Football: Five NU players selected to All-Big Ten teams

Danny Daly

Coach Pat Fitzgerald has said all along his seniors have played their best football late in the season, and their efforts were recognized Monday. Five Northwestern players were named to All-Big Ten teams, the conference announced.

The coaches picked Brad Phillips for the first team and cornerback Sherrick McManis for the second team. The media selected Phillips and wide receiver Zeke Markshausen for the second team and McManis for the first team. Quarterback Mike Kafka and kicker Stefan Demos, the lone Wildcats junior honored, were consensus second-team choices.

Fitzgerald championed Kafka for offensive player of the year after the win over Wisconsin, and he stressed the value of his signal-caller again at Monday’s press conference.

“I don’t know if there’s one player who means more to his program than Mike means to ours,” Fitzgerald said.

Kafka was C.J. Bachér’s backup last season and started two games. While his mobility was on display in his cameo appearances a year ago, Kafka developed as a passer in 2009.

The offseason tutelage of offensive coordinator Mick McCall and former NU quarterback Brett Basanez played an important role in Kafka’s progress.

“He really took a huge step this offseason,” Fitzgerald said. “It really started in the winter when he came back from our bowl game and was named to our leadership council. He worked hard all spring with Mick to clean up his mechanics and then worked with Brett Basanez all summer long. Each week, he got a little better.”

By recording the second-most total yards in the league, Kafka made his case as an impact player. His teammates put up impressive numbers as well – McManis led the team with four interceptions, Demos made 18-of-23 field goals, Markshausen reeled in 79 passes and Phillips battled injuries to top NU with 84 tackles and four forced fumbles. Fitzgerald found a place for all of them on his ballot.

“I voted for our guys, you’re darn right I did,” he said. “They deserve it, they earned it. If that happens for them, great. If it doesn’t, great, because then they’ll be mad and practice with a purpose for the next couple of weeks.”

Senior defensive end Corey Wootton and junior left tackle Al Netter were honorable mentions.

RECRUITING RICHESAfter beating then-No. 4 Iowa earlier this month, Fitzgerald predicted NU would experience a boon in recruiting and national interest. He said at the time, “It’s obviously critically important to show the direction to all those recruits throughout the country that, absolutely, Northwestern is for real.”

The program took another step forward Saturday with a second impressive victory over a top-20 team.

“I’ve been really busy on Facebook,” Fitzgerald said of his interactions with prospective players since the game.

The fourth-year coach estimated about 75 coaches and 50 recruits attended the win. In addition to an NU triumph, they got to see the passion of the student body when it stormed the field after Kafka kneeled to run out the clock.

The Cats have almost completed this year’s recruiting class, with 15 known verbal commitments so far. Their attention will shift to attracting current high school juniors for next year’s group.

“The fun part about bowl practices is now we can really start to have the junior class come take a look at us in practice mode during the next couple of weeks,” Fitzgerald said. “We thought that helped us a year ago – we had every top Chicago-land recruit in our building in the month of December, and we’ll try to do the same again this year.”

BEGINNING BOWL PREPARATIONSWhile most teams across the country still have one or two games left to play, the Cats are off for two weeks until they find out their bowl fate. The players will get a chance to go home for Thanksgiving, and then it’s back down to business.

“Next week will be a pretty heavy emphasis on the young guys,” Fitzgerald said. “The vets will still practice, but they’ll be in shells for a couple of weeks until we know who we’re playing.”

Each team is allowed 15 practices before its bowl, but workouts held before a team’s bowl opponent is determined don’t count toward that total. One of the criticisms of the Big Ten schedule is that the season ends too early and teams are rusty by the time the postseason rolls around, but one advantage is the extra practice time.

A primary focus leading up to the bowl game – likely the Champ Sports in Orlando, Fla., or the Outback Bowl in Tampa, Fla. – will be spending time in the weight room to get ready for playing in the warm weather.

“We’ll do more conditioning, more lifting, try to get stronger,” Fitzgerald said. “We’re in good football shape, but it’s going to have to be taken to another level.”[email protected]