Football: New faces lead Northwestern as Wildcats prepare for first road test

Joseph Diebold, Assistant Gameday Editor

As coach Pat Fitzgerald and his staff are quickly learning, Northwestern’s kids are all right.

Some of the Wildcats’ biggest contributors on offense this season have been true freshmen, who have transitioned from playing high school football just nine months ago to taking the field as part of a Big Ten offense. But thanks to injuries or poor play from veterans at key spots on the offense, the kids have had their shot. And a few have taken it.

Leading the class of 2018 has been running back Justin Jackson. Last year’s state player of the year in Illinois, Jackson has quickly supplanted senior Treyvon Green as NU’s most relied-upon and electric running back. Jackson had his coming-out party Saturday against Western Illinois, carrying the ball 21 times for 92 yards and a touchdown.

“I just expected to come in and compete and be ready to play if I needed to,” Jackson said about shouldering the load on the ground. “When they put me in, I just go out and play my game. I’m here for a reason, they recruited me for a reason and I just try to go out there and play hard for my teammates and my school.”

Fellow freshman Solomon Vault also exploded against the Leathernecks, scoring NU’s first two touchdowns. A third member of Fitzgerald’s most recent — and most heralded — recruiting class, tight end Garrett Dickerson, hasn’t yet found the end zone but has played frequently in power sets and made one of the offense’s few big plays last week, a 21-yard catch from senior quarterback Trevor Siemian.

Jackson, Vault and Dickerson are a rare breed: Fitzgerald’s tendency has been to redshirt nearly all of his incoming freshmen. But as NU’s recruiting continues to improve, it will become harder and harder for the coaches to justify sitting talented players for their rookie seasons.

Another new face, one who has already had a year to acclimate to Evanston, is wide receiver Miles Shuler. Shuler sat out last season after transferring from Rutgers but has stepped immediately into his new role, attempting to replace the do-it-all nature of departed running back Venric Mark.

Shuler said even without games to look forward to, he used his time off to improve.

“Being used to playing my first two years in college, it was a humbling experience to sit on the sideline. But I took the time and became a better player,” Shuler said. “You just take everything in so I was just ready to play this year.”

Through three games, Shuler is third on the team in receptions and has also been returning kicks and punts.

But as well as NU’s new faces have played, they will face their biggest test yet this weekend as the Cats go on the road for the first time in front of more than 100,000 fans at Penn State’s Beaver Stadium. NU has been good in season road openers under Fitzgerald, racking up a 6-2 record. But those games are generally against weaker non-conference opponents, not conference powerhouses. The Cats have lost their last five games against the Nittany Lions by double digits and are just 3-5 during Fitzgerald’s tenure in conference road openers.

Fitzgerald said he is looking forward to seeing how the team responds to the difficulties of a hostile environment. During practice this week, the coaches piped in noise to simulate the cheers and crowds the team will hear in Happy Valley.

“Playing a team that’s undefeated, on the road, (it will be) a great challenge to just find out where we’re at and just handle a road trip like we do at home,” the coach said. “It’ll be good to go on the road. I think it’ll be really good, to get away, to go and have to only be 70 on the road and really see how we’re going to fight through that.”

Asked about the challenge posed by 100,000 screaming fans, Jackson was as unfazed as he has looked on the field for the first three weeks of his career.

“It’ll be a new experience, but going to play a great team … we have to be better than we were the past three weeks,” he said. “It’s definitely going to take a lot to beat them, but I think we’re up for the challenge.”

For NU to get its conference season off on the right foot, its leaders — the ones who have played in road openers before — might have to take a couple cues from the ones who haven’t.

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