Early risers

Matt Donnelly

It’s 39 days until Christmas, but who’s counting anyway. Here’s Randy Walker’s wish list:

Four running backs.

Three defensive tackles.

Two starting safeties.

One wide receiver.

And a quarterback who isn’t hit on every play.

The injuries and inconsistencies tearing apart Northwestern this season have forced its coaching staff to make some difficult decisions, some of which will echo into the next three years.

“When you’re out there playing demolition derby, everybody’s got a fender bender,” offensive coordinator Kevin Wilson said. “Nobody in college ball is fresh — except the kicker.”

With bumps and bruises knocking out a new starter every game, the Wildcats have depended on the performance of their true freshmen as much as their seniors.

And at NU, these bright-eyed youngsters only months out of high school have been yanked from the cradle and dropped on the field. They are 18-year-olds asked to perform in spots where 23-year-olds were too beaten up.

“I was nervous,” said Cats defensive tackle Luis Castillo, a true freshman. “It was a big deal — I didn’t expect to be playing this year.”

Walker has unredshirted several players this year in order to replace his starting safeties, his starting defensive tackles and to add more wide receivers. But with just two games left and players still dropping like flies, Walker and his staff said it’s too late in the season to bring anyone else into the spotlight.

And with NU’s bowl hopes dimming to a distant twinkle, many of the freshmen know that these final games and practices of the fall are in a sense the first weeks of spring practice.

“They’re going to be young and inexperienced, but they’re going get a lot of snaps to put them ahead of the game,” Walker said. “They’re going to be great players.”

Walker’s most recent patch-up job is reshuffling his receivers into the backfield to piece together a ground attack after season-ending injuries to star running back Damien Anderson and his backups. Meanwhile, scout star and highly touted running back recruit Jeff Backes sits on the bench. And although the Cats could use the help, Walker and his staff have said they will play out the remainder of the season with who they have.

Walker said he would rather not move freshmen from where they are playing now. For the most part, wideout Ashton Aikens could easily slide to tailback, but Walker would rather see his recruit develop as a wide receiver. Walker added that the move would also put too much on Aikens’ plate.

“Let’s coach him up here at wide receiver and get him playing as well as he can play,” Walker said.

Wilson said even if the Cats were 9-0, he would still start the same thinning crew.

“We still have enough good players,” Wilson said. “It’s unfair to unredshirt a kid with two games to play.”

WOUNDED WALL

Thomas Derricks knew he wasn’t coming to NU to be a scout team player. A blue chipper out of high school, Derricks put on a show during NU’s training camp in Kenosha, Wis. It was a display that earned him game time during the season opener against UNLV on Sept. 7.

But the emotions involved with jogging out to the field during a nationally televised game were more than Derricks had anticipated.

On his first play, UNLV’s offensive guard and tackle got the jump and forced Derricks backward about five yards off the line of scrimmage. It was basically two 6-foot-3, 300-plus pound bullies pushing the kid around like a rag doll.

“It seemed like I was out there for half a second,” Derricks said. “I definitely got a lesson about how fast the game went. After that it went smoothly, but I was still running around out there like a chicken with his head cut off.”

At the time, Derricks was spelling senior defensive tackles Pete Chapman and Salem Simon in the middle of NU’s defensive line — also joining the ranks of three sophomores competing for the spot. But a couple of early-season injuries that doomed an already faltering defense opened the door for Derricks. Chapman was lost for the season shortly after the UNLV game with a blood clot in his leg, and senior defensive end Pete Konopka reinjured his back, shifting Simon to the outside.

“Freshman year has been a learning experience — both good and bad the way I look at it,” Derricks said. “And when I say bad, it’s just an opportunity for me to get better. It’s very interesting playing Big Ten college football — learning how fast and how tough it is. But when I look back, I think there’s always room for improvement.”

At the start of the season, Derricks, just four months out of Jesuit Prep High School in Garland, Texas, was lining up across from — and beside — possible NFL prospects.

Then with a couple of strokes of bad luck, Derricks was second-string defensive lineman. Now he’s a starter.

Luis Castillo and John Pickens have similar stories.

Pickens, a backup to senior linebacker Kevin Bentley, has muscled his way to 20 tackles in eight games this season.

At 6-foot-4 and 265 pounds, Castillo has filled in the gaps of NU’s defense, as well. The true freshman from Garfield, N.J., was brought into the mix as more linemen began to tumble. When backup-turned-starter Matt Anderson wrecked his knee against Penn State, NU was forced to scrape the barrel for bodies for its line.

Derricks became a starter and Castillo got the call as a second-stringer. He saw his first moments of Big Ten football at Purdue on Oct. 27.

“It wasn’t high school,” Castillo said. “But when I got that first hit, I got up, looked around and thought, ‘This is nothing — this is nothing at all.'”

Castillo notched a pair of tackles against the Boilermakers. His 12 unassisted tackles in just three games pulled him even with Derricks, and he is more productive than several of his more seasoned teammates. Still, listening to Castillo talk about the experience conjures images of a little guy finally being allowed to hang out with the big kids.

“At first I was worried — concerned I wasn’t doing so good — but once I started playing, it was the greatest feeling in the world,” Castillo said. “And I am so happy I got a chance to help this year — that’s all I wanted to do. It’s just awesome being with these guys.”

But Walker still balks a bit at his team’s inexperience.

“They’re probably not as far along physically as you’d like them to be — maybe not as mature as you’d like guys to be,” Walker said on Saturday, after he had watched Iowa rush for 283 yards. “Good coaches in the league find where you’re weak and vulnerable and they’re getting after us pretty good there.”

WAITING GAME

No one knows how complicated the decision to redshirt can be more than Jovan Witherspoon. The 21-year-old receiver is a redshirt freshman by NCAA standards.

Witherspoon transferred to NU from Notre Dame after just one game with the Fighting Irish in 1999. The blue and gold simply wasn’t a good fit for him.

“It was like putting a square peg in a circle hole,” Witherspoon said.

So Witherspoon came to Evanston and sat out the 2000 season, as mandated by NCAA rules. Then a broken left foot in spring ball sidelined him through the first few games of this season.

In the meantime, he and his family appealed the NCAA to regain eligibility for the year he forfeited by playing in one game for Notre Dame.

As they waited for the NCAA’s ruling, NU’s coaching staff pondered whether or not to redshirt Witherspoon.

“We could have got three or four games of experience, maybe 15 or 30 snaps,” Wilson said. “But at the time, we didn’t know that.”

When the appeal came through, Walker and his coaching staff decided to put Witherspoon to work this season — with the knowledge that he will have three more years remaining in his college career.

“I learned a lot from this year because it’s been so frustrating,” Witherspoon said. “I just love playing football and when I’m not, it’s hard for me.”

His three receptions against Indiana on Nov. 3 were his first in more than two years.

“That’s a lot for a college player to have to go through,” Witherspoon said.

OPENING THE SAFE

Maybe it was all too much.

For the second year in a row, NU’s pass coverage has been a sore point on one of the worst overall defenses in the Big Ten. Face-guarding and poor containment have been major stumbling blocks, but the biggest loss to the squad — and the team — was the death of senior strong safety Rashidi Wheeler in August.

Since that point, the Cats have been chaotically plugging leaks in the secondary, throwing out a new combination every week. The star player one Saturday could be watching from the sidelines the next game.

Unlike the defensive line, NU’s backfield was plagued by small, nagging injuries that worsened over the season. After five weeks of chasing receivers to the end zone, starting safeties Sean Wieber and Marvin Brown needed rest to nurse sore ankles and knees. Those injuries eventually ended their seasons. And with backup Jarvis Adams out with injury, Walker again looked to true freshmen to replace his veteran defenders.

“I wasn’t nervous,” said safety Dominique Price, a true freshman. “I felt like I had been here a while, going through camp with these guys. I had a lot of experience with them. And I felt that going through practice with them, I was ready to perform for them.”

Price first stepped in for Brown against Penn State on Oct. 20 and recorded an impressive four solo tackles — as many as Wieber or Brown had made in one game all season.

The next week at Purdue, freshman safety Herschel Henderson lost his redshirt too, helping Price fill in for Wieber and Brown.

“It was nerve-racking,” Henderson said. “I was looking at the stands instead of looking at coach for the coverage.”

Since guarding against the Boilermakers and their “basketball on grass” offense, Price and Henderson have watched Indiana and Iowa pass for more than 300 yards in consecutive weeks.

Walker knows Price and Henderson will continue to make mistakes, but he also knows the staff has a lot of time to correct them. And he plans on coaching them every step of the way.

“We’ve got a great opportunity now because we don’t get to coach them until April,” Walker said. “Well, let’s coach our butt off because these are still young guys who are very impressionable and have a chance to improve. Let’s get the best improvement we can.”