As Bryant Fitzgerald sat in the Indiana football team room on Monday, it started to hit him.
This is, in all likelihood, his last week playing for the Hoosiers (barring a win and an unlikely 5-7 bowl bid). He and his fellow seniors will go through senior day proceedings ahead of the Old Oaken Bucket game Saturday, and they’ll go to battle one last time.
And the finality of that began to set in for Fitzgerald Monday.
“After this game, this team would never be assembled again,” Fitzgerald said. “So just thinking about that, just thinking about all the years, just playing in this rivalry, playing in this game so many years. It’s a great honor, more than anything.”
Fitzgerald signed with IU for the class of 2017 while Kevin Wilson was still head coach. So his first year with the program was Allen’s first year at the helm. He redshirted that year after he was ruled ineligible due to an error by the school’s compliance office.
He’s become a regular starter for the Hoosiers at free safety and husky in the last three years. Fitzgerald’s been a reliably available player, missing just two games over five seasons. In that time, he’s recorded four interceptions, 10 passes defended, 11 tackles for loss, and three forced fumbles.
Fitzgerald was an IU fan growing up in Indianapolis. It’s been special for him being in Bloomington for so long and seeing the program’s evolutions under Allen.
“Whenever you have a new coach like that, coming in, you just want to be a part of something special,” Fitzgerald said. “The history here hasn’t been all that great, as people will say. But just being a part of the 2020 team, we made history. Just being a part of the team with coach Allen, it’s an amazing thing.”
Fitzgerald’s positional flexibility was stretched even further in last week’s win over Michigan State. With linebacker Cam Jones still out after a foot injury in the Nebraska game in early October and Bradley Jennings suffering a lower leg injury against Ohio State, IU had a hole at inside linebacker.
And in stepped Fitzgerald at stinger. Aaron Casey started the season at stinger, but slid over to mike after Jones went out.
Though it seemed unexpected to outsiders, the team has given him practice reps at the position since Jones’ injury in case of an emergency. This situation constituted breaking that glass.
But the work Fitzgerald put in at the position even before he was asked to move over gave defensive coordinator Chad Wilt confidence he could handle it during a game.
“He had an understanding of (the position),” Wilt said. “He’s really smart, he’s really competitive, and he’s going to do everything right that you ask him. It’s in his DNA. I think — mentally — he could play any position on our defense. I think he would know what to do. He’s just that smart and intelligent.”
Especially considering he was playing a different position, Fitzgerald had a solid game. He led IU with 14 tackles, including one tackle for loss, and a quarterback hurry.
Fitzgerald had to put in extra work after practices to get ready to line up at inside linebacker. It wasn’t only the reps in practice. He had to watch extra film to really understand how to read the run gaps as a linebacker — something he doesn’t have to deal with in the secondary.
Once game day came in East Lansing and Fitzgerald was out there at linebacker, he was a little nervous.
“(There) definitely was some nerves there, for sure,” Fitzgerald said. “But after the first snap, the nerves go away. You just settle in, you can play. I think the nerves really went away early on.”
Should Jennings and Jones both be unavailable again on Saturday, Fitzgerald could get another opportunity at linebacker.
It would be an interesting way for him to wrap up a long IU career. But whether he plays linebacker or in the secondary, Fitzgerald just wants to go out on a high note in Indiana’s rivalry game against Purdue.
“It has been a tough season, these last couple seasons,” Fitzgerald said. “But it’ll make it all sweet just getting that bucket back, one last time. With the seniors and the guys, just getting that bucket back for those who came before us and the future people who’s going to be coming in here playing for the bucket again.”
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