Football: Northwestern freshmen on the field

Colin Becht

Lost in Northwestern’s 35-27 loss to Michigan State was a true rarity in the Pat Fitzgerald era. In crucial situations, the fifth-year coach put the ball in the hands of freshmen.

Despite Fitzgerald’s past tendencies of redshirting most freshmen, he has relaxed that rule this season, playing five true freshmen.

“I tell (freshmen), ‘You need to get prepared like you’re going to play, and then we’ll make the decisions accordingly,'” Fitzgerald said. “‘If you come in not prepared, I promise you you’ll redshirt.'”

The Wildcats’ standout freshmen not only came into the season ready to roll, but performed well enough to convince Fitzgerald that they deserve significant playing time.

Against Michigan State, running back Adonis Smith tied for the most carries of any NU back, rushing ten times for 44 yards. Wide receiver Venric Mark returned two punts and two kickoffs, and also had a rush for 29 yards, the longest of the season by an NU player. Fellow wide receiver Rashad Lawrence had the second most catches on the team with four grabs for 67 yards.

“They’re dynamic,” Fitzgerald said. “Those guys are playmakers.”

After the game, Smith said he now feels so comfortable in the backfield that, “I’m getting to feel like it’s my offense.”

Fitzgerald said Smith’s high confidence doesn’t trouble him.

“I’d rather have him like that than the opposite,” he said. “He’s improving, he’s getting better but he’s got a long, long way to go.”

While Smith’s comment could be seen as cocky, Smith said he never meant to imply that the Wildcats offense now belonged or revolved around him, only that he has a better grasp of the playbook.

“At first I didn’t understand it,” Smith said. “I couldn’t feel like it was my offense. I couldn’t feel like I knew what I was doing. But nowI feel like I know what I’m doing, what my role is.”

Fitzgerald said he too has noticed Smith’s increased familiarity and comfort with the offensive schemes.

“He’s progressing,” Fitzgerald said. “It’s a lot on his plate. In high school, it was ‘Adonis Right’ and ‘Adonis Left,’ so it wasn’t as complicated as it is in college. He’s doing a nice job picking it up.”

In a crowded backfield where six different running backs have carried the ball this season, the task for Smith to break his way out of the pack will be difficult. Still, Smith said he believes his “great vision and great speed and balance” give the Wildcats an edge.

As for Mark, he has already broken through, and said he is now the starting kick and punt returner.

“Coach has trusted me with that position,” Mark said. “He thinks that I can do that job, I can get things started.”

Mark takes over the kick return duties from senior running back Stephen Simmons. On punt returns, Mark assumes the starting role from sophomore safety Hunter Bates, whose average punt return is just more than half of Mark’s average.

“I’m really happy,” said Mark. “I’m kind of at a loss for words. To be honest, I thought it wasn’t going to come this year. I thought ‘Okay, I’m a freshman.'”

Mark brings the tremendous speed of a 4.4-second 40-yard dash player to the return game.

“My number one asset is speed,” he said. “I’m not the biggest dude, but I can fit in small holes.”

However, Mark said he’s already aware that breaking big returns won’t be as easy in the Big Ten as it was in high school.

“I averaged a punt return or kick return (for a touchdown) a game in high school, and now everyone stays in their lanes,” he said. “It’s harder for me to try and break one.”

Another adjustment Mark will have to make is to not become too aggressive and try to make something out of nothing on a return.

“Coach tells me, ‘It’s kind of like being a quarterback. You don’t always have to win the game, but you can lose it by fumbling and muffing the ball,” Mark said. “You don’t have to run up and catch every single punt because not all punts are good balls. It’s okay to fair catch sometimes.”

In high school, Mark said he would return punts even after they had bounced.

Joining Mark and Smith as explosive freshmen are wide receivers Lawrence and Tony Jones. Jones’ first career catch was a 45-yard touchdown reception against Minnesota, and Lawrence’s first two grabs went for 50 and 44 yards, the longest and fifth longest plays of the year for the Cats.

“He’s such a big target that he can go up and get the ball,” Fitzgerald said of Lawrence. “He’s just going to get better and better as he continues to develop his strength and his speed and his power. I’m really excited about him.”

While just one of these players might be worthy of great attention, they are happy to share the spotlight with each other. Smith said they all took pride in each other’s accomplishments.

“It just feels good that all us freshmen are helping out and helping our team gain success,” he said.

Along with that pride comes a sense of responsibility to look out for one another.

“We stick together as a group,” Mark said. “As freshmen, we make sure we don’t get too high, but we don’t get too down on ourselves. We’re not going to make every play, so we try to keep each other level-headed.”

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