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Interview with a walk-on: Mike Jensen

NU's 10-player Football Leadership Council is populated mostly by players that you've heard of: Dan PersaBrian Peters, Quentin WilliamsTyler Scott and so on.

But also listed on there is Mike Jensen, a redshirt sophomore wide receiver who last year became the first walk-on voted by his teammates to the Leadership Council and then this year got voted in again. The Leadership Council is a group that meets regularly with coach Fitz to talk about the state of the team and also leads offseason workouts. That obviously speaks volumes about how well-regarded he is among his peers.

But Jensen isn't just respected for his leadership. He can play a little, too. After playing all 13 games last year on special teams and then excelling in spring ball, he's listed on the preseason two-deep as a back-up wide receiver to Charles Brown. The depth chart will likely change by the time the BC game rolls around, but given how much NU rotates its wide-outs, Jensen is definitely in the mix for some playing time.

I got a chance to talk to him earlier this week about the team and his career (along with fellow walk-on Tyris Joneswhom I profiled here), and he shared his unlikely story of how an unheralded defensive back from California became a team leader at wide receiver for Northwestern.


SoP: How's fall camp going so far for the team? I'm hearing reports about how competitive the practices have been, even some skirmishes breaking out between guys. How's the team look?

MJ: I'm really feeling that everybody's very antsy and excited about the possibilities that we have this season. We're all going hard, and skirmishes happen every now and then, but it's all in good fun.

SoP: The athletic department has launched a huge marketing campaign for Dan Persa's Heisman candidacy. Has that been a distraction for the team at all, and how's Dan handling the attention?

MJ: I think Dan's doing great, handling it very well, and it hasn't been too much of a distraction. We just try to stay together as a team and focus on each practice each day. I think the coaches and all the team have done really well on being focused and ready for the next day.

SoP: Going back to when you were in high school and exploring your options for college, what made you choose Northwestern? Did the coaching staff recruit you, or did you reach out to them?

MJ: I just really wanted to play big-time football. With Northwestern, I went out and showed them some film, and it ended up that it was the best match for me, between being able to play football at the highest level I could and it being a great academic school. There was no way I could say no to that. I ended up here, and I couldn't be happier about it.

SoP: Being from California, what attracted you about Northwestern and what did you know about the school before you committed?

MJ: I had heard about Northwestern and the Big Ten, and that they were just continuing to get better. I was throwing out my film to a lot of teams, and I wanted to make sure Northwestern was one of those. I went out to a one-day camp there. I met coach Fitz and [defensive backs coach Jerry] Brown, because I originally came in as a DB. I just really liked the vibe from the coaches. All through the recruitment process, they were just very honest with me, which was very nice. When the opportunity came available, I jumped on it.

SoP: What other schools were you considering?

MJ: I was talking a lot to University of Pennsylvania in the Ivy League, and then I was talking to Boston College. I just really wanted to play football at the highest level I could. I was just really excited about the coaching staff here, and when I came and visited, it felt like a family, which I really enjoyed, compared to some of the other schools I visited. With the match of Big Ten football, it's hard to beat that.

SoP: You've been named to the Leadership Council, which is a great honor. How did you rise up into a leadership role on the team, especially as a walk-on?

MJ: Coming in, I didn't want to see myself as a lesser athlete or a lesser player, so I just came in acting like I was one of the guys and just bonded with all the guys I was coming in with. I looked at myself as if I could play at that level. I didn't take it like I was a walk-on, and I guess I earned the players respect, which I'm very honored to have done that.

SoP: And now you're on the two-deep behind Charles Brown. You came in as a DB, then got switched to wide receiver last year. Was that transition difficult, and how are you preparing for your role in the receiver rotation?

MJ: It's a huge honor and I'm every excited about it. Coming in on defense, I felt like that helped a lot. Once I started my transition to the offensive side of the ball, I understood defenses really well, and it helped me read them and understand why we're running certain routes and certain techniques. And then the guys on the offensive side of the ball, like Ebert and Markshausen, really helped me evolve and understand the offensive side of things. Now, being able to get some reps and get on the two-deep is something I'm excited about, and I'm just trying to learn and be consistent.

SoP: Give me a scouting report of your abilities and how you envision your role on the 2011 team.

MJ: I would say that I am going to be very involved in the special teams and work hard, and I'm excited to get into some of the rotation at inside wide receiver. I'm just going to take advantage of any opportunities that come my way throughout the season, whatever those may be.

SoP: What's it like to be a walk-on at Northwestern? Is there a notable difference in how the coaching staff treats you or how your teammates treat you?

MJ: There's not really much difference. That's what I've loved about the school. You can be on the team, and once you're on the team, scholarship or walk-on, you're really part of a team and a family, and to be honest, I couldn't even tell you who all the walk-ons are because the team is so integrated. I think the coaching staff has been great with that, and the team has been very accepting of everyone. Being a walk-on is very easy here.

SoP: One of the perks I've heard that scholarship players enjoy that walk-ons don't get are the training table meals. Is that true?

MJ: It depends on the meal plan that the walk-on buys for himself. We can go eat with the team, we're not restricted from it. It's just that they haven't paid for it for us. We can go in and eat with them, but it's just that we'll have to pay for it. [Note: Check out this old AP article that kind of explains how training table meals are paid for by walk-ons.]

SoP: Do the NU walk-ons go to those meals?

MJ: I would say most walk-ons go to them. We like being part of the team, so we all show up.

SoP: I'm sure a lot of people wonder why you would bother being a walk-on and having to put all that time and energy into football, especially when you're not getting a lot of playing time. What do you get out of football, as a walk-on?

MJ: For me, it comes down to just loving the game. I couldn't imagine not playing football and just watching it from the stands. I just love football so much, I want to be a part of it. I believe in my heart that I can play. That's what keeps me going and gives me that drive to play.

SoP: There have been quite a few walk-ons at NU who have earned scholarships, like Zeke Markshausen and Jacob Schmidt. Is that something in the back of your mind at all times, trying to earn that scholarship?  

MJ: It really bolsters my spirit to know that I can work hard and that there could be something at the end of it. One of my goals is to get a scholarship here, so to see that it can happen at a place like this is very inspiring.

SoP: One last question: Outside of football, what are your interests and what do you hope to do after college?

MJ: I'm majoring in mechanical engineering, so I'd like to do something with that after college. Not sure where that will lead me. Outside of football, I'm very involved in Athletes in Action, which is a Christian group on campus. I'm one of the leaders of that, and I love going to church and all that. I'd say that's really who I am.