It may have come sooner than expected. It may have come under unfortunate circumstances.
Coach Pat Fitzgerald knows the time has come. The future is now.
“I think the future is every day, ” Fitzgerald said. “You can’t play for down the road, you’ve got to play for the moment and prepare for the moment.”
Due to season-ending injuries to senior running backs Tyrell Sutton and Omar Conteh and senior linebacker Malcolm Arrington, players have had to step up. Sophomore running back Stephen Simmons and sophomore linebacker Nate Williams have filled the big shoes left in front of them, and started creating their own identities – ones that will be more clearly defined over the next several seasons.
Asked to provide his one proudest moment of his 8-3 Wildcats, Fitzgerald could not name a single game or play. Instead, he praised the efforts of players like Williams and Simmons.
“We’ve had a tremendous amount of young men that day one their role was A and now their role is B,” Fitzgerald said. “To see the way they’ve gone about preparing for that, and when that opportunity presented itself, playing their hearts out, that’s what I’m most proud of.”
Arrington injured his knee attempting to tackle Purdue running back Kory Sheets in the middle of October. Since then, Williams has started four consecutive games in the heart of the Northwestern defense at middle linebacker. In games that he’s started, Williams has totaled 34 tackles, 2.5 tackles for loss and one sack.
“It’s great experience just to be playing with the guys,” Williams said. “It was an unfortunate opportunity, but it’s what you’ve got to capitalize on.”
A season ago, Arrington fluctuated in and out of the starting lineup for the second half of the season. He first started in week six and totaled 29 tackles in the remaining games. For the season, Arrington compiled 47 tackles.
Linebackers coach Randy Bates attributes Williams’ early success to the dedication he’s put in off the field and his pedigree.
“That’s his football IQ, without question,” Bates said. “It makes a big difference.”
Williams played high school football at Pittsburgh Central Catholic, a Pennsylvania powerhouse that has produced NFL star quarterbacks Dan Marino and Marc Bulger.
Williams said the greatest thing he has learned over the last month has been the speed of the game. Through increased preparation and film study, Williams said the game has slowed down.
A week after Arrington went down, Sutton injured his wrist against Indiana. Two weeks later, Conteh sustained a knee injury in practice. Enter Simmons, who to that point had totaled four carries.
“You figure with two upperclassmen, seniors, guys that have started, that his role as a running back would be limited if they stayed healthy,” running backs coach Matt MacPherson said of Simmons. “Obviously they didn’t and he got his chance, and he’s done a good job.”
In his two starts, Simmons has totaled 36 carries for 90 yards and a touchdown. While his numbers aren’t awe-inspiring, Simmons showed flashes of potential in his 21-yard touchdown run against Michigan last week.
On third-and-18, offensive coordinator Mick McCall dialed up a simple draw play: 12. The play was designed to hit on the right side, but Simmons cut back to the left. He exploded through the line, broke three arm tackles and stiff-armed an intended tackler as he crossed the 5-yard line, before scampering in for the score.
MacPherson’s message to Simmons has been simple.
“Be who you are,” he said. “Be your best, and that’s good enough to win. And protect the football.”
Simmons has taken the message to heart. The sophomore said he regularly talks to Sutton and Conteh, his roommate. Simmons said he has not played to his full potential, but always has positive thoughts that the yards will come.
“Make it happen,” Simmons said. “See this, see that. Just go. Just keep playing.”
Six of the 22 starters from the season-opener against Syracuse have missed time due to injury. Fitzgerald has stressed that when a player gets injured, it’s the next player’s turn.
With the injuries, the future has come.
“I think in some ways it has to be that way,” MacPherson said. “I think that definitely is the case.”