Aug. 16, 2014
On the seventh day at Camp Kenosha the Wildcats held a scrimmage at the University of Wisconsin-Parkside. Several projected starters were given the day off, clearing the way for many young faces to get reps and show the coaches what they can do. Afterward, Skip Myslenski caught up with a several new Northwestern faces.
By Skip Myslenski
NUsports.com Special Contributor
The `Cats scrimmaged Saturday in Kenosha, where the starters were among the interested observers and the stage belonged to names that won't be familiar until fall. Here are quick capsule of three of them. . .
Justin Jackson is the 5-foot-11, 185-pound true freshman running back out of Glenbard North, where he gained 6,584 yards and scored 84 touchdowns in his three-year varsity career. He first met Pat Fitzgerald the summer before his sophomore year when he attended a camp on campus. "I think that's when I got my offer, so I feel like I've been committed and been here forever," he will say. "But I'm finally here. It's good. It's good.". . .
When asked what his expectations were when he and the rest of the freshmen reported back in June, he says, "I really wasn't sure because this is a whole different ball game than high school. My brother plays college football, and he told me it was a big transition. I really saw that the first week, the first few weeks. But getting acquainted with the speed of the game in workouts with the guys, and them helping us so much, I think that really helped me realize I could play this year if I really put the work in. Realistically, I thought that if I came in and did what I can do, I could possibly get on the field.". . .
That brother is named Phil and he plays running back for Northwest Missouri State, which last season won the Division II national championship. He wears number 28, which Justin will also wear as a `Cat. "There weren't that many numbers left," says the latter, "but I thought it'd be pretty cool if we had the same numbers.". . .
The departure of Venric Mark clearly changed things for both Jackson and fellow-freshman running back Solomon Vault. Then, says Jackson, "I knew myself and Solomon would have to step up, just help out. One running back going in the Big Ten is really tough. Then when Venric ended up transferring, then I really knew we had to be in it for the long haul this year. So I'm just trying to get prepared mentally and physically for Big Ten football.". . .
Growing up he watched all the great ones, he says, and here he lists Walter Payton and Tony Dorsett and Marshall Faulk and LaDanian Tomlinson. "I watched all the great backs, just trying to takes pieces out of everyone's game," he says, and then he is asked to describe himself. "I guess I'm like a hybrid of a speed back and a power back," he finally says. "I'm not that big and I'm not that fast, but I'm very good at changing directions, and I'm very good at playing behind my pads and just using angles and stuff like that."
Xavier Washington is the 6-foot-1, 231-pound true freshman defensive end from Texas who looks absolutely nothing like a freshman (except for his braces). He looks instead like a grown man. "I come from a great football program (Cedar Hill in Texas). I'm used to getting in the weight room and getting ready to play," he will say when that is noted, but that is not the root of this story. He began to lift, in fact, back in the eighth grade. "It was always stressed by my dad (Randy), he used to play (as a wide receiver at McNeese State in Louisiana). He always told me lifting was a big part of football, so I always knew I'd have to lift weights.". . .
The brand names of college football thought he was too short to succeed and so his only notable offers came from the `Cats, Houston and North Texas State. "It really is," he will say when asked if their snubs sit there as a chip on his shoulder. "It's what drives me day in and day out to get better. I know that size has held me back in the past and I just don't want it to hold me back in the future. I want it to actually help me. I want to use my size as an advantage when I'm playing.". . .
He's big on Charger defensive end Dwight Freeney, who like he is 6-foot-1. But Freeny's listed weight is 268. "I'm trying to get bigger. I'm trying to get bigger every day," Washington says. And his ultimate goal? "Like 280, 285. Then I feel like I can play versus anyone.". . .
His mom Pinice recently earned her needed certificate and will begin teaching full time this school year ("So congrats to my mom," he says). It's no surprise then that she always told him he was a student first, an athlete second, and that she was pleased with a Northwestern offer even though it meant he'd be playing far from home. "The distance aspect of it was dropped for education purposes," he says. "And I felt, when I came here, I fit in with the guys more than any other school. So I was very happy and pleased to get this offer.". . .
Still, when it came time for him to report in June, "My dad was like, `Yes, son. Go on. You have a life ahead of you.' My mom,"--and here Xavier Washington is smiling--"she was like holding onto my legs. She didn't want me to leave. On the ride up here, she was sad. I was like, `Mom, I've got to grow up.' She wanted to put the ball-and-chain on my leg. She didn't want me to go. But I had to grow. I had to grow."
And now? "She calls me three-times-a-day," he says with another smile.
Middle linebacker Collin Ellis, who's a hitter, was himself smiling when he said this about Washington: "I remember a week ago, we had a full-padded practice, he comes along and chops somebody. He's active. He's going to play a lot. I'm excited to see what he's able to do this year. He has our trust."
Miles Shuler is the 5-foot-10, 175-pound wide receiver who sat out last season after transferring from Rutgers and is now expected to fill the at least part of the void created by the season-ending injury to Christian Jones. "We're going to start him in that role and hopefully it ends up working itself out," Pat Fitzgerald says of him. "But he's a guy who can do a lot of things. He's not just one thing right now, and that's what's kinda fun. How we're going to use him and what we're going to do specifically as we get into game plans will be fun." Says Shuler himself, "Whatever the game plan is, I'm ready for it.". . .
He sees himself out of the mold of the Redskins' DeSean Jackson and the Raven's Steve Smith. "I feel they have my type of skill sets, so I watch closely what they do," he says. Here someone mentions Smith's toughness, and now he adds, "A tough-nosed football player, plays with a chip on his shoulder, which I do a lot. That's why they're my favorite players.". . .
Asked why the chip, he says, "Transferring from Rutgers, a lot of people now feel I can't make the plays, that I wasn't good enough. I came out as a highly-recruited athlete to Rutgers and I didn't pan out the way I wanted to. I felt me coming to Northwestern is about me going to showcase my skills.". . .
His most obvious skill is his speed, which is why we ask who is the fastest guy on the `Cats. "I believe I am," he immediately says, and now comes this interview-closing riff.
Who's closest to you?
"We have some rollers. (Receiver) Tony Jones is fa-a-a-a-st. Solomon can run too. But Tony Jones, I guess he's closest to me. And, oh. (Defensive back) Matt Harris can run as well."
What would his 40 times be right now?
That's what quarterback Trevor Siemian (jokingly) said he could run.
"He said that, didn't he? I'll tell you, he's getting faster each day I see him. He's going to be in the 4.2s pretty soon."
What's his relationship with Siemian?
"We have a great relationship. He's a great leader. We talk about concepts all the time just getting ready for the season. What we think of coverages, safety leverages and different holes. Trevor's just a great leader."
Is he, as he call himself, a goofball?
"He's definitely a goofball. He's always pulling pranks, telling jokes. He reminds me of Brett Favre a lot. You know how Brett Favre was on the field. Cam Newton. That's how he carries himself."
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