Just about every story written about NU this preseason has focused on the star players. It's been Dan Persa this, Jeremy Ebert that, Vince Browne blah blah blah. I figured, why not get the unreported story and talk to a Wildcat on the opposite end of the star spectrum: a walk-on?
And so that's what I did. I interviewed two of them, in fact -- redshirt junior running back Tyris Jones and redshirt sophomore wide receiver Mike Jensen. Jones, who turned some heads with his physical running style during spring ball, could play a key role this fall as a short-yardage back or blocking fullback, while Jensen, the first walk-on to be named to the team's Leadership Council, finds himself listed on the preseason two-deep as the back-up to slot receiver Charles Brown.
Everybody loves a feel-good, underdog story, right? If you don't, then you've got a long, arduous road ahead of you as a Northwestern fan. It doesn't get much more underdog than the walk-on players on NU's football team. These lightly recruited players mostly put in grunt work on the scout team in practice, and they really do it for the love of the game, because they don't get a scholarship or room and board for their efforts. Most of them barely see any game action at all.
But there have been a few walk-ons who have emerged to earn scholarships and, in some cases, starring roles on the team. Former NU wide receiver Zeke Markshausen, now in training camp with the Kansas City Chiefs, is the most prominent former walk-on in recent memory, busting out his senior year with 91 receptions (second in the Big Ten) for 858 yards.
Other former walk-ons on the current Wildcats team who have earned scholarships include running back Jacob Schmidt, cornerback Ricky Weina, offensive lineman Doug Bartels and punter Brandon Williams.
Tyris Jones and Mike Jensen haven't earned their scholarships -- yet. Given their key roles for the football program on and off the field, I think they're good bets to get one by the time they reach their senior years.
I'll save the Jensen interview for later this week; up first is Jones, who came to NU from Fort Wayne, Ind., as a linebacker, before switching to running back last season. I asked the players about how the team looks so far in Kenosha and how they ended up as Wildcats, and I think they gave some interesting perspectives on what it's like to be a walk-on football player. Time to give these guys a turn in the spotlight.
SoP: What's the vibe at Kenosha this fall? Coach Fitz has talked about how intense the practices have been, and he's thrown a lot of starting spots up for grabs. What's your take on the status of the team?
TJ: It's definitely the most competitive vibe that I've been a part of. Ever since everybody got back from the bowl game, we knew we had a good group do players coming in, and it's just been hard work since spring ball started. This offseason, everybody was challenging each other. There's competition, and we've got depth at every position, so coming in to fall camp, everybody wants to be the starting guy across the board. There's a lot of emotion out there, a lot of passion. When you put six months of hard work into football, you want some payoff, and everybody's just fighting, fighting, fighting to be the No.1 guy.
SoP: You guys are getting some respect from national publications, and some have you ranked just outside the top 25. Do you sense a buzz around the program, and are you guys feeling that in camp?
TJ: We know we have a great team, but everybody's just focusing in on everybody being the best they can be. Myself personally, I haven't done any research on where people are ranking us, but we're really just focusing on taking a step at a time and making sure that we're at our peak when we roll into Boston College. If we can get better at every phase of the game every day, we're going to take the steps necessary to reach our goals. I don't think anybody's looking too far ahead and losing sight of what's important, and that's getting better in camp and ready for the opener.
SoP: For you, personally, what led you to choose Northwestern out of high school?
TJ: I looked at the program, doing some research and looking at Coach Fitz and looking at a place where I could not only excel academically but also have a chance to play on the football field. It's definitely a program that was on the rise, [with] a great head coach, and that was a big part of the decision for me. Having that leadership with coach Fitz is second to none. Then when you look at everything, being in a city like Evanston so close to Chicago, and being at an academic institution and being around smart football players, it's a recipe for success.
SoP: How does the recruitment process work for walk-on players like yourself?
TJ: In my situation, I was being recruited by a few schools within the state of Indiana. For NU in particular, I actually emailed a couple of the coaches -- coach Fitz and coach Mac [running backs coach and recruiting coordinator Matt MacPherson], to see if they had a spot for me. I sent in film, I came on a visit to the school and watched a practice, and then I got a call saying they had room on the team for me. I know a lot of other guys may have been recruited, like preferred walk-ons, but for me, I sent out film and reached out to the coaching staff.
SoP: Besides NU, what other schools were you considering?
TJ: For me, it was some of the smaller schools. I know a coach from Butler came to visit, Kenyon College, a coach from Rose-Hulman came, Washington University in St. Louis. Nothing really big. I wanted to set my sights high, and that's why I chose to walk on here.
SoP: During spring ball, you earned a lot of praise from the coaching staff, who said they were going to find a way to get you on the field. Now that you're in fall camp, where do you see your role on this 2011 team?
TJ: Just talking to the coaching staff and thinking about my goals, my role that I see with the team is wherever they need me to be. It's playing the fullback position, it's being the short yardage back, it's blocking, it's special teams, it's wherever they throw me in at and running with it and making my own. My goal is always to be the No. 1 RB, but if the team needs me to do other things, I'm ready for it.
SoP: Besides the obvious fact of not being on scholarship, is there a difference between being a walk-on player and a scholarship player at Northwestern? Are you guys handled differently, or do you guys feel different?
TJ: When I got here, a lot of players didn't actually know I was a walk-on. If you're not a highly recruited player, even if you're a scholarship player, you find yourself at the bottom of the depth chart. As a walk-on, you have to use your brain and your effort to find your way onto the field. As a walk-on anywhere, you're not going to get many opportunities, but when you get them, be mentally prepared and ready to step up.
SoP: Why stick with football, with all the hard practices, hours in the weight room and film room, and studying the playbook, if there's no scholarship and no glory as a walk-on player, and you're barely seeing the field?
TJ: It's a personal goal. I've always been smart. I've always gotten great grades, been a leader. But a lot of people didn't think I could play Division 1 football, and it's me proving to myself that I can come to a great program. Northwestern is a great athletic team, and it's my goal to get on the field here and really get some playing time and hopefully earn a scholarship.
SoP: Speaking of scholarships, there have been quite a few walk-ons here who have not only gone on to earn full-rides but also have played some prominent roles at NU. Zeke Markshausen obviously comes to mind, but you've also got guys like Jacob Schmidt and Ricky Weina. I'm sure that's pretty inspiring to all the walk-ons.
TJ: It just makes you want to work harder. When you see someone get as highly touted as a Zeke Markshausen, it just makes you work 10 times harder, because you know you're in a program that is going to give you every opportunity that you deserve to get on the field.
SoP: Off the field, what are your interests, and what do you hope to do after college?
TJ: I'm a social policy major, and I just finished up a clerk-ship with the Cook County Public Defender's Office. So after college, I think I'll take a few years to do some consulting, then eventually go to law school and practice criminal defense law, before I make my way to the United States Senate.