Northwestern University and Evanston's Only Daily News Source Since 1881

The Daily Northwestern

Northwestern University and Evanston's Only Daily News Source Since 1881

The Daily Northwestern

Northwestern University and Evanston's Only Daily News Source Since 1881

The Daily Northwestern

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Life on the sidelines

Practice has ended and the last couple of Northwestern football players trickle into the team’s locker room on this chilly fall night.

Darkness falls over the Wildcats’ empty practice field, but one player remains at the far end of the facility. For about 20 minutes, freshman linebacker Kyle Wagner runs through basic footwork drills over and over again.

“I’m not playing because I’m not as good as I need to be,” Wagner said. “I want to be there one day, and I’m not going to get there by sitting around.”

Wagner is one of 24 redshirt freshmen who probably won’t play for the Cats this year but will still have four more years of eligibility remaining after the season.

NU coaches said most likely only four freshmen will see game action in 2003: center Trevor Rees, defensive lineman Trevor Schultz, and linebackers Adam Kadela and Nick Roach.

“I would like to think freshmen can make a significant contribution if we are going to play them and burn a redshirt year,” NU coach Randy Walker said. “If they can’t we like to hold them out.”

Redshirts watch away games on television and spend much of practice preparing the starters for the opposition, but the quest to play brings them together to form “a team within a team.”

Game time … or not

It’s the first week of the Big Ten season and NU is playing the defending national champion Buckeyes in front of more than 100,000 fans.

Wide receiver Tonjua “T.J.” Jones goes to ESPN Zone in Chicago with several other redshirt freshmen to catch the game on big screens, while Wagner watches with several others in the second-floor lounge of Sargent Hall.

Freshman quarterback Chris Malleo is the lucky one. He can’t be found on the Cats’ depth chart, but he’s on the sideline for this game tracking the offensive plays for the coaches.

Malleo (from a New Jersey prep school), Wagner (from a private school in Florida), and Jones (from a public school in Michigan), were all-state performers in high school, and each assumed he would play for NU this year.

But that was before the Cats’ preseason camp started and reality set in for them.

“I realized the first couple of days I needed a lot of work to really compete at this level,” Jones said. “But now I’m definitely grateful to get the extra year to get better.”

The freshmen convincingly rattle off the benefits of redshirting: the chance to improve technique, get stronger, learn the system and watch the veterans.

But it only takes a few words to discuss not playing in games.

“I think about what it takes to get on the field every day, ” Wagner said. “Redshirting means I didn’t prepare enough. If you work hard enough, you don’t have to redshirt.”

Ask any of them if they would rather play this season and the response is immediate and abrupt: “Anyone would want to play.”

Playing, competing, winning. This is what drives athletes, and redshirts grapple with it daily — a year of practice, not a single game.

“Not playing and watching the games, that’s the toughest thing, period,” said NU quarterback Brett Basanez, who redshirted in 2001. “(It’s) having to practice without having the payoffs on Saturday.”

For redshirts Saturday home games mean huddling together behind the coaches and cheering on teammates. They never remove their helmets and they never leave their feet.

“We don’t sit because we don’t do anything,” Jones said.

But as a quarterback, Malleo gets the opportunity to chart plays for the coaching staff. Tracking the plays helps the quarterback learn the offense, and he gets to know the offensive play call before each down.

“Everyone always asks me what play we are running,” Malleo said. “The wide receivers and Justin Chabot (NU’s director of football operations) always ask.”

Malleo has had the chance to go to most of the games, but the majority of the redshirts, including Wagner and Jones, only get to travel to away games or stay in the team hotel the night before home games a couple of times during the season.

“On Fridays people always ask, ‘Aren’t you on the football team, and didn’t you guys leave already?'” Jones said. “I have to explain what redshirting is and then they usually say, ‘Well, I’ll look out for you next year.'”

Scouting it out

Jones lines up wide and, before the ball is snapped, makes the arm motion synonymous with a traveling violation in basketball. The wide receiver wears the white No. 3 jersey and a plain purple helmet at this practice taking place a week before the Oct. 25 game against Wisconsin.

Jones doesn’t usually make the arm motion, and he’s not No. 3, but at this practice he’s Lee Evans, the Badgers’ star wide receiver.

The following week there’s no motion and the number on his back changes. Jones becomes Purdue wide receiver Taylor Stubblefield, and each week after that he has a new assignment on the scout team.

“Lee Evans was fun, but it was a lot of running with all the deep routes,” Jones said. “I just like weeks when we play passing offenses like Purdue.”

The scout team mimics the opposition’s offense to familiarize the first-team defense with the plays it will encounter on Saturday. The NU coaches usually bark instructions to the starters in between plays while first-year graduate assistant Jim O’Neil instructs the scout team offense about what plays they will run next and what to look out for.

“Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday are like my game day, ” Jones said. “That’s my chance to play football. You forget you’re on scout team and you try to make plays.”

Jones relishes the chance to improve his route running against NU’s starting defensive backs, and a smile flashes across his face when he mentions squaring off against cornerback Marvin Ward.

“He likes to talk and I talk back,” Jones said with a laugh. “But I keep him quiet most of the time.”

Well, not according to Ward.

“I tease him that he’s still the redshirt freshman,” said Ward after practice Tuesday. “When he starts catching some passes in the game, then he can start talking to me.”

Trash talking aside, Jones speaks about Ward with respect and admiration. After practice or between drills, the freshman asks the upperclassman for advice and tips.

At practice Basanez might jokingly call Jones “A.J.” instead of “T.J.,” but Basanez, Ward, and the veterans understand the need to provide guidance for the younger players.

“You always like to encourage them and let them know they’re getting better,” said Ward, who redshirted in 2000. “They have to feel like they belong and are part of the team. We need them just as much as they need us.”

Jones takes pride in preparing the defense for opponents. But he doesn’t brag about getting to play the role of Evans, Stubblefield or any of the other top Big Ten receivers.

“I just run the play on the card so the ball gets thrown to me,” Jones said. “I don’t emulate Lee Evans, I want to be better than Lee Evans one day.”

‘Team within a team’

A cutout of Drew Brees, the Big Ten’s all-time leading passer, a list of goals and a piece of paper with the phrase “Rose Bowl 20,54” are tacked on the wall above Chris Malleo’s bed.

The “20,54” is a mistake Malleo made when he was tired one night. The sign is suppose to say 2,054 — the number of miles to the Rose Bowl.

But neither the flawed sign nor sitting on the sideline this season has caused Malleo to lose focus of his goal: helping NU win a Big Ten title and a trip to Pasadena, Calif.

“Chris gets us redshirts thinking about bowl games and how we’re gonna be there one day, ” freshman running back Nathan Shanks said. “We’re kind of a close-knit group, and we know that we’re going to get a chance. We just have to stick with it.”

The 19-year-old Malleo welcomes the opportunity to become one of the leaders of NU’s developmental squad, which is composed of mostly redshirt freshmen.

The squad lifts weights at different times than the rest of the team, and the coaches g
ive these players 20 minutes of individualized instruction after the team’s Thursday practice.

“We have a core group of redshirts all learning together,” Malleo said. “We’re developing a bond that will carry over through our fifth year.”

The developmental squad must lift weights three times a week — Sunday, Wednesday and Friday mornings — but Malleo and others approached strength coach Larry Lilja about an extra workout.

For the past four Tuesdays, many of the redshirts who don’t have class come to the stadium before practice to work together for an hour on their speed and agility.

“We try to build that tightness with the freshman class,” Walker said. “It’s difficult to go out and do all this hard work without a payday, so you build togetherness.”

Malleo and several of the wide receivers and defensive backs meet at the indoor facility across from Ryan Field every Monday afternoon when the team has the day off.

For about an hour and a half, Malleo throws balls to the receivers running routes one-on-one against the defensive backs.

“During the indoor workout, no one is standing on the side. It’s full go and it’s our chance to shine,” Malleo said. “It’s a chance to get our reps and take out our frustration.”

When the indoor workout ends, the players come together for their break.

“1 … 2 … 3 … Rose Bowl.”

“We want to go to a bowl and win it,” Malleo said. “We want to be on ABC and we want Brent Musberger to be highlighting our game.”

But it won’t matter if the game is on television. Malleo, Wagner, Jones and the rest of the redshirts will be on the field.

They guarantee it.

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Northwestern University and Evanston's Only Daily News Source Since 1881
Life on the sidelines