom meetings done from home following the partial spring practice.
“From an installation standpoint, we were able to reinstall everything. It was actually a blessing in disguise because we could hit it again for a second time and we had video evidence of us executing and exactly where we would need to improve and what we would need to work on,” Bajakian said. “Having that video evidence for reinstalling it a second time in great detail, we had nothing but time so we were able to go into greater detail, frankly, than I ever have before.”
“This stuff is second nature right now,” senior WR Riley Lees said. “I feel like this is my fifth year running this offense, basically.”
NCAA rules allowed teams to spend up to eight hours per week doing virtual meetings while teams were home in the spring. Bajakian said the team “took full advantage” of those hours to learn the offense remotely so they were as prepared as possible when finally able to take the field. Graduate transfer QB Peyton Ramsey, who wasn’t with the team for in-person spring practice while finishing his degree at Indiana, also took extra time to ensure he was building chemistry with his new teammates.
“I reached out to everybody on the offense, got to know those guys, let them know me,” Ramsey said.
By the time the season was originally postponed in August, knowledge of the new offense (particularly in the quarterback room) was to Bajakian’s liking. So the 36 days from initial postponement to reinstatement were spent with a different focus: getting back to basics.
“I had a conversation with Coach Jake the day the season was canceled and he said ‘you know what man, this is a great opportunity for us to really refine our fundamentals,’ and that’s what we went and started working on,” junior QB Andrew Marty said.
“We were able to dive into greater detail as it relates to technique and mechanics than frankly I ever have before in that realm,” Bajakian said.
The time, Bajakian said, was particularly valuable because of the limited opportunities for that level of detailed work during a normal season thanks to the strict schedule of spring ball, summer workouts, camp, and the weekly routine of a season. With plenty of time and the scheme installed, Bajakian had the quarterbacks working to refine their craft.
“Literally, in practice we were throwing like I was back in a recruiting camp, just throwing man to man, right across from you,” Marty said. “There were little things like that we really got to take advantage of with that time.”
Fitzgerald was openly critical of the performance of his quarterbacks a season ago and repeatedly challenged them to improve their games. And while he has yet to name a starter for the season opener against Maryland, the skill work done in the quarterback room should position each potential starter to succeed if his number gets called.
“I made it a conversation, a two-way conversation, to hear the things that they had been taught in the past or they had learned elsewhere, focused on each individual guy and specifically what he needed to improve upon,” Bajakian said. “That was very valuable.”