Aug 29, 2013
Before Northwestern heads to its first football game in the state of California since the 1996 Rose Bowl, Skip Myslenski checked in with one of 11 native Californians on the Wildcats roster. Senior wide receiver Mike Jensen arrived in Evanston as an unheralded walk-on, and this weekend returns to the West Coast atop NU's depth chart at the 'Y' wide receiver position and as one of the team's most respected leaders.
UP IN KENOSHA, at one of his team's countless meetings, Pat Fitzgerald introduced senior wide receiver Mike Jensen, who was scheduled to address the 'Cats this day. "It was one of those," he will say of that introduction, "'Hey, here's a little walk-on guy. No one else wanted him. Got into school here, good for Mike. Had him at DB (defensive back). Terrible hips, terrible feet, couldn't cover anybody. Let's move him over to wide receiver. Can't catch. Who is this guy?'"
He is, in fact, the guy who will start as the 'Cats' Y receiver when they open their season Saturday night at Cal. "It's pretty amazing. It puts a big smile on my face, that's for sure," Jensen himself will say when asked about that reality. "It's been a lot of hard work and hopefully I can make the best of it."
"If you were to look at the early part of Mike Jensen's
career," says Fitzgerald, "it's walk-on, overcome, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah.' I think he's really made his name and legacy in our program here with his work ethic, his attitude and the way he's played in the kicking game. He's been a phenomenal kick game player for us, probably our leading tackler the last couple of years on kickoff. Some might say, `Just because he's slow enough to be the last guy down.' So here we go again.
"But Mike really embraces his role. He's one of those unsung seniors who doesn't get front page news. I don't think he really cares. That's not what Mike's all about. He's as mature a guy as we've had here. I'm really proud of the way he's played. Kind of neat for him. Opener of his senior year in California, where he's from. Kind of a neat deal for Mike. I'm excited for him."
BACK HOME, as a high school senior, he was an all-state defensive back at The Bishop's School, a Division III program in Rancho Santa Fe. But he did not get a sniff from a major college until he came to Evanston for a one-day summer camp. `Cat coaches had already seen some tape of him and now, after viewing him in person, they encouraged him to send even more and to stay in touch. He did, talking to Fitzgerald and to recruiting coordinator Adam Cushing and to defensive backs coach Jerry Brown, and, recalls Jensen, "They were nice and up front and let me know, `You're probably not a scholarship guy. But if you get in, we'd love to have you here. There's definitely a spot on the team for you.'
"It was pretty much my only opportunity to play high-level football and I got into a great school. You can't say no to Northwestern."
UP IN KENOSHA, when he gave his speech, Mike Jensen first addressed the true freshmen. "We want them to come and play as if they deserve to be here, but also understand they don't know everything yet so they take to coaching," he will say, remembering his speech. "Then I talked about, in my five years here, I've noticed a transition from `We want to be a Big Ten team that's respected' to now, at least in the media and in our minds, we feel we have some respect. So now it's not enough to be a respected team. That doesn't do anything for you on the field. You need to still win, you need to dominate the player across from you. That's where our mindset needs to be going into the year. Then I talked about the importance of the special teams since that's been my role throughout. Coach always says that's the character of the football team. It's the plays no one talks about, the plays they don't really watch all the time, and how impressive it is that we have a lot of starters in big roles that take no-name positions on the special teams. That's what makes our special teams as good as they are."
BACK IN HIS EARLY DAYS, back before he got into the offensive rotation, his teammates were impressed enough with his work ethic and attitude to make Mike Jensen the first walk-on ever selected for their Leadership Council. But even now, even after he has earned a scholarship and transformed himself into a starter, he enters the season with just four catches in his career. So we must wonder if, during his climb to the top, there was ever a moment, a day, when he thought all his effort wasn't worth it. "Never," he immediately replies. "I love this game too much to have it not be worth it. It was a lot of fun playing behind those guys and I saw it as an opportunity to get coached up by some amazing players."
ONE LAST THING about Mike Jensen. Even though he is a relatively-diminutive 6-foot, 190 pounds, he is among the best blockers at his position. "I'm not a huge physical specimen," he allows. "But I pride myself in still being able to get the job done and done well, consistently. I take a lot of pride in that for sure."
So? A catch across the middle or a pancake block?
"O-o-o-o-o-o," he says with a smile. "Wideout. Gotta go with the catch. But making a pancake block is pretty amazing."
Even though the `Cats are practicing at night for their late start at Cal, they toiled Monday and Tuesday in temperatures that hovered near 90. It was some 10 degrees cooler on Wednesday morning, yet still significantly warmer than the high 50s they expect to play in Saturday evening in Berkeley. "We're hoping it's going to be like swinging a weighted bat in the on-deck circle," Fitzgerald said of that possible advantage. "I walked out this morning and went, 'Wow, this is 78. Fifty-eight's going to be pretty cool.' Especially for the big guys. Cal's going to put a ton of pressure on our defense with the tempo they play at."
Speaking of that tempo, 'Cat middle linebacker Damien Proby said, "They're going to be a very-fast paced team. We know that. But going against our offense throughout camp, we deal with that everyday. But they have a new staff over there (Cal coach Sonny Dykes is in his first year at the school) and new plays will arise. So, honestly, our coaching staff has really been concentrating on the essentials, just the fundamentals of football. That way, when we get to the game, we can make those in-game adjustments with ease."
And finally, speaking of adjustments, Fitzgerald said, "It's our (the coaches') job to have a terrific plan for our guys to be able to play fast, and understand that we're going to have to adjust. That's what you always have to do in the opener, and especially when you have a new coaching staff."
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