Fitzgerald making up for lost time

He couldn’t practice and he certainly couldn’t play.

There wasn’t much of anything Bryant Fitzgerald was able to do last season.

Poor guidance from Indiana’s compliance department left Fitzgerald ineligible to compete during his first semester in Bloomington, keeping him off the field and out of IU’s immediate plans. The ruling, which the school said stemmed from inaccurate advice regarding eligibility requirements, was a blow to both Fitzgerald and the Hoosiers, who were counting on the highly-regarded hybrid safety from Avon to find a role inside their defense.

Without football, Fitzgerald tended to his coursework and made an effort to get ahead academically. All the while, he planned for his comeback and what he hoped would be a strong debut season in 2018.

“Just gotta stay confident in yourself and be ready whenever your time is,” Fitzgerald said of last fall.

Fitzgerald’s time is the present, and the redshirt freshman is showing signs of development as his first college football season wears on. He leads Indiana with two interceptions, both of which have come across the past three weeks.

And while it’s taken time to shake the rust of a lost season, Fitzgerald is starting to resemble the prospect IU coach Tom Allen coveted. Entering this weekend’s game at Minnesota, Fitzgerald is claiming a role inside Indiana’s defense.

“You can’t really overstate what a big deal that is to have a whole several months where you don’t play ball and how that sets you back a little bit,” Allen said. “So he’s continued to get better and better.”

In addition to leading Indiana in picks, Fitzgerald also has 17 tackles, including 14 solo stops on the year. A career-high four of those tackles came against Penn State on Saturday, with Fitzgerald authoring his best game to date.

It’s been a gradual build to this point, Fitzgerald said. After a year of inactivity, recalibrating his body and his mind back into football mode has taken time.

But Fitzgerald, known has Avon’s hardest hitter during his high school career, has looked like his old self in recent weeks. That was no more evident than on a third-and-10 play midway through Saturday’s first quarter, when Fitzgerald blew up a screen for KJ Hamler with a tackle at the legs that sent the Penn State receiver flying — and kept him well short of the first-down marker.

“I (saw) that he was struggling holding onto it, so I said this is my chance right here,” Fitzgerald said. “They say shooters will shoot, so i just shot my shot and the opportunity presented itself.”

Fitzgerald made the most of another opportunity not long after, picking off a tipped pass with a stylish, one-handed interception over the middle early in the second quarter.

“Going back and looking at the play, it was great coverage by (Marcelino Ball),” Fitzgerald said. “I shouted him out. I gave him a big hug on the sideline. It was one of those opportunities where I could’ve gone for the two-hand, but it’s not that appealing. So I had to go for one hand to boost it up and try to make a college football pump-up video. I returned it for two yards, though, so I got a lot of work to do on the return. It was just a sweet feeling to have that interception after all the things I went through last year. That was a nice feeling.”

For Allen, it’s been equally nice to see Fitzgerald’s development take hold.

Because he couldn’t so much as work behind the scenes with the Hoosiers until the start of spring practice seven months ago, Fitzgerald is a true freshman in Allen’s eyes. The youngster has navigated a learning curve during these past few months, but as Big Ten plays continues, Fitzgerald is proving he belongs.

“Even though he was here last year, he wasn’t going through any of this before because he didn’t practice at all,” Allen said. “So it’s a little bit different than even your typical guy that redshirts and practices with us. I just think that he’s had to go through all of that and (learn the ropes).”

Fitzgerald is doing precisely that, finding his niche in a defense full of youth, all while making up for time lost.

“Just getting back to the groove of things,” Fitzgerald said. “It’s kind of been up and down. It’s kind of been rough. Some good things, some bad things. Still some learning curves, even with me being a redshirt freshman and having that year, that summer, under my belt to get back into things. But I feel like I’m getting more and more comfortable with the scheme.”