Niro honored with No.1 uniform, Hilinski discusses changes North West Football Niro honored with No.1 uniform, Hilinski discusses changes

North West football kicked off its pre-season camp at the end of July with one of the program’s most cherished traditions – the reveal of the player who will wear the No.1 uniform. The timing lived up to the hype media, as senior receiver/returner Raymond Niro III received the honor in a team meeting room that erupted in cheers.

During a press conference after practice on Thursday, coach Pat Fitzgerald spoke about Niro’s remarkable rise through the Wildcats ranks, his perseverance and his intangibles. Niro joined NU as a walk-on in 2018, holding several positions in offensive and special teams units before becoming a difference maker as a returner in 2021.

“You could say he’s one of the best special teams players, if not the best special teams player, in the Big Ten,” Fitzgerald said. “We tried to find a role for him, and he’s been really relentless in trying to find a role to help the team. It hasn’t diminished one aspect of what he does for the team behind the scenes.

Niro racked up more than 100 yards as a kick and punt returner in 2021. He helped cover an injury-decimated running back room, giving former goaltender and returner Brandon Joseph the chance to focus on the defensive backfield. He also played running back and receiver during his time with the Cats.

Swapping his previous number of 23 for the advertised 1, Niro joins recent Cats defensive lineman Joe Spivak, running back Jesse Brown and defensive back Joe Bergin as players to receive the honor.

“This No. 1 jersey is recommended by and voted on by the board of directors, so it’s a player-driven honor,” Fitzgerald said. “Seeing Ray represent us is something I think Ray takes to heart.”

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Hilinski calls pre-season approach ‘360’

Niro isn’t the only NU player to go single digit on his uniform. Junior quarterback Ryan Hilinski changed his number from 12 to 3 for his second season at Evanston in honor of his older brother Tyler, who wore 3 for Washington State before his death by suicide in 2018. Hilinski has been a strong advocate for mental health through his family foundation, Hilinski’s Hope, throughout his college career and said changing his number was another way to commemorate his late brother.

“(Wearing number 3) gives me that extra motivation, that extra push to keep going,” Hilinski said. “I feel like when I’m wearing 3, I’m wearing Tyler on my shirt with me… It gives me that extra motivation to keep going and never give up.”

Competing for the starting quarterback position for the second time in as many seasons, Hilinski said his look — and skills — have changed a lot for the upcoming season. He worked closely with nutritionists to change his eating habits, and he said he noticed improvements in his conditioning and physique as a result.

“I started eating differently and realized that you had to go all-in,” Hilinski said. “Being able to become a runner and more of a dual-threat type of quarterback where I can spin if I need to but also throw it 50 yards down the field when I have to.”

Mentally, Hilinski said, continuity with the playbook and offensive coordinator Mike Bajakian has worked wonders, noting this is the first year of his four college football seasons that he will have the same offensive coordinator as the last year.

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Fitzgerald agreed, saying Hilinski is in “a totally different place” and praising Hilinski and quarterback Brendan Sullivan’s ability to inspire their teammates.

“The difference between last year and this year is that it’s the first year that I have two years of offense under my belt,” Hilinski said. “That’s the most important thing for me, confidence in myself, confidence in learning the playbook and of course confidence in the guys around me.”

Continuity, physicality at the top of the first week of camp

Fitzgerald was candid in his assessment of the 2021 season, and he’s already seen encouraging signs in the early weeks of camp.

“Where are we going to be better? Everywhere,” Fitzgerald said.

Fitzgerald attributed the improvement to having a full offseason to work at the facilities after a pair of pandemic-interrupted winters, as well as having an older squad and coordinator continuity on both sides of the ball. Cats players pointed to the energy and physique on display at camp as further reason for optimism.

“We have more experience than we had at this time last year, more competitive depth than we had at this time last year,” Fitzgerald said. “It’s exciting to see a little more consistency in every position every day.”

E-mail: [email protected]

Twitter: @john__riker

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