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Which of Northwestern's redshirt freshmen are underperforming?

Last season, three first-year players (Dean Lowry, Traveon Henry and Dan Vitale) used up their first years of eligibility without redshirting. Through two games in 2013, the only true freshman who has played is cornerback Matt Harris.

In the preseason, Coach Pat Fitzgerald talked about “flight deck guys” – a detailed “Top Gun” reference describing players who could lose their redshirt at some point during the season – and on Tuesday mentioned running back Warren Long, a former three-star recruit out of James Logan (CA) high school, as one befitting that designation.

At first reading, this bit of news took me by surprise. Fitzgerald has long reiterated his preference to redshirt first-year players, and the position he was considering burning a redshirt on, running back, is one of Northwestern’s deepest. Playing Harris right away was a reasonable decision, given the Wildcats’ lack of depth at cornerback, and it made even more sense once starter Daniel Jones was lost for the year after suffering a knee injury. But using up a valuable year of eligibility on Long, when Northwestern already features a versatile complement of backs (even without injured star Venric Mark), didn’t seem to make a whole lot of sense. Practice reports indicate Long could lose his redshirt as early as this weekend, against Western Michigan.

The biggest motivation to play Long is obvious: Long is a talented player who has performed well throughout the summer and in practices. Adding him to an already potent offense would only make Northwestern more difficult to defend. A comment from Fitzgerald earlier this week about Northwestern’s redshirt freshmen may have hinted at an ancillary reason.

“I thought the offseason was very positive for that group, collectively, and I think we’re improving there. We’re not where we need to be. I’m not going to mention names, but the guys know who they are. The great things about games is the eye in the sky doesn’t lie, and some guys have got to play better if they want to continue to be in the roles they’re in. If they want to continue to be in the rotation, they need to play better.” 

Coaches make comments like this – obscure enough to withhold the key piece of information he’s implying, but not stating directly – when trying to light a fire under a certain player. I wouldn’t expect Fitzgerald to out one of his guys to the media, but based on the class specification, the imminent insertion of Long into the running back mix, and the startling lack of production and offensive involvement, I circle back to one name: Malin Jones.

After two games, Jones, a highly touted three-star recruit (who rebuffed offers from Notre Dame, Louisville, Boston College and others), has carried just twice for -3 yards and recorded one reception for six yards. Throughout spring camp, and at many points during the preseason, I believed Jones was talented enough to shoot up the running back depth chart and solidify himself as the Wildcats’ No. 2 back. Instead, Jones has watched other players – including Treyvon Green and Stephen Buckley – become more prominent parts of the offense.

To reiterate: I cannot guarantee Fitzgerald is talking specifically about Jones, nor is it likely he’s singling out one player. He mentioned guys who “have got to play better if they want to continue to be in the roles they’re in.” There are a number of redshirt freshmen listed on Northwestern’s latest two-deep – from safety Terrance Brown to cornerback Dwight White to receiver Andrew Scanlan, and others. Among that group, who, besides Jones, has unperformed to the point of putting himself at risk of losing his spot on the depth chart?

Replacing Jones with White at cornerback hasn’t gone as smoothly as one would have hoped. And maybe Ifeadi Odenigbo hasn’t played to the level his high school pedigree implied, but is there anyone else to point out here? Who am I missing?

At least to me, those three guys – especially Jones, considering the likelihood of Long playing this season – seem like the main targets of Fitzgerald’s comments. We can’t know for sure, and probably never will. The only definitive conclusion we can make is that a few members of Northwestern’s 2012 recruiting class are not performing as well as their head coach would like. Anything on top of that is circumstantial hypothesizing and speculative guesswork. And yeah, guilty as charged. I’m merely reading the situation and trying to piece the facts, and quotes, in front of me into something cohesive and logical. I could be completely missing the point.

Rest assured, the players those comments were truly directed toward have already heard this message, likely in a less restrained tone, and at a higher volume. The underperforming redshirt freshmen know they aren’t doing their jobs as well as expected, and now, not only is Northwestern’s coach voicing his displeasure publicly, but potentially making personnel moves to incite better performance.