July 31, 2000
First game: Thursday, August 31 vs. Northern Illinois, 7 p.m.
A Thursday, August 31 night game at Ryan Field versus Northern Illinois will serve as the kickoff for the second season of football in the Randy Walker era. Walker will be eager to see how much his troops have improved from last season's 3-8 campaign that was marred by injury, inexperience and lack of depth.
"Last year was difficult on all of us, players and coaches alike," said Walker. "We had a lot of obstacles to overcome, but our kids hung in there and continued to play hard as the season wore on. The one thing that we ask of our players is to get one day better each day. I believe this year's squad has embraced that ideology and it will show on the field this fall."
The Saturday after their season opener, the Wildcats will entertain the Duke Blue Devils before hitting the road for three weeks with visits to TCU, Wisconsin and Michigan State. After that grueling stretch, Indiana and Purdue come to Evanston, and after the Homecoming contest with the Boilermakers, NU will enjoy a bye week. Then it's back on the road to face Minnesota in Minneapolis for the first time since 1995. Michigan comes to town to open up the November schedule which includes a road trip to Iowa and the regular season finale versus Illinois at Ryan Field.
The 2000 edition of Wildcat Football returns a ton of familiar faces. In fact, 36 letterwinners return, including 17 starters. The offensive side of the ball, with seven starters returning, appears to be ready to make big strides this season. Back to lead them is junior quarterback Zak Kustok. Kustok transferred to Northwestern last year from Notre Dame and became eligible to play after the fourth game. He immediately took over the starting job and performed well in the new offense. Kustok's progression was limited as two of his main receiving targets (junior Sam Simmons and sophomore Jon Schweighardt) went down for the season in the come-from-behind victory he engineered against Iowa. His other starting wideout, senior Teddy Johnson, missed three games and one-half of two other contests with myriad injuries. Kustok will be backed up by either sophomore Bob Barz or freshman Matt Danielson.
The receiving corps is now healthy and will be led by Johnson, who is eager to prove his ability as a top receiver in the Big Ten. Last year, he showed flashes of that potential, scoring four touchdowns and leading the team in receptions (23) and receiving yards (354). Simmons, who broke his clavicle and missed the final four games, returns and hopes to regain his big-play touch. Last year, he caught 12 passes for 261 yards, including the game winner in overtime at Duke. Schweighardt also is back after his impressive freshman start was cut short with a broken elbow. He started in two contests and showed his grit and determination when he played the second half of the win over Iowa with the broken elbow, catching a remarkable four passes. Complementing these three are six other receivers who all showed great promise in the spring. They are led by senior Derrick Thompson, who played in all 11 games last year and recorded a career-best seven receptions versus Wisconsin. Sophomore Louis Ayeni, who played at the running back position as a true freshman, will also contribute, while freshman Kunle Patrick showed great promise in the spring. Playing tight end this year will be sophomore David Farman and freshman Eric Worley. Farman played in four contests last year, and both performed well in April.
Running back is solid again this year and shouldn't be a concern for Coach Walker. Leading the way will be junior Damien Anderson, who gained 1,128 yards in 1999 and was named second-team All-Big Ten. The workhorse of NU's offense last year (Big Ten-leading 306 carries), Anderson hopes his job will be easier this fall with a healthy receiving corps and a group of talented back-ups who can effectively carry the ball. Sophomore Kevin Lawrence, junior Mike Sherry and freshman Gilles Lezi will all have opportunities to help lessen the load for Anderson.
The Wildcat offensive line should be a strength in 2000. Five of the 10 returning lineman have had starting experience. Heading up the line are a trio of tested juniors, Leon Brockmeier (LT), Lance Clelland (LG) and Mike Souza (RT). They have combined for 33 starts in two seasons, while sophomore Austin King started at center the last eight games as a true freshman. Fifth-year senior Jack Harnedy, who has five starts at the guard position, is in the mix for playing time as is junior Adam Fay (nine starts at center) and three talented freshmen and newcomer Jeff Roehl. Roehl, a high school teammate of Kustok's, also transferred from Notre Dame and is projected to start at right guard as a sophomore.
"I'm very excited to see how the offense performs this fall," said Walker. "They had a very good spring. We adjusted a few things, switched some guys around and became much more productive. Zak and Damien continue to be great leaders for us. We have a good, very experienced line that really started to play well at the end of 1999. With our receiving corps healthy and deep, I think we can move the ball more effectively this year and take some pressure off of the quarterback and running back positions. All-in-all, I feel good about the growth and potential of our offense as we head into the season."
Northwestern's defense returns nine starters and 19 letterwinners. Headlining this group is the linebackers. This year's edition has the potential to be the best NU has ever fielded, and that is saying something considering the talented players who have graduated from Northwestern in recent years. Returning is junior Kevin Bentley who earned All-Big Ten recognition last year after leading the league in total tackles with 148 stops. Bentley had 10 TFLs, two interceptions (one for a TD at Purdue), three PBUs, two sacks, two fumble recoveries and one forced fumble in 1999. At the other outside linebacker position is classmate Napoleon Harris. This extremely talented player started six of the last seven contests and finished second on the team with 110 tackles. Harris also contributed five PBUs, three sacks and forced three fumbles. Billy Silva took over as the starter at middle linebacker for the last three games of 1999 after starting at outside linebacker for the first three. He recorded 84 tackles on the season as well as three TFLs. Pushing this group are sophomores Vince Cartaya and Pat Durr, who both saw limited action last year, mostly on special teams. Sophomores Onaje Grimes and Chris Jones are also expected to play big roles. Jones missed last year after tearing his ACL in the opening contest, while Grimes saw action in seven contests.
The defensive line will be anchored by All-Big Ten selection Dwayne Missouri and Conrad Emmerich, both fifth-year seniors. Missouri has become a force in the league, having started the last 23 games at left end. He tallied 52 total tackles, including 20 TFLs, eight quarterback hurries and five sacks. Emmerich had played linebacker the previous two and one-half seasons before switching to right end part way through 1999. He has been a quick study and showed tremendous ability and improvement at his new position in the spring. Salem Simon tore his ACL in spring ball and the timing of his return to the right tackle position is in question. Filling in for Simon will be either sophomore Pete Chapman or junior Jeff Baer. Both played in all 11 contests and earned Academic All-Big Ten accolades last year. At left tackle, Javiar Collins returns for his fifth season after starting the last seven games of 1999. He tallied 36 tackles, five TFLs and four sacks, second best on the team. Junior Pete Konopka heads up a group of players who will compete for playing time on the line. Konopka, a two-time academic all-league pick, saw action in all 11 games last year.
The third line of defense will be led by All-Big Ten defensive back Harold Blackmon. The fifth-year senior should have his best year ever, having shown steady improvement each season. In 1999, he recorded a school-record 17 PBUs and, in the process, became NU's all-time career leader in that category as well (26). Blackmon also amassed 48 tackles, three TFLs and picked off two interceptions (one for a 75-yard TD at Indiana). At the right corner, sophomore Chasda Martin holds a slight lead over last year's starter, Shegun Cummings-John, while sophomore Raheem Covington may also be a factor by the beginning of the season. Martin saw action in six contests in 1999 and had an impressive spring, while Cummings-John, a junior, recorded 61 tackles and had 14 PBUs last season. At free safety will be fifth-year senior Rashad Morton. He started all 11 games in 1999 and recorded 103 tackles, third most on the team. At strong safety, juniors Rashidi Wheeler and Marvin Brown will do battle for starting honors. Wheeler had a very good spring and has the edge going into camp. Last year he saw time in eight games, while Brown played in six and recorded 12 tackles as well as one interception.
"I like our defensive unit a lot," continued Walker. "I thought we were pretty good last year. We just need to become more consistent in order to be a top defense in the Big Ten. We have some question marks, like the return of Salem, but overall, I feel very confident in this group. We have a slew of special players, many of whom, like Blackmon, Missouri, Bentley and Harris, should be All-Big Ten selections."
Special teams should be in good shape come fall, as all starters return. Back at placekicker is fifth-year senior Tim Long. In 1999, Long went 11-for-12 in PATs and completed 12-of-18 field goal attempts in his first year as the starter. Either Kustok or Danielson will hold for Long. Punting duties look to be in the hands of junior J.J. Standring. Standring has started the last two seasons and has a career 41.0 average. Long snapping duties will, once again, be held by Harnedy, one of the best in the business. Kickoff and punt returns are up for grabs. Lawrence, Thompson and sophomore Louis Ayeni all have experience at returning kickoffs, while Schweighardt and Marvin Brown will battle for punt return duties.
Northwestern will welcome a record 33 new players in August. This talented group of players will push the veterans and several have a good shot at garnering some playing time and moving their way up the depth chart as Camp Kenosha and the season progresses.
"You never want to make predictions, or single someone out, but I truly believe we'll see a couple of players from the group step up and see some serious playing time," said Walker. "We have some very talented guys in this bunch including several true high school All-Americans at several vital positions. There are also a number of players who maybe on paper aren't as impressive as some others, but who I know will surprise a lot of people. We are very excited about the incoming class, both in size and in skill."