March 12, 2013
Previous Spring Practice Updates:
Feb. 27 | March 5 | March 8
Skip Myslenski visited Northwestern's seventh spring practice Tuesday morning and came away with a strong impression of rising senior wide receiver Mike Jensen, while also getting a look at a few up-and-comers on Northwestern's offense. His Tuesday morning quick-hitters are below:
* He is hardly the most-imposing specimen among the 'Cat receivers and, in his career, he has totaled only four receptions. Yet the 6-foot, 190-pound Mike Jensen should not be viewed through those limiting lenses. Look at him instead with this in mind. He is the only walk-on ever named to his team's 10-member Leadership Council, which Pat Fitzgerald first established back in 2007.
"It was special, definitely. It was just a great honor," Jensen will say of his selection. "It spoke a lot to -- fulfilling is the wrong word. But it made me feel that what I was doing was of value and was working in what I was trying to bring to the table."
And just what does he try to bring?
"I think I bring a tenacity and a focus and just a really hard work ethic. I don't let myself slip up. That's what I really try to do. Not let my level of play drop and not let the level of play of the other receivers drop."
* He is now a fifth-year senior and serving his fourth term on that Council. He is also a fixture on special teams and on the scholarship he received before the start of last season. He, finally, is currently in the 'Cat receivers' rotation, which means he is scheduled to see more time on the field come fall. But Tuesday, after their practice, we were more curious about those leadership skills that had delivered him his singular honor.
"I think a big thing is camaraderie and community and understanding that we can have fun off the field and in the meeting room and have that translate to on the field," he will say when asked what message he tries to promote in his role. "Being able to have that sense of understanding the guy next to you and what he needs going through practice. That's a big thing in terms of leadership."
Last season, from many sources, we often heard that the 'Cats were a closer team than any of their predecessors. So here we ask Jensen if their culture of camaraderie has changed in his time with them.
"When I came in, I was really surprised," he says. "You come into a Big Ten level football team and you're not expecting a family. But every position group really was close. From then, we've been able to bring it along from every position group being close to the defensive unit being close and the offensive unit being close, to now the team being really close. That's what Coach Fitz always talks about. In the offseason and through the spring, he really tries to get that community going."
This talk of community, we note, can cause snickers and eye-rolling among the readers. So can Jensen explain to those cynics why that is important?
"It's hard to understand how trusting him (a teammate) off the field can translate into greater trust on the field if you haven't experienced it," he says. "But having experienced it, and especially getting closer last year, you're not only able to trust the guy, know what he's going to do. But also, if I'm having a tough practice, I know the guys I'm close with on the field will understand and be able to recognize I'm having a tough practice, and then bring me along. It's more of a collective push to get better rather than a push as an individual."
* Offensive coordinator Mick McCall, in turn, has a different mission during spring practice, which reached its halfway point on Tuesday.
"I think the biggest thing is, we find out who our best players are. That's number one," he explains. "For each situation, we're always looking to figure out who our best guys are. And then we're going to put them in situations where they can be successful. So if we don't have a tight end, we're not going to line up too much with a tight end. If we have some running backs who can run around, we're going to find ways to get them in the game. We'll put them in situations where they can be successful. Our concepts, what we teach and how we teach it, that doesn't change. We may run option off of the zone, we may run bootleg off of the zone. It doesn't matter. We're still running the zone play. We keep the same things. But we get different guys in different situations.
"So we're trying to get our base offense in. Then we're trying to look at some things that we want to do a little bit different. But this is a time to work on our base stuff, get fundamentally better and better each day. Work those young linemen really, really hard. Get those backs to be a little bit more diverse in what they do and where they line up. Move (superback) Dan Vitale around. Move (receiver) Christian Jones around. Give those guys an opportunity to get better and experience different things. So we're trying to expand guys, but still do the things fundamentally sound that we do."
* Some hits from Fitz: When asked about the offensive line, which is mottled by youth and inexperience, he notes that it is on Chapter Three of its development. Then he says:
"They're finally starting to get over being afraid to fail and being analytical. That's a vey bright group and I think Adam (Cushing, their position coach) does a great job of emphasizing it's better to be decisive than it is to be right. Go put your face on somebody, and Venric (Mark) and our backs and (quarterbacks) Kain (Colter) and Trevor (Siemian) will make you right. But if you're out there, 'Who should I block?' and that garbage, that's what young guys do. They get so analytical on things. But they've done a really good job of just cutting loose and playing and making mistakes and learning from it and not repeating them at a high level. They've repeated them at a low level, which to me shows progress. That's encouraging."
But when asked about redshirt freshmen Stephen Buckley and Malin Jones, a pair of promising running backs, he is more cautious. "Show up on Saturdays in the fall, I'll start talking about you," he says here with a laugh. "I like what the guys do in practice. That's great. But they know the guy they're playing against. Until we go to Berkeley (for the season opener against Cal) and the big bear wants to rip his throat out and does, we'll see how they respond. I like where those young guys are at. They're learning. It's good. It's positive."
He will also say this on Wednesday morning. "We'e got a terrific record here of walk-ons and there's no better example currently than Michael Jensen. He's a multi-year member of the Leadership Council. Came here as a DB. Didn't have the magical hips and feet, but he could catch the ball OK. Now he's catching the ball outstanding. He's having a great spring. He's been, if not our most consistent special teams player, he's been in the conversation. He's the ultimate team player."
* And finally, Jensen, who has long been noted as one of his team's best-blocking receivers: "I love to hit. Being a defensive player growing up, that's something I always enjoyed. So the blocking was something that came a little easier to me just because I enjoy that physical aspect."
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