Spotlight On…Wildcats’ walk-ons making their mark

Danny Daly

With each of the 120 FBS schools allowed to give out 85 scholarships, there aren’t too many players that slip through the cracks. Yet a number of walk-ons and former walk-ons are making major contributions for Northwestern.

Take sophomore running back Jacob Schmidt. Coming out of high school in Wisconsin, he received a few offers to play for Ivy League and Division-II teams. But Schmidt wanted to play big-time college football, and he was enticed by the opportunity to join the Wildcats as a non-scholarship player. He talked to coach Pat Fitzgerald, who stressed that plenty of other walk-ons got chances and made the most of them.

“That definitely helped in my decision-making process,” Schmidt said. “You earn a role, and they’ll treat you right.”

Last Saturday at Syracuse, Schmidt received the bulk of the workload on the ground, carrying 10 times for 30 yards. He is also listed as the starter in this week’s depth chart with primary ballcarrier Stephen Simmons out for this week’s matchup.

Stories like Schmidt’s reflect well on the program as a whole.

“It’s huge,” Fitzgerald said. “Look at the number of guys we’ve had walk on here and be successful. We’ve got guys like Jacob making a significant difference, and the list just goes on and on. All kinds of guys are stepping up across the board. It’s an inspiration to all of our players.”

The Cats have awarded scholarships to 26 walk-ons over the past decade. The late Randy Walker, Fitzgerald’s predecessor, is given a lot of the credit for placing a greater priority on these types of athletes.

Senior wide receiver Zeke Markshausen was influenced by his interactions with Walker. The son of a former Iowa football player, Markshausen wasn’t even recruited out of high school. There were only 90 students in his graduating class, and the football team played “in the middle of four cornfields,” as he put it.

But Markshausen visited NU during his senior year and, thanks to his father’s connections, got a chance to meet with the Cats’ coach.

“We were able to sit down with Coach Walk, which is a testament to the type of man he was – getting someone from off the street, pretty much, and sitting down and talking for 45 minutes,” Markshausen said. “That had a big impact on me coming here.”

Even though he was competing against wideouts that were bigger and faster than he was, Markshausen wasn’t deterred. He set high goals, remembering his dad’s saying: “If you can imagine in your mind and believe in your heart, you can accomplish it.”

“I went in there with the attitude, ‘If I keep working, something good is going to happen,'” Markshausen said.

Now, he leads NU with 13 catches – 12 more than he had in his first three seasons – and is the team’s holder on field goal attempts.

While it took Markshausen a few years to get consistent playing time, Doug Bartels earned a spot almost immediately. As a redshirt freshman walk-on last season, the natural center started the final nine games at right guard.

“It’s not the stereotypical way that a walk-on starts out his career, but I was extremely lucky to have the opportunity,” Bartels said. “They threw me in there at a new position, but they trusted me enough to do the job.”

That’s three projected starters against Minnesota that didn’t have a scholarship when they arrived in Evanston. It’s a sign of hope for all the other walk-ons, like the four that Fitzgerald added to the roster in the spring – defensive lineman Jake Gregus, defensive back Mike Jensen, long snapper Pat Hickey and punter Brandon Williams.

“Coming in as a walk-on, you see all these other walk-ons competing the same way against other Big Ten players, and it makes you realize that you can go out there and do it, that you have the ability,” Bartels said.

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