Fitzgerald excited to be back at Lucas Oil

Growing up an Indianapolis-area kid, Indiana safety Bryant Fitzgerald always wanted to play at Lucas Oil Stadium.

He loved the Peyton Manning-Marvin Harrison connection back in the days of the RCA Dome. And, more than just being a Colts fan, Lucas Oil was always the site of Indiana’s high school state championship games.

Fitzgerald, who played at Avon, had only one opportunity to play at the state’s prep football mecca: a neutral-site game to open the season with Lawrence Central in 2014. When the words “only once” come out of his mouth, it’s apparent his dreams of Lucas Oil haven’t quite been realized as a player.

“Disappointed,” Fitzgerald said. “I feel like we should have been there my junior year. Feel like we definitely had the best team in the state. But that’s a different story for another day.”

Today, the Hoosiers are preparing to open their season at Lucas Oil versus Ball State. But, in Fitzgerald’s mind, this should maybe be his third game on the turf in Indianapolis.

Avon was one of the best teams in the state in 2015, right before Center Grove stopped the Orioles in semistate. One game short of the big stadium. One point shy, in fact. Titus McCoy, now at Indiana State, ran in a two-point conversion to win it 35-34 for the Trojans in double overtime.

It’s been a winding road back to Lucas Oil for the redshirt sophomore. After IU’s compliance error cost him his true freshman season, Fitzgerald emerged as an impact player in the Hoosier secondary as a redshirt, coming down with a team-high three interceptions. He started three games at the end of the year, heading into his sophomore season with ample momentum.

It’s from the secondary where words of outsized confidence have been emanating. Senior Andre Brown guaranteed a bowl victory before the start of fall camp. Fitzgerald wasn’t shy about setting the bar high, either.

“I feel like this is one of our best teams that we’ve ever had here,” Fitzgerald said. “I feel like we honestly have the chance to go undefeated. We take it one game at a time, but I honestly don’t feel like there’s a game we shouldn’t win.”

In the pursuit of 1-0, the Hoosier secondary will play an important role. Ball State, led by former New Orleans Saints quarterbacks coach Mike Neu, isn’t afraid to toss it around the yard. Drew Plitt, who started the final three games as the Cardinals’ QB last season, threw for 355 yards against Toledo. He then completed nearly 81 percent of his passes against Western Michigan.

IU has an experienced secondary to make life difficult for Plitt. Brown, fellow senior A’Shon Riggins, and junior Raheem Layne are returning starters at corner, capable of neutralizing a veteran receiver like senior Riley Miller, a preseason candidate for the Biletnikoff Award. On the backend, Fitzgerald is an athletic, physical stopper at 6-foot, 213 pounds, but he’s not the only one.

Safeties coach Kasey Teegradin has seen growth from another redshirt sophomore, Juwan Burgess, as well as true sophomore Devon Matthews, aka “Monster.” Senior Khalil Bryant, who Fitzgerald surpassed on the depth chart late last season, remains a sure, steady presence.

Out of that group, Teegardin has singled out Fitzgerald as an emerging leader.

“Fitz now, we’re really challenging him to take some of that leadership role,” Teegardin said. “I’ll pull him aside and say ‘As you go, so does the defense.’ If he’s down, you can see our secondary slow up a little bit. If he’s up and making plays and flying around, you can see our defense start to pick it up.”

As the Hoosiers went about their walkthrough at Lucas Oil Stadium last week, Fitzgerald’s energy level was high. Mic’d up for a video posted to social media, Fitzgerald was constantly grunting and yapping, and sometimes screeching.

He told defensive coordinator Kane Wommack that he had been voted the most “drip” player on the team, which took a second to explain. Drip, the safety explained, is the same as “swag,” or swagger.

“We gotta have that drip about us. That drip,” Fitzgerald said.

“Drip swag,” Wommack answered.

“Nah, just drip,” Fitzgerald said. “Drip is swag.”

That “drip” includes some lofty expectations for what this year can bring, but it’s not just the defensive side of the ball that excites Fitzgerald. He pointed to new offensive coordinator Kalen DeBoer, as well as the recently announced starter at quarterback, redshirt freshman Michael Penix Jr.

“His arm talent — he has a laser,” Fitzgerald said. “He puts it on the money. You have a split-second to jump a pass. If not, the wide receiver is going to be catching it and going upfield.”

Fitzgerald and his teammates hope the program is changing for the better, beyond the 5-7 records and missed bowls of the past two seasons. Heading back to Lucas Oil, the site of a 2015 state title game Fitzgerald just barely missed, there’s hope for more big stages in the Hoosiers’ future.

“We’re tired of that overall mentality of ‘the same IU,’” Fitzgerald said. “We just want to change it and show everybody what we’re about.”

2 comments

  1. …“I feel like this is one of our best teams that we’ve ever had here,” Fitzgerald said. “I feel like we honestly have the chance to go undefeated. We take it one game at a time, but I honestly don’t feel like there’s a game we shouldn’t win.”…

    Love the attitude. Now is the time to prove it. I once heard the former NC State coach Steve Logan on Rivals radio say that until you do it (i.e. be conference champions), you’ll never know what it takes to do it. And he wasn’t referring to a single game, but an entire season. Do the players know what it takes to consistently play winning football? Have they made the effort entailed to be a champion? Are they doing more than the OSU’s, PSU’s, MSU’s and UM’s? I used to tell my players when I coached that if they wanted to be ordinary just do the minimal required, but if they wanted to be champions they would need to do more than just the minimal.

  2. For now, forget about going undefeated through the entire season. Just focus on going undefeated this weekend at Lucas Oil Stadium and focus on dominating a team from a weaker conference.

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