It’s probably for the best that Tyler Lancaster didn’t hold off on making his verbal commitment to Northwestern. His decision was official on June 8; had Lancaster waited until, say, August, or even mid-July, his final pre-decision school evaluation might well have included a few more scholarship offers, including Michigan State, Ohio State and Miami.
Those were some of the schools that approached Lancaster at Nike’s “The Opening” camp in Eugene, Oregon, last July. His ability to compete with some of the nation’s top prospects prompted a host of new programs that had otherwise missed on Lancaster to test the integrity of his Northwestern commitment. Lancaster enjoyed his experience, spurned any and all outside interest and left Eugene “very solid” on the Wildcats.
“It was definitely a lot of fun and a good experience,” Lancaster recalls of his time at the well-attended Nike Event. “A lot of coaches who hadn’t heard about me were able to see me.”
Everything Lancaster says about Northwestern is infused with an enthusiastic giddiness that makes one think, no matter when Lancaster decided to finalize his college choice, he would have picked the Wildcats all the same. In sum, Lancaster visited the Wildcats more than eight times, developed close personal relationships with assistants Dennis Springer and Adam Cushing and saw a local program who recently under Pat Fitzgerald has all but chiseled away the longstanding outside perception of predictable losing seasons and annual bowl-missing status and an overall low-grade football product, gaining momentum and recruiting benefits along the way, and is now ready to compete for a conference championship.
Last season’s 10 wins and Gator Bowl victory wasn’t a surprise. Lancaster expected it all along.
“I saw the way practices were run,” he said. “The team really impressed me. I knew they had great upside.”
Before he decided on Northwestern, Lancaster had to weigh one very important and potentially career-altering variable: what position would he play? Lancaster had played on the offensive line since seventh grade, his first time suiting up in pads and a helmet. As a Wildcat, he faced the distinct possibility of lining up on the other side of the ball.
A workout at defensive tackle in front of Fitzgerald and other coaches hinted at Lancaster’s future. Classmate Brad North’s commitment at center was the writing on the wall. Lancaster new he would be moving to defensive line at the next level.
“I didn’t know for sure before I committed,” he said. “But I kind of had a feeling.”
A position switche this late in your football development is no small thing. Fortunately Lancaster, who had seen time along the defensive line during his junior season at Plainfield East High School (Illinois) and took on more reps there as a senior, was perfectly content to make the conversion. Matter of fact, he eagerly welcomed the change.
Tackling, the brutal and primitively fundamental essence of defensive football, has always lied at the nexus of Lancaster’s innermost football desires. Getting the opportunity to unleash his long-held visceral inclination for disrupting, and not protecting, ball carriers, Lancaster gladly accepted his move across the trenches.
“I’ve always loved to tackle,” he said. “I’ve played offensive line most of my life, but I consider myself a defensive lineman at heart.”
Current depth chart dynamics – where the Wildcats begin the season with just three defensive tackles (Will Hampton, Chance Carter and Sean McEvily) with actual game experience – allow the possibility for a big (6’3’’, 275 pounds) and physical presence like Lancaster to challenge for playing time on the interior defensive line. His goals this season, first and foremost, are to get on the field – like, the real, actual, FBS-regulated area of competition.
If he can’t make the team straight out of camp, Lancaster at least wants to be considered as a reserve defensive tackle. A redshirt season isn’t Lancaster’s (or most players’, frankly) optimally imagined true freshman experience, but he will – probably begrudgingly, even if he didn’t expressly say so – be happy with however Fitzgerald and coaches decide to use him this season.
“I definitely want to beat some guys,” he said. “I don’t want tobe at the bottom of the totem pole. I want to be looked at as a good player.”
Depth concerns at his position, and an unproven stable of backups, gives Lancaster a very real opportunity to shred his redshirt and grapple with Big Ten opponents as soon as this season. When Northwestern’s first game comes around, a 9:30 pm CT kick at Cal on August 31, after weeks of preseason camp, Lancaster doesn’t want to be left behind.
“I’m competing for a spot on that plane,” he says.
Thanks to a thin assortment of defensive tackle reserve options, Lancaster’s chance to not only compete and be looked at as a “real player”, but earn real playing time in real games is a reasonable goal to shoot for.
Plane tickets to Berkeley are an exclusive privilege for true freshmen in 2013, and by the end of summer, Lancaster could play his way into the discussion.