The Northwestern Wildcats are not a team that usually worries about players leaving early for the NFL. They are a team that often does not get the freshman recruits who can contribute early. Pat Fitzgerald’s preference has always been to redshirt players and give them a “gap year,” so to speak, to get up to speed and contribute more immediately.
That has changed. The long line of “best recruiting classes in Northwestern history” eventually would mean some freshman would come ready to play. And redshirts would go burned in the first games of the season. It was never a hard and fast rule to redshirt freshmen, if they were ready to play, they would play.
Then came Saturday. A mixture of injuries, lack of depth and deserved play put more freshman than ever on the field. By most estimates, Northwestern had the most freshman in the Pat Fitgerald era make their debuts in the season opener. Nine true freshmen played Saturday against Nevada.
And most of those are on the two-deep this week as Northwestern heads to Durham to take on Duke.
The big starter is freshman tackle Rashawn Slater. Slater rotated at right tackle with Gunnar Vogel throughout Saturday’s win against Nevada. It seems Northwestern is going to play this rotation by ear. But Slater is very much at the heart of the question marks at tackle. But he has played his way into the lineup.
Most of the young talent is on the defensive end. That is where true freshmen Samdup Miller is starting at defensive end opposite Joe Gaziano. And that is where linebacker Blake Gallagher and safety J.R. Pace are also set to lineup. All three of those players made some impact in the game Saturday.
None of these guys are the instantaneous stars other programs have seen step into the lineup immediately. Specifically at skill positions, although Northwestern has had that too in Justin Jackson and Clayton Thorson most notably.
But this influx of young talent represents something new for the Wildcats. There are major contributions from throughout the roster from freshmen. That only seems to continue. It would figure it would continue as the recruiting continues to get better.
What Northwestern saw this year with so many freshmen ready to play on opening day may only continue.
By all accounts, all these players played well. Yes, there are still questions at tackle. But it seems Fitzgerald is confident that one of Vogel or Slater will cement himself in that role. And certainly, both players should continue to improve. Certainly, both Vogel and Slater will play key roles for the Wildcats moving forward — Vogel is a redshirt freshman.
While most of the talk surrounding Northwestern has been about the veteran leadership and veteran skill players, the fact so many young players seem ready to step up to the plate is certainly promising for Northwestern in the long term. It says the talent base in key positions should be set.
Of course, nothing for any team is fully settled. Every week is a battle for playing time and every year brings new players to challenge for those spots all over again. Football coaches like to think this is a meritocracy.
And, for sure, Northwestern like many other teams are probably getting a lot of players out there early — especially in a game where the team is favored by 24 points — to see what they can do. It is a low-pressure situation for them to get their feet wet. Right now, it is about gaining trust for Big Ten season ahead.
This Saturday at Duke, the leash might get tightened just a bit. Fitzgerald and the Wildcats will find out who they can really rely on.
That is what the non-conference season is for after all. And the Wildcats are seeing just who of these newcomers can translate strong play on the practice field to the games. There is still growing confidence about Northwestern, especially with how the team played in the second half.
The Wildcats should only seemingly get better with more experience. Then again, the level of competition is about to bump up again and there are bigger challenges in the very near future.
This is something new for Northwestern though. A sign perhaps of the increased talent the program is bringing in. It was a pleasant surprise in the game against Nevada. Now the question becomes whether the Wildcats can make it something on the field. whether rewarding the raw talent over perhaps a more experienced player can translate into wins.
The Wildcats are certainly changing. Their expectations have certainly changed — this year, specifically. And a lot of that weight is falling on true freshmen for the first time.