Oct. 4, 2010
By Skip Myslenski
NUsports.com Special Contributor
The depth chart the 'Cats handed out last week listed all kinds of possibilities when it came to running back, but there was no hint of such uncertainty when a new one was distributed Monday. Jacob Schmidt was the starter, a decision that carried a back story with a moral as clear as any found in Aesop's Fables.
Schmidt, you may recall, fumbled three times in his team's first two games (losing one). This was both an unexpected and an unacceptable performance from one renowned for his reliability and, in its wake, he suffered not-unexpected consequences. "You're going to be held accountable in our program for fumbling the football and his role was definitely diminished," explained head coach Pat Fitzgerald. "He basically took over the fullback role for a couple of weeks. We were looking for him to respond in the right way and I thought he did. I think that's a lesson for our entire football team. Things aren't always going to go your way (and then) there's two roads you can choose to go down. You can choose a road where you're going to pout and feel sorry for yourself. Or you can do something about it and respond boldly. I believe that's what he's done."
"After the first two weeks when I put the ball on the ground, obviously I lost a little bit of that trust the coaches had in me," said Schmidt, who has had touchdown runs of one, one and 13 yards in the 'Cats last two games. "I was told they can't give me the ball right now because of what I was doing. I totally understood that. . . So I took it upon myself to continue to work hard and regain that trust through practice and through the opportunities in the games that I would get. The next couple of weeks came along and I hung onto the ball and I proved to them that I'm back to how I used to be and how I want to be. It feels good to be back up and playing."
Was he ever tempted to take the other road and pout?
"Initially, I guess, right when it happens. It's tough as a competitive person to always keep your head up when stuff goes wrong," he admitted. "But at the end of the day you've got to realize the defense is coached to do what they do, that everyone out there's a good athlete, and so when you make a mistake, it's part of the game. You've just got to keep your head up and, like I said, you've got to keep working hard and regain that trust of the coaching staff. If you work hard and put the time in, good stuff's going to happen."
Not on that depth chart was Arby Fields, who opened the season as the starting running back but did not play last Saturday at Minnesota. How's he taking his sudden fall, Fitzgerald was asked. "I think he's taking it fine," he said. "He's in a competitive situation to play and right now those three guys (Mike Trumpy and Stephen Simmons as well as Schmidt) are ahead of him. So that's where he's at. His attitude and the way he works and the competition will determine how it goes."
Making their 'Cat debuts against the Gophs were a pair of true-freshmen burners: the wide receiver Tony Jones, who caught a 45-yard touchdown pass, and the running back Adonis Smith, who gained one yard on his two rushing attempts. "He's a dynamic young man. We knew that in recruiting," Fitzgerald said of the former. "A great fit. A high-character young man. He's just a joy to coach. When he came in, we thought right off the git-go that he would be in position in the depth (chart). Unfortunately he got a little dinged up (in August) and that set him back in the early part of the season. We've brought him along slowly. . .and I think you got a little bit of a snapshot of how dynamic he is from the play that he made."
He also used that adjective dynamic when discussing Smith and then he added: "He's got a lot to learn and he's done a pretty good job of that. So not only in the running back room, but also from the team-speed standpoint you'll see him more involved this week in the kicking game. There's a reason why our kicking game's better. We have better speed out there. We've got a handful of games left and I want every bullet in the gun that we have. And he's a young man we thought could help us. He was dinged up for about the first three-and-a-half weeks of the season. It happened at the end of camp. Otherwise I probably would have played him earlier."
Their appearances came after that of wide receiver/returner Venric Mark, another true freshman with notable speed, and that led to the question of just who would win a race among the three. "Technically, from what I hear, Tony's got the fastest recorded 100 time. So that's what I'm going off of," said superback Drake Dunsmore.
And what's it like to play against them in practice?
"They're all really fast, really quick players, and they just like to go north. I like that about Adonis," said linebacker Ben Johnson. "He gets a couple defenders in his face, he makes the first one miss and then gets a yard or two. I like how they can make those moves, and they're really fast, and I'd say Venric would probably win that race."
"Venric's got some wheels coming around on that reverse. . .and I think all three of them are going to be excellent players," said defensive end Vince Browne. "They've already proven they can play at this level."
Dunsmore missed last Saturday's second half after getting rolled during a scamper by quarterback Dan Persa. But Monday he said, "I feel a lot better than I did on Saturday."
What happened Saturday?
"I kind of hyper-extended my knee. I got an MRI, everything checked out. I'll be good to go on Saturday."
Was it the same knee he tore up two years ago?
Anything awful run through his mind on Saturday then?
"I'd be lying if I said it didn't. But I have peace of mind now. The doctor pulled on my knee, checked all the ligaments, everything's fine."
Johnson sealed the 'Cats win over the Gophs with an interception in its final minute and then, with an open field in front of him, he slid harmlessly to the ground. "We work the two-minute drill every Thursday," explained Fitzgerald. "I'd have to go back through my notes, but I think we did two-minutes about ten times during camp, give or take. A big point of emphasis we have in our program. I think it happened three or four times where our defense created a turnover in a two-minute situation. I think early in camp our guy kept running with it. I was pretty demonstrative on what to do in that situation. But I think more importantly it's just guys taking to coaching, having awareness, understanding the situation."
"We were up," said Johnson himself. "If I slid, we get the win. If I kept running, there's a chance I could fumble. In any two-minute situation, coach tells us to go down, get our offense the ball and get the victory. Style points aren't important at that point."
Could he have scored?
"I think I had enough room to make a move or at least have a chance," he said with a smile.
Browne ran his sack total to a Big Ten best five against the Gophs. "I didn't know until this morning. Coach Fitz mentioned it," he said when asked if it meant anything to be atop the conference rankings. "It is what it is. I've still got a long way to go."
Has there been a thread to his sacks?
"I don't know," he said with a laugh. "I'm just trying to get there as hard as I can."
Looking back on Saturday, Fitzgerald said the 'Cats "Were disappointed in the way we played on defense from the standpoint of our eye control and discipline."
"If I'm supposed to look at you (for) a run-pass key and I put my eyes up in the backfield and the guy goes running right by me, that's sometimes how you give up a big play," he explained. "I said it to the team. I've been with (defensive backs coach) Jerry Brown now for about 14 years and there's a big set of eyes sitting in our defensive meeting room, the secondary room, (representing) eye control. That's typically the most-important asset you have as a DB and a couple of times on Saturday we had lapses in that. Not just from our secondary, but also our linebackers."
Did those lapses lead to the Goph's big pass plays?
"A couple of them, yeah."
And finally: "We don't worry about what we can't control" is an oldie-but-goodie regularly aired by Fitzgerald and all his 'Cats. Monday brought proof that they mean that when Browne, Dunsmore and Johnson were asked how it felt to be ranked. Turns out none of them even knew they were No. 25 in the USA Today Coaches Poll.
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