Tailback Turnaround

Tania Ganguli

In Northwestern’s Randy Walker era, it’s always been about a running back.

There was Damien Anderson, with his 2,000-yard season and “Damien Anderson for Heisman” T-shirts that lingered long after he was gone. Then there was Jason Wright, whose presence at an NU basketball game once prompted fans to start chanting his name.

Noah Herron never thought he would be watching from the wings while his teammates took the spotlight. He thought he would be fielding interviews and breaking records his freshman year. Instead he spent his first two years angry and apathetic.

Nobody respected him. It was the coaches’ fault he hadn’t realized his potential. He scheduled a class at a junior college, thinking maybe things would get better if he transferred.

Everyone thought he didn’t work hard. They didn’t know what he could do. Nobody knew what they were missing. There had to be someone else to blame.

Then it hit him.

“Everything I was unhappy about was my fault,” Herron said. “It was me adjusting to a college coaching staff. It just took me longer to adjust to college — school, football, everything.”

Herron’s attitude turned around, and he waited patiently while Wright remained the go-to guy. After Wright left, Herron became the next verse in the Wildcats’ litany of great tailbacks. He averages 115 yards per game this season and is the Big Ten’s second leading rusher.

“Before I got here, the only good running back was Darnell Autry,” Herron said. “Since I’ve been here, it’s been Damien Anderson, Jason Wright.

“I feel like I’m better than all of them, but if you don’t think that, you suck as a player.”

GIVING IN

Without hesitation, Herron’s coaches say he lacked work ethic during his freshman and sophomore years.

Herron doesn’t deny it. He didn’t like NU — it felt small, gossipy and boring — he wasn’t doing well, and he didn’t like football.

He suffered a bad knee injury during a high school all-star game, and spent the first part of his career recovering. He also dealt with a broken foot and chronic back pains from stress fractures.

“He was recovering form a bad knee injury but was still playing really well and still fighting back,” said Wright, who is now on the Atlanta Falcons’ practice squad. “Sometimes when you have that much pain you can’t go as much as everybody else, and the trainers limit you. That doesn’t sit well with coaches, especially for a new guy.”

People mistook his caution for laziness and Herron resented that judgement.

“I didn’t really feed into it,” Herron said. “I’m the kind of person that if you don’t show me respect, I shut down. I really didn’t care.”

Herron said he quickly found out that if he didn’t care, his college coaches wouldn’t either.

Wright, who played special teams and jumped among positions for a few years, had a mentality similar to Herron’s, and the two grew equally frustrated. They sulked together and became friends through it.

“There are some kids who you see and think they’ll probably never play or transfer,” said Kevin Johns, who was a graduate assistant Herron’s freshman year and returned last spring as the running backs coach. “(Herron) just wasn’t getting some of the things Coach Walker instituted in his program.

“It just took a while for the light to go on for Noah.”

One day Wright got his lucky break — and it came at Herron’s expense. In early November 2001, Anderson suffered a season-ending shoulder injury.

Herron and two other running backs were his replacement candidates.

But Herron fractured his left foot on Nov. 7, the Wednesday before the game he said he would have started. Another tailback hurt his knee, so Walker moved Wright from wideout back to running back.

Wright didn’t play much that year, but he built from the opportunity.

“Jason had a good spring. I was still recovering,” Herron said. “I really felt that if I didn’t get hurt, I would have played the last three games, and it would’ve been my job to have for the next three years.”

Instead the downward spiral continued.

CAN’T GO HOME AGAIN

After that 2001 season, Herron decided to transfer.

He wasn’t happy, he was always injured and coaches wanted to make him a linebacker or a fullback. Herron didn’t have a final destination in mind — he just wanted to leave NU.

“When things are going poorly you think, ‘When was the last time I was comfortable?'” Wright said. “For most of us, that’s home.”

Home, for Herron, is the rural town of Mattawan, Mich., where he lived with his parents and two sisters. When Herron was in fourth grade, his father decided to keep sheep and chickens for a few years.

“I used to have to get up before school and feed them, bale the hay,” Herron said. “My dad grew up on a farm, so it was getting back to his childhood. He still worked for Pfizer, but he had sheep. It was terrible.”

His father, Ronald Herron, was a local football hero in high school. He received Division I offers but didn’t want to leave home.

“He was like, well, I still have to do my chores,” Herron said.

When Herron was in junior high, his father re-started an eighth-grade football program and asked his son to play. Noah Herron had played soccer his whole life but decided to give football a shot. The game was easy for him because he was bigger than everybody else.

Injuries to other players allowed Herron to get called up to the varsity team his freshman year of high school, and he helped his team to its first winning season in years.

“In high school I could wake up and rush for 300 yards,” Herron said.

He also ran track and played baseball his senior year. He’ll say he was really good at baseball — before sheepishly admitting he led the team in strikeouts.

“But when I hit the ball, it was a home run,” he said.

Herron went home every weekend he wasn’t traveling during his redshirt year, and homesickness added to his problems at school. His dad has been to every game Herron has played in or been on the sidelines for, even when Herron was redshirting. Still, Herron didn’t really talk about his decision to leave NU with his family.

“They were like, ‘Oh, you’re in college, that’s good,’ and it was free,” Herron said. “I felt like it was my problem and not theirs. I didn’t tell them about it until the end.”

His mother helped him schedule classes at a junior college near Mattawan and Herron was ready to go. At some point Herron realized the reason he went to NU was for the education. Ultimately he decided that was reason enough to stay.

And if he was going to stay, he was going to make it worth it.

DOGHOUSE TO TOP DOG

Herron worked to develop the straight-ahead running style that Walker championed, and crawled out of “the doghouse” he had been in his first few years.

“I got things turned around, and it worked out OK, I guess,” Herron said.

Johns returned to NU last spring as running backs coach to find a completely different man wearing No. 33. He found a tailback who had bought into Walker’s tough coaching philosophy and stopped thinking the coaching staff was out to get him.

“This season means the world to him,” Johns said. “It means so much to him. He is making the most of every opportunity. We literally have to pull him out of the game because he refuses to come back.

“He wants every snap.”

This year he gets the ball on almost every down.

He had a career-high 197 yards against Indiana. His 175 yards at Penn State made him NU’s eighth 1,000-yard rusher, and Herron reached the milestone after only nine games. He also scored game- winning touchdowns in upsets over Ohio State and Purdue.

Monday morning Herron sauntered into the Cats’ weekly press conference with receiver Ashton Aikens, defensive tackle Barry Cofield and cornerback Marvin Ward.

Herron walked at the head of the line, then stopped as he got to the front of the room.

“Defense on that side,” he said, directing
his fellow upperclassmen.

These press conferences are a regular part of his week now. Afterward, a team liaison stopped him and reeled off his interview appointments for the week.

NU football now means Noah Herron.

That’s not important to Herron, though. Saturdays are important. Saturdays are when he shows the nation how far he has come.

“It’s just the validation of the kind of player and the kind of leader he always knew he was,” Wright said. “He’s been ready for this a very long time.”

Reach Tania Ganguli

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