After year away, Fitzgerald relishing return to practice

Mistakes happen. Bryant Fitzgerald learned the hard way.

It was all shaping up to be a promising rookie campaign for the freshman defensive back from Avon. During his first few weeks on Indiana’s campus last summer, Fitzgerald appeared as one of the prized recruits in IU’s 2017 signing haul, a dynamic, versatile athlete who was in line to play meaningful snaps in the Hoosiers’ secondary.

Then, 13 days before Indiana’s opener, Fitzgerald’s season was done.

Poor guidance from IU’s compliance office left Fitzgerald as a final non-qualifier for 2017. Through no fault of his own, Fitzgerald was relegated to the sidelines after the department inaccurately advised him on his eligibility requirements.

He couldn’t play, he couldn’t practice, he couldn’t do much of anything.

That’s what has made this month’s spring practice so sweet.

Fitzgerald is back on the field as a contributing member of the team, determined to earn a role inside IU’s defense. After a shocking, disappointing development left him without football for the first time last fall, Fitzgerald is relishing each moment in practice this spring.

“Strapping on the helmet and putting the shoulder pads on and seeing your teammates to your left and your right, in front of you and behind you, it’s a great feeling to have out there,” Fitzgerald said after IU’s fifth practice of the month on Thursday. “There’s no feeling like it. I love being back on the field.”

And Indiana loves having him there.

This is a player IU coach Tom Allen billed as one of the most advanced prospects in the Hoosiers’ 2017 class, an instant-impact type of prospect who can help at free safety or hybrid safety this season.

“He could not wait for spring ball,” Allen said.

For his part, Fitzgerald isn’t holding a grudge. He came to accept his fate long ago, and in his mind, last fall’s compliance saga may have been a blessing in disguise.

Although he lost valuable developmental time on the field, he was able to use his time to study — both his coursework and and IU’s playbook.

Fitzgerald settled into a good academic routine and trained in the weight room to stay sharp.

“It was definitely a shock to me, but in other ways it was a good thing,” he said. “It was basically being redshirted, so you got time to experience college, (learn) how you work out and you see players play. … It was beneficial in so many ways. I got ahead in schoolwork. It benefited me in different ways.”

Now, Fitzgerald is trying to catch up.

The 6-foot, 210-pound redshirt freshman said Thursday that he’s been working at free safety, where Allen is coaching him to be one of the vocal leaders on the defense.

He could also see time at hybrid safety, where redshirt sophomore Marcelino Ball is the projected starter.

Either way, IU wants him on the field.

“He could be a free safety, he could be a Husky (hybrid safety), he could be a Stinger (linebacker),” Allen said. “Those three positions all have explosive traits that we’re looking for. Definitely, he falls in that. We’re trying to recruit a bunch of guys that fit in that category. They can sometimes grow into linebackers, they can play in space, they can play up high. The more guys you have like that, the better your football team is.”

Fitzgerald closed his high school career as Avon’s most valuable player in 2016, recording 107 tackles, including 11 for loss and one sack with three interceptions.

He was also recognized as the team’s hardest hitter. When he made his first tackle of spring practice earlier this month, Fitzgerald felt a quiet calm.

He was playing football again, enjoying every moment of the violence.

“I don’t even know who it was against, but it was a relief,” Fitzgerald said of that initial tackle. “I was finally back in the groove of things. It felt good.”

One comment

  1. It is great for IU to finlly have him on the field. He has a great attitude to go along with his athletic ability. He sounds very mature and has approached the year off the right way. The year off should make it easier for him this Fall. The addition of Fitzgerald and Burgess will give the safeties good depth for this season. It will be fun to see the impact they can make on the defense in 2018.

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